Much about reality television has changed in the last 14 years. But through all the drama, questionably scripted moments, and lack of original concepts there has been at least one constant -- Chris Harrison.
Americans know Harrison as the face of reality dating, the first and only host of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and the numerous spinoffs they've inspired since debuting in 2002. More recently, he's become an author and host of the acclaimed television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
But long before he stepped foot in Hollywood and earned a reputation as the nation's finest love guru, Harrison was what his parents describe as your average kid from Dallas.
Harrison's mom, Mary Beth, recalls when she brought baby Chris to their Lake Highlands home from the hospital. His older sibling Glenn parked a chair near the edge of the crib, and the two were best friends from that moment on.
Mom was a real estate agent and dad worked at clothing store Ken's Man's Shop in Garland. Harrison fondly remembers visiting the spot in the '70s and '80s, when it was a fixture of the Dallas community and the all-but-official outfitter of the Dallas Cowboys.
"On off days, my brother and I would go in there -- Tony Dorsett, Charlie Waters, Randy White and all those guys would come into the shop," Harrison says. "Those were our heroes back in the day."
Growing up, the Harrison family's world revolved around sports -- hunting, fishing, baseball, and soccer. Lots of soccer. The Harrisons never celebrated Thanksgiving at home because they were always on the road at tournaments, Mary Beth says. Chris was captain of his high school team and also played club ball.
Otherwise, Harrison says his childhood was low-key.
"From what I remember, I was extremely uncool," Harrison, now 44 years old, says.
"I was just a scrawny, skinny kid just trying to survive like any other boy in high school."
His parents describe Harrison as a well-behaved kid -- "just a good guy," in his father Steve's words. He developed Mary Beth's self-confidence and Steve's level-headedness. He learned a solid work ethic from his grandparents and always put family first.
Harrison also never had a hard time being in front of people. His first official hosting job was as MC of Lake Highlands High School's homecoming talent show his senior year, a gig we're told requires a comedic side.
The sense of humor runs deep in the family genes, Mary Beth says. As a kid, Chris would do play-by-play of this brother's actions, narrating as Glenn brushed his teeth and ate breakfast.
"Who would've known that would be his first job?" says Mary Beth, who always tried to quiet Chris once he thoroughly annoyed his brother. "We look back on it and I think, oh my gosh I almost squelched the very thing that made his living."
Taking to the sidelines
After graduating in 1989, Harrison accepted a soccer scholarship to Oklahoma City University, where he played mid-field and spent a stint in a semi-pro league. He may have been poised to take on the majors, but during his tenure Harrison discovered a new passion that veered him to the sidelines.
Chris Wyche, OCU's associate athletic director at the time, developed a new communications program that enlisted broadcast students to do play-by-play for the university's basketball games, which aired on a local cable channel. His first recruit: Chris Harrison, an unlikely choice considering his passion for soccer.
"He had presence," Wyche says. "I felt like he was somebody who could withstand the challenges ... frankly, he was a natural."
What Harrison lacked in experience, he made up for in dedication. He studied game footage and pros like Bobby Knight, and ended up doing play-by-play for three years. That's the first time he remembers getting bit by the TV bug.
"I absolutely fell in love with [TV]," Harrison says. "I never did drugs, but that was my drug."
The road didn't lead directly to Los Angeles, however. In fact, very few saw it coming. Harrison cut his teeth as a broadcast sports reporter in Oklahoma City after college and gradually transitioned into entertainment as host of Designers' Challenge on HGTV and The Bachelor on ABC. As a host, Harrison ventured into uncharted territory, relying on his news instincts to let reality drama unfold.
Still he wasn't sure where the path would lead. Even when The Bachelor executive producer Mike Fleiss hired him, Harrison thought the show would be a steppingstone.
"My initial thought was, 'This show is crazy. Will I ever be able to show my face in church again?' " Harrison laughs.
"My second thought, 'I hope it lasts a couple of episodes so I can meet someone at the network and maybe get a real job out of it.' "
More than a decade later, he's the shepherd of 21st-century romance and a dating figurehead. How's that for a real job?
Chris Harrison, the love guru
Harrison never had trouble attracting the ladies, according to his parents. Throughout his high school years, girls came and went, but none seemed particularly special. That was until Harrison met Gwen Jones.
“When he met Gwen, it was a shock to all of us that he remembered someone’s name, much less went out with her once he was in college,” says Mary Beth.
The couple married after college and had two children, Joshua and Taylor, now 14 and 12. But in 2012, 18 years later, they “amicably split.” Had the nation’s dating guru become a victim of love?
“I loved being in love, I loved my marriage and being married and all that stuff,” Harrison says. “I still believe in it.”
For the record, he also believes in The Bachelor. He’s led the show through 20 seasons and its counterpart The Bachelorette through another 11; he’s seen blossoming relationships and personally married several of the winning couples. He’s also witnessed breakups. Even as his role has evolved from host to trusted confidant to, more recently, producer, Harrison praises the concept as a benchmark for reality television.
“Part of the genius of show is that it doesn’t always work out because all relationships don’t always work out,” he says.
“That’s not life, that’s not real romance, that’s not real reality.”