By Michelle Tauber
April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

Alex Michel acknowledges that the concept of 25 women vying for his affection was “a little overwhelming” at first. “When I realized they were all there to meet me,” recalls Michel, the star of ABC’s hit reality series The Bachelor, “I thought, ‘Oh, my God—how is this happening?’ ”

Critics of the show are asking the same thing. Like its controversial FOX forebear Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, The Bachelor, which was taped in Los Angeles, pits husband-hungry women against each other in what amounts to a matrimonial Bake-Off. Michel hosts one-on-one and harem-style dates, during which he assesses each suitor and decides who stays and who goes. “You’re embarrassed for these women,” says Variety TV editor Mike Schneider. “They fall to pieces when they’re not chosen.” Terry O’Neill, a vice president of the National Organization for Women, argues that it’s more than embarrassing: “Getting married is something you win? It’s extremely creepy.”

Michel, 31, shrugs off such complaints. “The idea that these women are desperately jumping through hoops is not accurate,” he says. “They were there for adventure. It was a mutual get-to-know-each-other.” And unlike Multimillionaire groom-turned-wannabe comedian Rick Rockwell, Michel was not obligated to propose to any of the women by the show’s April 25 finale. But what’s in it for him? After all, the guy already possesses the kind of lofty pedigree many reality-TV contestants would eat a rat for: valedictorian of his high school class in affluent Darien, Conn.; Harvard honors graduate (in ’92); an MBA from Stanford. Still, he was missing one item: a girlfriend. “I didn’t view this experience as a last-ditch way to find a date,” says Michel, most recently a management consultant in San Francisco. “This is the most elaborate, well-financed dating service of all time.”

His pursuers—now whittled down to Trista Rehn, 29, a physical therapist; Shannon Oliver, 24, a financial-management assistant; and Amanda Marsh, 23, an event planner—agree. “Instead of dating and dating, it was handed to you: a good-looking, smart guy with a great personality, a good job,” says ousted contestant Angelique Madrid, a 27-year-old actress. “Any girl would love to have that perfect guy handed to her.”

Michel’s Dallas-based parents—Peter, 59, a corporate executive, and Mary, 58, a marriage and family therapist—weren’t as certain about The Bachelor. (Michel also has two younger sisters.) “They definitely had concerns: ‘It’s too quick, it’s so public, are you sure you’ve thought through all the risks?’ ” Michel recalls. Yet friends say Michel, a reality-TV junkie—he almost made the cut for Survivor: Africa-took his decision to appear on the show seriously. “Most of our friends are married,” says close pal Stephanie Parker, 30. “I wasn’t surprised he was ready to find the right one and settle down.”

So, does he? Producers of the series are keeping mum on the outcome, as is Michel, except to say, “It’s a happy ending.” But not for the rejects like Madrid, who is now—grudgingly—back in the dating game. Still, noting that she bonded with several contestants during their stay in the shared bachelorette pad known as the Ladies Villa, she says her Bachelor appearance wasn’t a total wash. “I didn’t get the man,” she says, “but I got a few good girlfriends out of it!”

Michelle Tauber

Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles