By Monica Rizzo
Updated December 22, 2008 12:00 PM

If anyone has reason to believe that reality television and romance are incompatible, it’s Jason Mesnick. Last July the 32-year-old single dad from Seattle was one of the final two men standing before DeAnna Pappas, 27, the star of ABC’s reality show The Bachelorette. Pappas had gone on the show to find Mr. Right, and Mesnick hoped he was The One. “I really did fall in love with DeAnna,” Mes-nick says now. But Pappas chose 26-year-old professional snowboarder Jesse Csincsak, leaving Mesnick heartbroken—and legions of female viewers questioning her choice.

Ultimately Mesnick was not among them. “I saw them together after the show was over and they were so in love,” he says. “It was one of those things where it made me feel like she made the right decision.”

Now fans are cheering ABC’s decision to make Mesnick the latest star of The Bachelor, where he will have a chance to find true love among 25 eligible women. Mesnick received an outpouring of fan support—letters, e-mails, gifts and even a homemade board game called “How to Find Me” from one woman—that helped him “heal up enough” after the Pappas letdown to take another shot at on-camera romance. “People were reassuring, saying, ‘We like you for you,'” says Mesnick, an account executive for an insurance and estate-planning company who is raising 3-year-old son Ty with his ex-wife. “That feels really good.”

While the show’s poor success rate—only 2003 Bachelorette Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter married—”discouraged me a bit,” Mesnick sees this opportunity as “the ultimate dating service. I don’t want to be by myself. I want somebody to be in my life and love me as much as I love them. I’m ready for a relationship, a family.”

But before committing to the show Mesnick laid out some ground rules, most notably that he would not go for more than a week without seeing Ty. “I talked to a therapist [and] I talked to his pediatrician and asked [if the show] would impact him negatively and they said, ‘He’s going to be fine—the separation is going to hurt you more than it’s going to hurt him,'” Mesnick says. “[Ty’s] cool with it. He’s my best friend, the best thing in my world.”

That world also includes his brother Larry, with whom he shares a modest three-bedroom suburban ranch home. Mesnick and ex-wife Hilary Wynn, whose divorce was finalized last February, share custody of Ty “50-50,” says Mesnick. “We are good friends. Everything is in the past now and we need to make decisions together. We both want each other to find love and happiness, and we both know as long as we do what’s right for Ty he’ll be great. He is loved.”

Soon Ty will have even more love in his life. With filming of The Bachelor complete and the women winnowed down to just one, Mesnick confesses with a smile, “I am engaged.” He can barely contain his giddiness. “I found exactly what I was hoping for, what I was looking for. I’m completely in love. Everything I had with her was the same whether the cameras were rolling or not.”

Best of all, Mesnick says, his fiancée got Ty’s stamp of approval.

“I knew I could not fully fall in love with somebody until I saw them with Ty,” Mesnick says, noting that Ty’s mother “is supportive” of his new relationship. “I was not looking for a mom for Ty,” he explains. “Ty has a mom. I was looking for a partner for me and a mentor and a friend to Ty.”

Ironically Pappas and her pick Csincsak didn’t go the distance, breaking up last month. “I was shocked,” Mesnick says of the split. But he had no desire to see if Pappas might want to reconsider The One That Got Away. “After what happened to me the first time, does anyone really think I’d do that?” he asks. Besides, going through the heartache then has lead to happiness now. “It’s all worth it,” he says. “I just keep smiling.”