Steve Carbone has spies everywhere. He has them all across the nation, and he has them abroad too. He once got a tip from Uruguay. Sometimes people unwittingly become his spies just by going about their otherwise normal lives. Once, an ex-girlfriend turned into an informant. This was back in 2014. She was on a flight from North Carolina to Wisconsin when she overheard a passenger directly in front of her utter the telltale words “final rose” and “overnight.” She knew this was big. She texted him: “I’m sitting behind Nick Viall on a plane.” Nick Viall! Steve thought. And what was Nick Viall doing? Steve gasped as he continued reading. “He’s rambling about The Bachelorette.”
Though Steve’s ex-girlfriend hadn’t talked to him in about five years, she knew he’d want to hear this. He isn’t just any old Bachelorette fan. From his home office in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Steve—or “Reality Steve,” as his devotees know him—holds a job whose description may be unprecedented on the American landscape: he makes six figures gossiping about The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. In simple terms, he’s a reality-TV blogger, though that, by itself, isn’t a pioneering gig; for years, websites have offered forums for writers and fans to discuss and recap episodes. Steve himself initially followed that model when he started his site, realitysteve.com, in 2004, recapping The Bachelor and The Bachelorette along with Joe Millionaire, For Love or Money, and others. But in 2009 Steve upped his game: he became the first blogger to implement detective work, discovering what would happen on a show before it even aired. He became a spoiler.
Now here he was, getting the most important tip of his career: Nick Viall, one of the final two contestants from the tenth season of The Bachelorette, starring Andi Dorfman, was dishing on the way home from the final taping—weeks before the episodes would air.
“I’m like, ‘Holy crap!’ ” Steve recounted recently. His ex wedged her cell phone between the airplane seats and began recording. “In the videos she shot and sent to me, Nick is basically saying what happened at the end of the show! Bad-mouthing Andi and who she chose! He was basically giving away the end. ‘She didn’t choose me; I can’t believe she didn’t choose me.’ You can completely hear his side of the conversation she sent on two videos: one was thirty seconds, one was forty-five seconds. It was about as solid as I could get on the ending.”
After posting the videos, Steve sat back and watched the comments roll in. Some readers doubted the videos’ authenticity. People told him that the producers of the ABC show purposely sent him the texts and videos to throw him off. As if. Steve stood his ground and was eventually vindicated when, in the season finale, Andi broke Nick’s heart by choosing the other finalist, Josh Murray. Those videos were his personal Pentagon Papers. “I’ll never get anything like that again,” he mourned.
Yet even when the intel isn’t nearly that good, Steve usually gets it right. Whether or not spoiling is ethical has never really entered his mind. He publishes spoilers about only The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, shows he finds distinctly ridiculous. “I just think these shows are funny,” he said. “They’re not realistic.” He wouldn’t want to give away the endings of other competition shows. The Voice and American Idol are live; he couldn’t know the endings if he wanted to. Survivor—his all-time favorite reality show—is taped, but he doesn’t find it suitable for mockery, and anyway, Survivor doesn’t lend itself to the frenzied tabloid treatment that is so delicious to his readers.
No, only The Bachelor and The Bachelorette seem fittingly ripe for spoiling. At the top of his website, he has titled his passion “My slanted, sophomoric, and skewed view on the world of reality television.” Within a few clicks, fans will find his take on past episodes (“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Lauren likes to get her drink on”) and tantalizing, exclusive dirt (“I don’t think we’ve had anything that will compare to what happened on yesterday’s group date,” began one R-rated post).
His devoted followers appreciate his enthusiasm, if not his exhaustive analyses; his intel results in page views, advertisements, and, thus, a full-on career. His site attracts traffic similar to a decent-sized news organization’s. During the off-season, 200,000 to 500,000 readers visit his site each month; when one of the shows is airing, he’ll average 1.5 million readers per month—numbers we won’t mention to foreign correspondents slogging it out overseas for far smaller audiences.
The current season of The Bachelorette, which premiered May 23, stars 25-year-old Joelle “JoJo” Fletcher, a former Bachelor contestant with curls and dimples who hails from Dallas, where she works as a real estate developer. While Steve’s proximity to JoJo’s hometown might seem to put him at an advantage, he has received surprisingly few tips from local viewers. Most of his intel continues to trickle in from his army of social-media and boots-on-the-ground spies, and so Steve sits at his desk most of the day, waiting for the next big scoop.
Where he waits is not a terrifically interesting place—not quite as remarkable as, say, the destinations on the television shows he chronicles. Steve lives in one of those relatively new, quiet Frisco subdivisions. Outside his brick home, perfectly trimmed bushes squat beneath the windows; inside, the decor looks like the spare furnishings of a sublet—not a tchotchke or personal item in sight.
When I met him this past spring, he exhibited an emphatically casual lifestyle. He was dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, and since we met during the Bachelor–Bachelorette off-season, his schedule was light, a fact he appreciates as a man familiar with the eight-hour American workday. He never relished a structured environment. After graduating from Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, he tried his hand at sports talk radio but couldn’t find the right niche. In 2006 Steve, then 31, moved to Frisco to help his dad in the home bedding industry, selling pillows, throws, and duvet covers to J.C. Penney, headquartered in nearby Plano. “Didn’t want to do that the rest of my life,” he said. What he wanted to do was write, and so he focused on blogging more regularly. He modeled his reality-TV site on the pop culture–heavy work by sportswriter Bill Simmons. As anyone who has seen The Bachelor or The Bachelorette knows, contestant elimination is the dramatic thread that runs through the shows. Each season features a bachelor or bachelorette, who, through a series of awkward dates, winnows the field of contestants down to two, handing out roses to those he or she wants to keep in the running, and finally chooses one person to become engaged to, right there on television. Initially, Steve recapped each episode’s twists and turns with flair as the sought-after leads booted the rejects off the show. “I was hoping somebody would read my realitysteve.com column and ask me to do freelance work,” he said. “I never sold myself, never sent articles out. I was just doing it for fun. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Then, in 2009, during the thirteenth season of The Bachelor, a tip from out of
nowhere provided him with focus and newfound expectations. He heard that the bachelor, Jason Mesnick, would reject Molly Malaney and choose Melissa Rycroft, then reverse course, dumping Melissa after the finale and picking Molly. After freaking out—as anyone would—Steve posted the exclusive info and heard mostly crickets at first. “Nobody had any reason to believe me,” he said. But when his prediction turned out to be right, he became a Bachelor authority. Tabloids quoted his site with increasing regularity, boosting his visibility, readership, and advertising. His hobby soon became profitable, and in 2011 he quit his dad’s business to work on the site exclusively.
Not all of his projections have been borne out. Once in a while, he has incorrectly predicted which contestants will make it to the end. He takes these slipups awfully hard. “Des’s season was the worst mistake,” he said with a heavy sigh, referring to The Bachelorette’s ninth season, in 2013. “Desiree—right up until the last minute when it aired, I was telling people she was engaged to somebody else. When it aired that night, I was convinced five minutes before the engagement—when my predicted winner wasn’t even in the picture! I was, like, ‘No, he’s going to show up.’ And he didn’t. I was flat-out wrong.
“I get asked all the time, ‘How were you so wrong about that one?’ ‘How were you so wrong about Desiree?’ I don’t know. The easiest answer was, I was a little lazy, and the info I was given was so detailed, enough that I didn’t feel I needed to follow up thoroughly.”
Steve tried, for a brief period, to get information from the best possible sources: contestants themselves—a risky endeavor, since they sign confidentiality agreements. He sent two female Bachelor contestants an email, offering one of them $2,500 for information. “I know you have loans up the ying-yang,” he wrote. “I’d be willing to compensate you. . . . I swear, this is the easiest money you’d ever make and you and I are the only two people that would know.” The women passed the messages along to the show’s producers, who then sued Steve for tortious interference.
He settled the case six months later for an undisclosed amount, but right away he spoiled another season, so (surprise) the producers sued once more, making the assumption—without proof—that he had been getting insider information. Steve also settled that case, and since then, they have left him alone.
It is entirely possible that the shows’ producers have come to appreciate Steve. It would make sense. He’s actually heard as much from former contestants who have been gone from the shows long enough to talk freely. They tell Steve that everyone realizes he offers the shows free publicity, even if the producers could never publicly admit their appreciation. This thought pleases Steve a great deal. It seems to validate his perception of himself as the crafty upstart. And what harm is he really doing? Eight million people watch the shows each week, a tiny fraction of whom have heard of Reality Steve. Besides, spoiling, in his view, only increases interest. “I’ve never done this so that people won’t watch the show,” he said. “That’s not the point. It’s just a way to watch the show differently.”
Steve has thought a lot about the psychology of the shows, as you might imagine. It is one of the hazards of the job. He doesn’t just think about the contestants. He thinks hard about his readers too, even if skimming the comments on his posts can be alienating. Steve is a pragmatic guy. Sometimes he’s wondered, Who are these people who get caught up in the drama? “If I already know what happens, I don’t care how she held a guy’s hand and looked into his eyes,” he said. “All I care about is what happened at the end, and the spoiler part of it. And the readers are like, ‘No, the way she looks at him, don’t you think she likes him more?’ I don’t know what they want me to say. How am I supposed to respond to that?”
His readers are mysterious beings. Part of the shows’ appeal, he theorizes, is viewer identification. The young contestants—bartenders, hair stylists, and sales reps, for the most part—are much like the viewers, allowing the audience a vicarious adventure. Another attraction is celebrity. These average Joes and JoJos are on TV, which makes them “famous,” but they’re not inaccessible, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Send a tweet to a contestant and you may get a response. Bear in mind, Steve doesn’t feel this thrill. But he does think that the combination of identification and celebrity along with romantic locations and drama, however scripted, make for a successful formula. It is fantasy. The shows are like porn for women, in his view. After all, your first date with a guy in real life is drinks and dinner, not a helicopter ride over Vegas.
Steve himself would make a terrible “bachelor.” As he steps unenthusiastically into his forties, he’s becoming pickier in his personal life. He just doesn’t trust people anymore; he has been burned. He firmly believes that some women have gone out with him because they wanted him to reveal sources to them, something he says he’d never do. They were more into dating Reality Steve than Steve Carbone.
He admits that living in Frisco, which is geared toward families, might not be helping his chances of finding a good mate, especially since he works from home. One rarely finds love at the grocery store. Sure, he has a few acquaintances, but his closest friends are back in California. He practices a mostly solitary routine: From eight until noon, he checks the #bachelorette or #bachelor hashtag on Twitter, browses email, and posts the previous day’s “daily links,” a collection of TV gossip bits he’s gathered. After lunch, he works out at the gym, returning by three o’clock, and then hangs out by himself the rest of the day.
And having a stalker doesn’t help either. He knows who she is, and she’s not a fear-for-your-life kind of stalker, he clarified, she simply annoys. She has posted his phone number on Twitter, and she has blown up his phone with texts, among other endearing tactics. When the stalker discovers Steve is dating someone, she will begin harassing his girlfriend. (Imagine the boredom required for a person to stalk a reality-TV blogger’s girlfriend.) “It got to the point where, when I met somebody, I was sick of having to tell this story and say, ‘Look, if somebody finds out we’re dating, be prepared for what could happen,’ ” he said. “Rather than go through that whole spiel, I’d rather just not date.”
JoJo, meanwhile, was dating constantly, and Steve was studying her every move. During our conversation, he glanced over at his computer and paused mid-sentence. “Hold on,” he said, reaching for his mouse. “This is about a possible contestant I need to look into.”
It was happening! Reality Steve was getting a tip! He clicked on a few links and tapped on his keyboard, then leaned toward the screen. “Oh!” he said, excitedly. “I think he is. This is a guy I have a first name on.”
The email that had popped up relayed intel from a Reality Steve fan. Someone she knew from college was now a contestant on JoJo’s season. His name was Nick Sharp, the emailer said, and she forwarded an Instagram account she believed to be his.
Steve had already identified 9 of the 25 contestants who would be on the show, but “Nick” had proved elusive. During the filming of episode two, one of his spies had snapped a photo of all the guys together in a group shot. It was taken from behind, at a distance. It was also blurry. It was The Bachelorette equivalent of the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film, except Steve had deemed it authentic, worthy of analysis and inspection. Now it was his guide to the contestant lineup for the season. He pulled the group photo up on his phone and enlarged a young man on the left-hand side of the photo wearing a red shirt and saggy jeans. “I was told that is someone named Nick,” he said.
Going back to his computer, Steve clicked on the link to the Instagram page and browsed photos of some handsome adventurer named Nick Sharp who appeared to enjoy white-water rafting, mountain climbing, and sailing, often in a Crocodile Dundee–type hat. “When did he take this, ten weeks ago?” Steve muttered. “This doesn’t even look like him.” Holding his phone up to the screen so that he could compare the shot of Nick-the-contestant’s backside to Nick-the-Instagram-adventurer, he squinted and tilted his head. “Is this the same guy? I can’t tell,” he said. Opening a new window on his computer, he Googled the name “Nick Sharp.” Before long, he grew excited. “Now, this could be him,” he said, clicking on a LinkedIn page of a Nick Sharp wearing a suit and tie. He pulled out his phone again to compare the images. The hair was close. The build wasn’t an impossible match. Then he read in the bio info that this particular Nick Sharp had lived in Sacramento his whole life, and Steve slumped in his chair, deflated. “The email I got said the Nick Sharp she was hearing was on the show went to Virginia Tech,” he said. “So that would rule out this guy.”
But he wouldn’t give up. Rallying once more, he took a deep breath and rubbed his face. Then he sat up straight and Googled “Nick Sharp” and “Virginia Tech.”
“Ahh, this could be him,” he said, pointing to yet another Nick Sharp on LinkedIn, this one with a suit, tie, slicked hair, and a beaming smile. He read the bio: Virginia Tech. “That guy—he looks like a guy who’d be on the friggin’ Bachelor,” he said, laughing. He continued reading, noticing that the man in question graduated in 2012.
“Okay, let me email this person back,” he said, reading aloud as he typed. “What year did you graduate? Is this the Nick you knew?” He pasted the newfound link and hit send.
You know how the final episodes of The Bachelor milk the drama with long pauses and crying and piano music playing softly in the background? None of that happened while we waited to hear back. Maybe a minute passed as Steve chitchatted to fill the time, nervously repeating his misgivings about the wrong Nick, all the while distracted by any messages popping up on his screen until . . . there it was.
He opened the email. “2012. Yes, he was in my class. Yes, that’s him.”
It was him! The spy was right (even if her Instagram link was not). Reality Steve had done it again! He was making progress. Now, let’s see, that made ten down, fifteen to go. And that was just the beginning.