Three years have passed, but Brad Womack vividly remembers it as "one of the worst days of my life." The Texas bar owner's stint as star of the 11th season of The Bachelor
had just ended-and not too happily, as he became the only man in the show's history to reject both of his final two suitors, Realtor DeAnna Pappas and former Phoenix Suns dancer Jenni Croft.
"I turn on Ellen DeGeneres, and she is talking to her audience. She says, 'Did you guys watch The Bachelor
? What a jerk.' And the audience is cheering," recalls Brad. Being slammed by one of his favorite entertainers on national television "hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like I was public enemy No. 1. It was extremely eye-opening to figure out what seemed to be all of America hating me. It was tough."
Of course time has a way of healing-and changing. After years of therapy and introspection, Brad, now 37, is ready to hand out the roses all over again as he returns for an unprecedented second run in the next season of The Bachelor
. "I'm ready to meet someone," he says confidently, though he knows that his track record will have many questioning his sincerity, let alone his ability to commit. He's determined to silence the doubters. "I have changed," he says. "I'm not the same guy, and I'm going to prove it."
"He's a lot more trusting, a lot more open. He's willing to show his vulnerability," says Bachelor
executive producer Martin Hilton. "He's done a lot of work on himself and come out the other side a better person for it." One person thinks Brad didn't have to change much at all. "I remember telling him, 'I'm proud of you....You followed your heart,'" says The Bachelor
host Chris Harrison of Brad's controversial decision not to pick anyone. "He didn't say those women weren't good enough, he was just saying they weren't for him, and he didn't fall in love. I had no problem with it, but, man, America really got on him for it."
Still, for the millions who may have been on his case, Brad says his main concern was making amends with the two people who truly deserved an explanation: DeAnna and Jenni.
"I recently watched the finale, and I hate to admit it, but I did say some things that led DeAnna on, and I am truly sorry," Brad confesses. Not only did he tell DeAnna she'd "be a great mother" and "make a great wife," but the morning of the final rose ceremony, "I said, 'Today is going to be a good day.' I will never live that statement down in my life. I don't know where it came from. I deserved to be called a jerk for saying that," he adds with a cringe.
And so, as filming for the new season of The Bachelor
got under way last month, Brad first apologized to both women, face to face and on-camera. Those hoping for a bitter confrontation will be disappointed. "I had to put the hurt and anger behind me and move on," says DeAnna, who went on to become The Bachelorette
in 2008 after Brad's rejection and is now engaged to schoolteacher Stephen Stagliano (who briefly appeared on a later season of The Bachelorette
). Jenni is similarly at peace with what happened; she is set to marry Scottsdale, Ariz., dentist John Badolato on Oct. 3. "It was a blessing Brad didn't pick me," Jenni says now. "Once I started dating my fiance, I learned what true love really felt like."
But Brad realizes forgiveness may not come so quickly from viewers who felt burned by his seemingly cavalier dismissal of two women who adored him. "I was called a commitment-phobe," he says. "I hate to admit it, but now, looking back, everyone was right."
In the years that followed the infamous finale, Brad purposely stayed out of the public eye and "focused on fixing things about myself," he says. "I didn't date at all. I dove into work, I dove into trying to figure where I went wrong, how I could fix myself, how I could change the things I needed to change to help me find somebody."
Growing up one of three boys (he has a twin, Chad, and a younger brother, Wes, 34) and raised by a single mother, Brad claims his issues with relationships and trust were largely shaped by his father's absence.
"I didn't have the best example of a father. He wasn't around. It's tough to talk about, but it is what it is," he explains. "As much as I could cast blame on anyone or anything else, I think it was just me. At the end of the day, it's been my fault. But I don't want this tough-guy persona anymore. I don't want to be alone anymore."
With both of his brothers married with children, Brad's biological clock is ticking-loudly. Despite being set up with women "more times than I could count," none went beyond "two, three dates. I have not been in a relationship since I participated on The Bachelor
. Now, I want to come home to a beautiful family and provide for them."
Though the franchise's track record has been less than stellar (only two marriages have resulted from the final outcome of any season), Brad has a bold prediction about what lies ahead for him. "It's going to work out this time," he says with certainty, even while he acknowledges that the 30 women vying for a rose will have reason to be nervous, given what happened last time. "I'm praying these women go into this with an open heart, because it's going to take both of us," he says. "I don't want a wall to instantly shoot up because they don't want to get hurt."
And what if, at the end of the season, the ambivalent feeling he had in 2007 rears its ugly head? "I don't think it's going to happen," he says with confidence. "It's not ignorant bliss-I'm ready, and hopefully at the end of this journey, I'll be with a woman who is ready for me too."