Michelle Young was game.
Between innings at CHS Field in July, the next star of ABC-TV's "The Bachelorette" threw out roses, competed in a full-body ring toss and fed the St. Paul Saints' mascot, a pig named Space Ham, from a bottle.
Fans approached, one after another, requesting photos. Each time, she said "yes." Each time, she smiled.
Even shaded by a black baseball cap, her wide smile radiated — just as it had on screen early this year, when Young, an elementary teacher from Minnesota, competed on "The Bachelor." She didn't end up with Matt James. But with an assist from her cute fifth-graders, she won over viewers, who cheered as she did push-ups in an evening gown and cried when she gifted James matching jerseys.
Young's season, much of it filmed in Minnesota, starts Oct. 19 amid high hopes — and some fear — for the third Black star of "The Bachelorette."
It wouldn't have happened without the pandemic, Young said back in July, just days before shooting began. Teaching remotely, she was able to film James' season without missing too much school.
"If there wasn't a pandemic, honestly, I probably wouldn't be here, because I would have chosen to stay in the classroom the whole time," said Young, who teaches at Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville.
She only agreed to star after the show pushed filming to her summer break.
"I said, if you want me to do 'The Bachelorette,' you've gotta move it to the summer, and they did."
The fame has made it tough to zone out during post-work trips to Target, said Young, a Woodbury High School grad. "But honestly, for the most part, it's been so supportive. I can't complain or ask for any better supporters.
"I love my Minnesotans."
'She's an astute player'
The season's first promos lit the internet.
In a champagne gown, Young strides down a hall of roses to a basketball court, where she catches a pass, dribbles and sinks a free-throw into a diamond-encrusted net. To Little Mix's hit song "Bounce Back," she strolls through a classroom, tossing an apple into the air with a smirk, then steps down a grand staircase, plucking a rose from the bunch.
Her dress, her jewelry and her smile all shimmer.
"She looks regal," said Lizzy Pace, co-host of the podcast "Game of Roses" and co-author of the book "How to Win the Bachelor," out in January.
To Pace and her co-host and co-author Chad Kultgen, the promos offer clues about whether the show's producers support their star. Lackluster campaigns for Katie Thurston and Clare Crawley hinted at power struggles behind the scenes. In contrast, the glamour of Young's videos "is very indicative of the fact that they like her," Kultgen said in a Zoom interview. "I think she played the game very well."
As the name suggests, "Game of Roses" argues that "The Bachelor" is a professional, competitive sport and analyzes it as such — with points, stats and its own lexicon. A "huju," for example, is a "hug-jump," when a player runs, jumps and wraps her legs around the lead.
With slow-mo videos, Kultgen analyzes the approach, the cling, the dismount.
When Young and four other women entered James' season late, they figured she was done. "I thought they had no chance," Kultgen said. "And then she got an immediate one-on-one, and on that one-on-one, she quoted Maya Angelou, which is a quote that Matt James himself used on his Twitter.
"I was immediately like ... she's an astute player."
With her question-asking fifth graders and hand-holding parents, Young appeared to be there "for the right reasons," or 4TRR, the podcast's acronym for a longstanding principle on the show. (Being labeled "4TWR" is a grave error.)
Kultgen and Pace are clear: A player doesn't need to be deceptive to be good.
But "even if you're coming in as a player to find love, you must necessarily then win a 10-round game of attrition against 30 other people," Kulgen said. "You have to. If you want to wind up with that person, there's no two ways about it."
It helps that Young is a skilled competitor.
Before playing Division 1 basketball at Bradley University in Illinois, she made the Star Tribune's all-metro first team in 2011 as "perhaps the fastest player," the newspaper said then. The 5-foot-9 guard scored double figures in all 28 games, averaging 22.1 points per game.
In a season trailer released last week, Young reads a letter "to my future soulmate," describing her high school self: "I was never the girl invited to cute dates at the apple orchard in the fall," she says. "I was the girl picked last for prom but the first for basketball."
At CHS Field, Young reflected on how hard it's been to bare her personal life on camera. "We kind of laugh about it," she said, "because back in high school, I didn't even want to hold hands with my boyfriend in public."
After Young introduced James to her students, many of them sporting "TEAM MISS YOUNG" T-shirts, he met her parents,Ephraim and LaVonne, who welcomed James to the family — then shot hoops in the driveway. Fans fell in love.
"Honestly, I think that is the most rewarding thing, in a funny way," Young said. "They're genuine, down-to-earth, kind and humble people. So to watch them be that with the cameras, like they always are, and then to have everyone love it?
"Yeah, that was worth it in itself."
Her parents were among the crowd of family and friends who packed a suite at the Saints game. The team's social media intern, Kailyn Johnson, pitched the appearance to Young via e-mail, figuring it was "a longshot."
But Young was easy, agreeing to the ideas Johnson threw her way. Waiting by the broadcast booth, they heard a sharp whistle. Young's head snapped up, her eyes searching for her mom's in the crowd.
As a kid playing in the neighborhood, that sound meant it was time to come home.
Being watched with a wary eye
A few months after Young won a starring spot in the Bachelor franchise, the first Black "Bachelorette," Rachel Lindsay, penned a fierce tell-all about the racism she experienced during and after starring on the show in 2017.
From producers, from fans, from the former host, Chris Harrison.
"I had to be a good Black girl, an exceptional Black girl," Lindsay wrote. "I had to be someone the viewer could accept. And I was a token until I made sure I wasn't."
She ended the essay with an eye toward Young, saying that she'd "cautiously sit back and watch" her season.
When asked about that essay, Young focused on Lindsay herself, saying that she and Minnesota's first Bachelorette, Becca Kufrin, had been super supportive. "They just had amazing advice," she said, "and even Becca's friends offered support to my friends.
"I'm the same person to my friends, but the world is changing around me."
By phone, Kufrin agreed: "Basically, your world blows up overnight. You go from, in my case, living in Prior Lake and not having a lot of followers. I like to say that I lived a great life, but it was a typical, Midwest life.
"So to go from that to a 180 in the span of two months is a whirlwind, and it took my family and friends off-guard."
Meeting Young in person, Kufrin found her to be even more "warm and inviting and welcoming" than she appears onscreen. But strong, too. She was thrilled to find out that much of Young's season is set in Minnesota — at Target Field, on Lake Minnetonka — not only because it'll show off the state's little-known highlights.
"She's a teacher, she loves her job," Kufrin said. "I really feel like she ultimately wants to stay in Minnesota.
"So I think it's good for the men … to see what her world is all about."
Season premiere: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19
Where: KSTP, Ch. 5 (ABC)