Lauren and Cameron cut the cake during their wedding on Season 1 of "Love Is Blind"

How Reality Dating Shows Stoke Racial Tensions

Lauren and Cameron, Love Is Blind’s breakout stars, have succeeded not because of the show but in spite of it.

In the first season of Netflix’s hit reality show Love Is Blind, Lauren Speed visits the Atlanta home of her new fiancé, Cameron Hamilton. The house is airy and bright, and Lauren and Cameron, fingers laced, wander the rooms imagining the life they might have there together. But behind the scenes, that day was less dreamy than it looked.

A producer urged Lauren to peek inside Cameron’s fridge and pantry so the crew could film her commenting on what she saw inside. They seemed particularly eager for her to note a few specific items: watermelon, collard greens, and Kool-Aid. “They didn’t want to let up,” Cameron told me. “I was frustrated because these are basic items, and why even perpetuate these notions?” This wasn’t the first time the show had tried to gin up racial tension. During the couple’s onscreen courtship, Lauren told me, producers “really, really pressed down hard on the fact that You’re a Black woman from Detroit; he’s a white man from Maine—talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.”

Love Is Blind, which premiered in February 2020 and will air its third season later this year, presents itself as both comfortably familiar reality fare and a radical treatise on the barriers to love in a screen-mediated, swipe-happy dating world. Single men and women occupy separate pods and converse through an opaque, glowing wall: the show’s test of whether two people can fall for each other without the interference of superficial factors. After 10 days, they must decide whether to part ways or get married. Only then are the newly engaged couples allowed to meet face-to-face, before enduring some rapid-fire bonding rituals: a beach vacation, tours of their homes, a round of meet-the-parents—all in preparation for their wedding, scheduled for four weeks later.

This formula has certainly worked at attracting viewers. According to Netflix, the show had reached 30 million households by April 2020. Season 2, which aired this past February, was a similar phenomenon, making the list of Netflix’s most-watched series during each week of the show’s staggered release. The series has already been renewed through Season 5.

Over the course of its first two seasons, Love Is Blind has proved adept at producing couples that last long after filming wraps, however improbably. Season 1 featured the volatile twosome Amber Pike and Matt Barnett, who spent much of their screen time squabbling jealously but somehow remain wed. Season 2 supplied a memorable villain in Abhishek “Shake” Chatterjee, who complained to everyone within earshot about his lack of attraction to Deepti Vempati, but it also had Jarrette Jones and Iyanna McNeely—who seemed doomed by Jarrette’s immaturity but are still married too. And yet despite this track record, there’s no potential obstacle to love that the show appears to relish more than race.

When I watched Lauren and Cameron’s season back in 2020, I remember feeling at once compelled and baffled by the show’s treatment of their dynamic. The series swung between sensationalizing the fact of their racial difference and pretending that it didn’t matter at all. In some moments, like when Lauren said “I would have never met a man like Cameron without this experiment,” their relationship was heralded as a shining example of the “blind” approach to dating in action. In others, the show seemed eager to present their dissimilar cultural backgrounds as a potentially impossible hurdle for the couple to clear. That felt to me like a stretch, even by the standards of reality TV. Still, I found myself struck by just how unusual it was to see a Black woman on reality television who seemed to be fully herself experiencing that kind of steadfast commitment, that kind of unwavering love.

Lauren Speed-Hamilton and Cameron Hamilton, now married and living in Atlanta, have been the show’s breakout stars. Fans marveled at their onscreen chemistry and furiously scoured the internet to find out whether they were still together. Lauren has 2.5 million followers on Instagram, more than most leading ladies of the Bachelor franchise. The Hamiltons are the most prominent Black-and-white interracial couple to ever emerge from a reality dating series. The scarcity of relationships like theirs is in part a reflection of the bleak way reality television has historically portrayed Black women as romantic prospects. And so I wondered how they got here: what it was like for them to navigate the show’s pressures and their post-series fame—and why it took so long for a genre obsessed with fairy-tale love to give us a story like theirs.

The template of the contemporary reality dating show was established by The Bachelor, and from the very beginning, the franchise refused to take Black women seriously as potential matches for its white male leads. In its 2002 pilot season, only one Black woman from the majority-white cast made it past the premiere, and she was eliminated several episodes later. LaNease Adams has since said that the show’s producers pushed her to ask the Bachelor about his history with dating Black women. “It was a kind of weird conversation for me to have,” Adams told HuffPost in 2020. “We’re at a dinner party, we’re all drinking. ‘Tell me about your experience with interracial dating.’” That was the night she got cut from the show.      

Things only got worse from there. The franchise developed a pattern of depicting Black women as confrontational and undesirable, if it depicted them at all. In 2006, Lindsay Smith—the only Black woman on her season of The Bachelor—was eliminated in the first week after an angry, drunken outburst in which she accused another woman of calling her a “bitch”; she later wrote that producers had plied her with alcohol and invented the “bitch” comment altogether to upset her. Robin Boylorn, a communications professor at the University of Alabama who has studied reality TV and race, told me that dating shows generally dial up retrograde gender stereotypes attached to straight Black women to portray them as domineering and hostile—an image compounded by how few of them there are on shows with majority-white audiences. “You can have white women throwing things, and it’s cute,” Boylorn said. “But when Black women are throwing things, it’s suddenly representative of all Black women.”

In 2017, amid an escalating debate over race and representation in pop culture, The Bachelorette finally selected its first-ever Black lead, Rachel Lindsay. Lindsay, a lawyer from Dallas, may be the only Black reality star besides Speed-Hamilton to end her run on a high-profile American dating show in an interracial marriage. But even as The Bachelorette hailed Lindsay’s casting as a progressive moment, her onscreen love story and its reception were troubled. The show cast a white man whose racist posts were discovered by viewers while Lindsay’s season was airing. She later told Vulture that several of the Black men had not historically been attracted to Black women.

And in the end, her season saw some of the show’s lowest ratings, and prompted some of the most virulent harassment, especially directed at Lindsay. Among Black viewers, there was backlash, too, though much of the negative commentary reflected a frustration with the franchise itself—some accused the show of choosing a lead who was “not Black enough.” One viewer called her “a white [girl] dipped in chocolate.”

It all felt dismally predictable: The first Black Bachelorette had been trapped in a no-win situation, stuck within the show’s format and fan expectations even as she charted new territory. And then came Love Is Blind.

In 2018, Lauren Speed was living in Atlanta, doing marketing and filmmaking for brands. Cameron Hamilton was a disillusioned corporate researcher with two graduate degrees who felt listless professionally and romantically. Though Lauren often watched The Real Housewives of Atlanta, she was less interested in reality dating shows like The Bachelor, where, she told me, she didn’t see herself represented at all. On reality shows in general, she “didn’t like how a lot of women were perceived, especially Black women,” she said. “Like, dang … Y’all go to get drinks and then you fight,” she said. She felt hesitant about entering that world.

But the idea of a weird new dating experiment intrigued her. So she decided to try this show out—while committing to not serve up any material that could be used to stereotype her. “I wasn’t going to let production put me in a mindset to make me feel like I had to fight someone,” she said. Walking into filming, she thought to herself, I just want to be myself. I don’t want to be catty. I don’t want to be this caricature.

The Lauren of Love Is Blind is candid and funny. “I like your voice,” she tells Cameron early on. “You sound cute.” During their courtship phase, intimacy comes easily as they quickly transition from light banter about potential date-night menus to teary bonding over their shared love of their families.

Lauren’s determination to buck reality-show clichés is visible throughout the season. In Mexico, the morning after their first night together, Cameron tells Lauren that “it’s like waking up from a dream to a dream,” which prompts her to jokingly ask, “Bonnet included, right?” Later, she says in a confessional: “Being a Black woman, it’s very important that I wrap and take care of my hair at night.” That may not sound like much of a revelation, but it’s rare for pop culture to account for the work of caring for Black hair. (To this day, the fact that Scandal’s Olivia Pope never once wrapped her hair at night remains the detail on that show I find hardest to believe.)

Efforts like this, and the fact that the show aired them at all, may help explain why the audience reaction to Love Is Blind has felt so different. Lauren and Cameron told me that much of the fan outreach has been from Black women who had rarely seen another Black woman on reality TV, or in pop culture more broadly, receive the kind of doting attention that Cameron lavished on Lauren. Cameron, for his part, has been sent notes from Black women suggesting that more men should be like him. It likely helps that he seems neither intimidated nor confused by Lauren’s Blackness.

And yet the couple still had to navigate a show that, for all its supposed idealism, was working hard to sensationalize their different backgrounds. They told me that producers asked them to rehash certain conversations in multiple environments just to ensure that there would be sufficient footage of those Important Dialogues About Race, a routine that quickly wore on them. “We were like, can we just date? Do we have to keep saying ‘I’m Black; you’re white. I’m Black; you’re white’?!” Lauren said. (A representative for Kinetic Content, which produces Love Is Blind for Netflix, could not confirm specific details but said asking cast members to comment on their surroundings or reshoot key scenes is standard reality-production fare.) The tally of how many times Lauren pointed out their races on-screen became its own drinking game among fans on social media after the show premiered.

Then there was the episode where Cameron went to meet Lauren’s family. Producers prodded her mother to ask Cameron to perform a rap, which was inevitably ridiculous (and which Cameron insists they chopped and screwed to make him sound more off the beat): “I’m feelin’ like a kid with you / You’re my main chick / Those other girls are previews / Hop in the back, rollin’ up / Then we’re free to cruise.”) And when he met Lauren’s dad, show staffers told him that her father—a producer and writer who’d helped launch BET’s music-video program Video Soul—would be giving him a hard time, to expect an inquisition because he was white. “On the other side, they were talking to [her dad] and being like, ‘You really got to give it to him. You have to grill the shit out of him,’” Cameron said. “And they were just doing that to the point where he was annoyed, which was what they wanted.” Rather than focus on how both his parents and Lauren’s were trying to make sense of “this wacky television show” where their children met, as Cameron put it, the show insisted that the biggest obstacle would be getting Lauren’s father to accept the prospect of his daughter marrying a white man.

Shortly after the couple filmed the season finale, which included their own wedding, Lauren moved into Cameron’s home. They did normal newlywed things, such as cooking together and going on hikes. Then the show premiered on Netflix and, in the quarantine era, picked up buzz, leaving Lauren and Cameron to navigate both a new marriage and a new, joint career. They burnished their Instagram personas and launched a YouTube channel, Hanging With the Hamiltons, which now has nearly 700,000 subscribers. Here, they post standard influencer fare such as workout videos and skin-care reviews but also details of their life together: a house tour, Q&As about their relationship, dating tips based on their own experience. They started writing a book that was published last year, Leap of Faith: Finding Love the Modern Way, which occasionally touches on life as an interracial couple but is largely structured as a dating-advice guide. And eventually they began working from a shared studio in Midtown Atlanta that looks like a Millennial therapist’s office: emerald-green sofas, brass-accented white coffee table, faux fiddle-leaf figs.

In person, Lauren and Cameron’s chemistry is hard to deny. They clearly get a kick out of each other; when Lauren makes any kind of joke, especially one that involves a goofy voice, Cameron laughs with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy. During a tour of the studio, Cameron’s hand gravitated to Lauren’s shoulder any time we paused to take a beat.

But even as they’ve attempted to shake off the story line the show created for them, they’ve landed in an influencer ecosystem with its own conventions and expectations. The summer of 2020 was a particularly strange time to start building a professional brand as an interracial couple. As Lauren struggled to process emotionally what was happening in the country, she was pelted with requests from social-media followers to comment on police brutality and anti-Black racism. Some of these requests came from white people in an interracial relationship seeking advice on how to support the Black people in their life. “It added a sense of pressure; people were looking to me like, Lauren, you have to say something. Come on! You and Cam are like the interracial poster child[ren],” she said.

Neither of them was naturally inclined to speak out on the subject, but they felt compelled to nonetheless. Cameron posted a video addressed to white Americans, assuming a kind of racial-interpreter role with palpable unease. “It’s our responsibility to make the change that we need in our country,” he says to the camera. These pressures create an impossible bind: Both of the Hamiltons told me that whenever they talk directly about race, they notice that their follower count drops. Meanwhile, at home, they had their toughest conversation yet about what it meant for Lauren to be a Black woman married to a white man. “You’ll never understand,” Lauren told Cameron, crying on the floor. “This is my life.”

With Hanging With the Hamiltons, they also found themselves plunged into a YouTube economy of so-called swirl couples, mostly consisting of Black women in relationships with white men, who have rapturous fan bases and post aspirational videos about their lives together. Classics of the “BWWM #swirl” genre include “BOYFRIEND SEES MY AFRO FOR THE 1ST TIME & LEARNS ABOUT MY HAIRCARE ROUTINE” and “ASKING MY PARENTS HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT ME DATING A WHITE BOY.” “There are certainly people who want things like that,” Cameron said. Some fans even send them messages asking for specific videos. “But you know,” he said, “we’re not a radio station taking requests.”

Hanging With the Hamiltons rarely addresses the races of its creators. To the extent that the Hamiltons participate in the broader culture of YouTube coupledom, it’s primarily through race-neutral challenges like a couples “tag” that tasks partnered creators with finding out how much they know about each other, or stunts such as “Husband Does My Makeup!” Even a video in which they see “what our future baby will look like” ends up being more of a comment on the eeriness of apps that use such predictive software than anything deeper. They remain wary of further magnifying the racial dynamics in their relationship that Love Is Blind exaggerated. “The biggest thing from my perspective is that we’re a real couple and we don’t pander to notions like, let’s focus on how cool it is that we’re Black and white,” Cameron said.

Still, for many of their viewers, race seems inextricable from the appeal of their videos: “Give Love Is Blind credit,” one commenter wrote in response to a July 2020 video. “They showed that when a beautiful black woman is cherished and loved, ratings skyrocket.” Another commenter wrote: “Cameron seems to love her like how every black woman should be loved.” Few of Lauren’s social-media posts have earned her spouse as much praise as the one in which he helps with a mundane task: taking down her braids. Although Lauren and Cameron say they appreciate this kind of response, the comments also feel like a sad reflection of the pop-cultural landscape more broadly, more evidence of how infrequently relationships like theirs are depicted.

Their post-show public life hasn’t been entirely free of brushes with the internet’s less savory corners, either. Lauren said she’s been accused of being more “ghetto” in her Instagram stories than she was on the series. Often, that comes in the form of comments from white fans that her boisterous energy or manner of speaking somehow don’t create a respectable-enough image. “I don’t know what people are expecting when they watch TV and they don’t see whatever in their mind that they conceived of how Black women should act,” Lauren said.

In the end, Love Is Blind has greater success casting doubt on its premise than proving it. Race is a major factor from the very beginning. Lauren told me that producers took great pains to hide cast members from one another, shuttling them around in vans with trash bags covering the windows. But the mystery seemed to only heighten curiosity about race. Lauren told me that the women of Season 1, who had all met Cameron in their own pod-dating round-robins, tried to guess his race based on his voice. Once Lauren and Cameron found they had a connection, the series was all too eager to wring as much drama as possible from their racial difference.

Perhaps that’s because the producers realized that their show is entertaining not because it eliminates appearance as a factor in dating, but because of the way it underlines exactly what it’s claiming to erase. It’s remarkable how inventively the contestants—deprived of the usual physical cues—manage to evaluate appearance by other means. Take Shake Chatterjee’s attempts to clock women’s body weight by asking if they could sit on his shoulders at a concert. Lauren and Cameron, it seems, succeeded more in spite of this experiment than because of it.

Even in the best-case scenario—you get a generous edit, you end up adored by viewers, you meet the love of your life—being a Black woman on a reality dating show means being stuck between dueling imperatives: to stage entertaining, high-stakes conversations about racial issues, but not to risk discomfiting white viewers. To seem like your authentic self, but also to self-monitor constantly to make sure you don’t accidentally say or do something that could be used to make you seem unattractive or brash. And after the show, no matter how genuine a couple’s bond may be, these tensions don’t disappear. “I’m happy to inspire people to have hope, but don’t look at me like I’m the Jesus of relationships,” Lauren told me. “I’m figuring it out.”