Jason Mesnick knows what you’re thinking. At least, if you’re among the millions of viewers who tuned in on March 2 to see him on the finale of his ABC reality show, The Bachelor, he knows you’re probably not his biggest fan these days. “People are going to turn off their TVs and think, ‘That guy is a jerk,'” he says. “But I’m not proud of what I had to do.”
What he had to do has caused a whole lot of controversy on a show that wasn’t short on drama in the first place. With his heart-melting status as a devoted single dad to his 4-year-old son Ty, Jason-who was first rejected by DeAnna Pappas on The Bachelorette last year-was chosen last autumn to star as The Bachelor. Now it was time for the 32-year-old insurance agent from Seattle to have his chance at choosing among 25 women. At last it seemed the reality franchise that had for so long selected hot-tub-loving lotharios as protagonists had cast a real winner: a genuine guy searching for love.
And then: After winnowing down the women, Jason proposed to 26-year-old event planner Melissa Rycroft, who gleefully accepted. But their happy ending on the finale was followed moments later by Jason’s brutal dumping of Melissa in front of more than 17 million viewers on the After the Final Rose wrap-up show that followed. No sooner had a devastated Melissa handed back the Neil Lane engagement ring she’d worn for six weeks than Jason confessed on-air that he still had feelings for 24-year-old department-store buyer Molly Malaney, the first-runner-up he’d tearfully sent home before proposing to Melissa. Molly admitted that she too still had feelings for Jason. Suddenly the beloved Bachelor went from prince to playboy.
Within weeks of the After the Final Rose taping, online spoilers ran rampant with news of the switch among the women and further alleged that it had been concocted as a ratings ploy. “I swear on my son’s life, I would never be part of something like that,” an emotional Jason says. “The reason I changed my mind is that it was in my heart.” Jason sat down, alongside Molly, to talk with PEOPLE’s Monica Rizzo about those rumors, their romance and what really happened.
You proposed to Melissa, and you both looked blissfully happy at the end of the finale. What happened?
Jason: After we got back into the real world, all of a sudden, we had less to talk about, and I didn’t know why. I started thinking, wow, what’s happening? Why aren’t we communicating the way we did when the show was going on? I think at that stage of the relationship it should be fun and exciting no matter what, especially the first six months. Why didn’t I think about these things earlier? It’s longer than a six-week or seven-week process for me. Just because the cameras stopped rolling, for me, I still did some soul-searching.
Did you talk to Melissa about it?
Jason: I didn’t say something right away because I wanted to figure out what was going on inside of me. I put Melissa on this pedestal. She is exactly what I was looking for going into this experience. She’s sweet, she’s outgoing, she’s caring, she’ll take care of you the rest of your life. There was part of me that wanted things to work out with Melissa so bad. But the whole other piece was I had these crazy feelings for Molly.
So what was it about Molly, versus what you felt for Melissa?
Jason: Melissa and I just have different ways of communicating. We’re not right for each other. The one thing I was lacking with Melissa was this friendship that I have with Molly. Molly was the best of everything. There’s a piece of Molly that I’ve never had in a relationship. She and I can share anything.
Did you confess to Melissa that you still had these feelings for Molly?
Jason: She asked me before we went on [ATFR] if Molly had something to do with it and I said yes. But she didn’t know all the details. I think our last conversation before we did ATFR was, “Are you really going to wear the ring out there? Why would you?” She knew it was over.
Why did you break up with Melissa on-camera?
Jason: That was part of the deal. I signed up for this. Your relationship is-good and bad-in front of everybody. [Producers] knew this was tearing me up, and if I could have, I would have seen Melissa the night before. But I wasn’t allowed. It killed me. It kills me now.
Why didn’t you wait, like other couples have, until after the show ended to call things off?
Jason: Better to do it after six weeks than it is to do it after seven weeks or six months or a year. I wish for her sake I didn’t propose because it put her in a bad spot. Really, what is the right thing to do? Why string her along? I came here to find somebody to spend the rest of my life with. If I have to do something scary then I’ll do it.
Were you in contact with Molly at all after the finale?
Jason: One time. I got permission from production to check in with her, on the phone, to make sure she knew that I felt bad about hurting her [on the finale]. That was it.
Were you nervous about going after Molly so soon after breaking Melissa’s heart?
Jason: The worst thing I thought I could do is break up with Melissa and ask somebody else out. But I thought if this is what’s inside of me, I’ve got to say it. I was willing to take that risk.
Molly, what were you thinking when he told you about the breakup and asked you for another chance?
Molly: It was not what I was expecting to hear. After the finale, I thought he made the wrong decision and I was so upset. I was shocked. It was the first time I ever had my heart broken. I think I went through two boxes of Kleenex in 13 hours. I thought, Gosh, it would be so awesome if he called me up and was like, I made a mistake, I want you back. Never in a million years did I think it was going to happen.
How did you decide to trust him enough to date him again?
Molly: I asked him a million times, Are you sure about this? You were sure about Melissa. If you weren’t sure, why propose? I asked him about that for about a week.
Jason: Because of the stuff I put her through, there’s been some brutal honesty on both ends. How she felt; what I felt about Melissa. It’s stuff she doesn’t want to hear, but it puts us in a place that I’ve never shared with somebody before.
Of course, there have been rumors that this whole switch was all concocted to boost ratings.
Molly: It really breaks my heart that people are so quick to jump to conclusions without knowing the truth. It’s really, really tough.
Jason: It was not a setup. [Melissa] was not blindsided. There’s not a conspiracy. People are spreading rumors. It’s completely false. I’m telling you the truth, what happened behind closed doors. I make mistakes and I did what I thought was best for everybody, which was end things with Melissa.
Jason, are you worried about how this will affect your image?
Jason: If I was worried that much about my image, would I even have done this? Forget what the country thinks. I have to live with hurting Melissa and I regret hurting her.
Molly: He’s following his heart and he’s doing what’s best for him. When it comes to love, it’s okay to be selfish because that’s your life, the rest of your life.
How has your relationship been going the past six weeks?
Molly: We have been able to see each other between then and now, and we talk on the phone every single day. It’s nice to be just the two of us.
What do you like doing together?
Molly: We cook and have dinner.
Jason: She’s got a recipe for artichoke dip that’s the best thing in the world.
Have you uncovered any of each other’s quirks?
Molly: I would say he’s unorganized.
Jason: Oh my gosh, yes. Molly’s quirks? She’s crazy about doing her nails. When I first met her my impression was she’s this tomboy with the golfing. Internally she’s a tomboy, but externally she’s the ultimate girly-girl.
Have you had any fights?
Jason & Molly (together): Mondays.
Jason: My opinion is she shouldn’t watch [The Bachelor] on Mondays because I had feelings for other girls and she’s going to see that, and do you want to expose yourself to that? She says it’s like a car crash.
Molly: I can’t not watch.
Is an engagement in the works?
Jason: No. I don’t want to be seen as a serial proposer!
Molly: I don’t think that’s coming anytime soon. Right now we’re just going to try to focus on transitioning our relationship into being in the real world. We’re just going to take it slow.
Will you be moving to Seattle?
Molly: It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I first need to get out to Seattle and experience life there with him and spend time with Ty. I want to create a life for myself as well. I will get my own place for a while and I’ll have a job and I’ll see where that takes us.
You both seem genuinely happy.
Molly: I don’t regret anything that happened. I went through a tough time, but I think that made me really appreciate what my feelings for him were and that I really do love him.
And now Jason gets to say “I love you” back.
Jason: Finally! She’s my best friend now, and there’s this love and caring and passion. She challenges me. She will push me until the day I die.