Film and TV

Denver Bachelor Ben Higgins Splits From Fiancée Lauren Bushnell

Update: Denver's Ben Higgins, who gave up on a potential run for the state legislature over pressure from the producer of a reality TV series intended to build on the popularity he'd gained during his season starring in ABC's The Bachelor, has broken up with Lauren Bushnell, his fiancée and co-star on both shows, including Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After?

As seen in our previous coverage, published last July 26 and on view below, the latter's title didn't always include a question mark — but given what's happened, adding it was clearly a good idea.

Higgins and Bushnell made their announcement in a joint statement to People magazine. It reads: "It is with heavy hearts that we announce our decision to go our separate ways. We feel fortunate for the time we had together, and will remain friends with much love and respect for one another. We wish nothing but the best for each other, and ask for your support and understanding at this time."

The Facebook pages of Higgins and Bushnell don't include any reference to the split at this writing, but they certainly reflect contrasting views of the relationship. Bushnell last posted a photo of her with Higgins on February 14, Valentine's Day; in the dozen or so images since then, as well as her profile photos, she's seen either solo or with female friends. In contrast, Higgins's page is still using profile pics of him with Bushnell, and as recently as April 1, he shared a shot of the couple at a Disney theme park.

Still, Higgins's page does include a hint of what was to come: a graphic shared on May 10 that sports biblical passages about dealing with troubled times. "Do not resist or run from the difficulties in your life," it begins. "These problems are not random mistakes; they are hand-tailored blessings designed for your benefit and growth. Embrace all the circumstances that I allow in your life, trusting Me to bring good out of them. View problems as opportunities to rely fully on Me."

Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After? could have used a few more prayers. The show aired eight episodes on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) from October 11 to November 29 of last year without making much of a splash — although it did spawn a spin-off. The Twins: Happily Ever After? stars Emily and Haley Ferguson, twin sisters who were also contestants during Higgins's Bachelor stint. Higgins and Bushnell guest-starred on the first episode, whose Freeform debut aired on March 20. Its eighth episode was broadcast earlier this month.

What's next for Higgins? He could always take another swing at politics, especially given the now-outdated reason he had to drop his candidacy; producers feared that by running as a Republican, he'd alienate some viewers who didn't like Donald Trump.

In the meantime, his LinkedIn page lists him as vice president of business development for Talisys, a financial-services firm in Golden. He describes the gig like so: "As a member of the sales development team my main responsibilities are assisting in executing company sales and marketing plans, including implementing new ideas and tools for the company. With this in mind it is important to continue to stay engaged with the executive team to help implement company/sales goals that will ideally propel the organization's success. I am also but not limited to the responsibility of providing direction and planning for the company and oversee the workings of the business."

In addition, Higgins's Facebook page touts a new blog called The Mahogany Workplace, but it's currently under construction — as is the next phase of his life. Continue for our previous coverage.

Original post, 5:29 a.m. July 26, 2016: Denver's Ben Higgins, who starred in the most recent season of ABC's The Bachelor, was poised to take a leap into Colorado politics. But after announcing his intentions, he withdrew his candidacy. Sources tell us he did so because of pressure from TV executives associated with the reality program, who were so terrified that his decision to run as a Republican would cause him to be associated with the GOP and its current standard bearer, Donald Trump, that they threatened to kill a new show featuring him, as well as block his wedding.

Higgins was rejected as a suitor on The Bachelorette in 2015. But he made such an impression on viewers that he was chosen to become the next Bachelor — and from all appearances, he actually found love on the show. He's engaged to marry Lauren Bushnell in a ceremony expected to be at the center of a new reality program slated to air on the cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the coming months. Its title: Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After.

Not so happy was the end of Higgins's planned race for the Colorado legislature in House District 4, currently represented by Representative Dan Pabon, who had been a rising star in the state's Democratic Party until he was busted for driving under the influence in March. Pabon's fortunes took another hit last week with the release of body camera footage that showed him apparently trying to use his influence to squirm out of an arrest.

But last Friday, after Higgins was chosen to challenge Pabon by the vacancy committee of the Colorado Republican Party and filed official paperwork to formalize his candidacy, he abruptly pulled the plug on the campaign. A statement released under the auspices of Disney, the parent company of ABC, maintains that Higgins was unable to move forward "due to unforeseen circumstances."

According to Steve House, chairman of the Colorado Republican Committee, those circumstances had plenty to do with his party affiliation. "I do not believe that he would have been asked to step out of this race if he were a Democrat," House maintains.

A knowledgeable source agrees with House and provides much more background on the forces brought to bear on Higgins, who could not be reached for comment. Our source says Higgins was told that if he insisted on challenging Pabon, Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After would be canceled and he would not be able to marry Bushnell for two years — because the combination of ABC, Disney and Warner Horizon, the company that produces The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, owns the rights to his wedding.

Ordinarily, Pabon, who has not responded to interview requests from Westword (neither has Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party), would have almost certainly cruised to reelection in District 4. As House acknowledges, any challenger "would have been a significant long shot against a Democrat incumbent in a district that's more Democrat than Republican." But everything changed around 11:30 p.m. on March 17, when Pabon's car was stopped by authorities and he registered just over the legal intoxication limit.

On July 19, the Denver District Attorney's Office revealed that Pabon had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI. He was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to attend a victim impact panel and an alcohol education and treatment class, undergo monitored sobriety, perform 56 hours of community service and pay court costs and fees of $1,303.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Pabon's arrest was captured in body-camera footage released around the time of his sentencing, and as seen in a 7News report on view below,  Pabon asked the arresting officer, "Can you put a call into your supervisor or the city attorney?"

"They will be notified because of who you are," the officer replied.

"Is there any way we can avoid this possibility?" Pabon wanted to know. "I mean, I know you've got…"

"I cannot, no," the officer told him, prompting Pabon to say, "This is going to change my life right now."

Pabon's downturn opened up an opportunity for Higgins, who makes a modest salary working for the software company Talisys. After his season on The Bachelor concluded, our source says, network personnel asked Higgins what he would like to do next. His response: He's always wanted to get into public service and run for office.

This dream didn't immediately set off alarms among The Bachelor's brain trust, and neither did his party affiliation. According to our source, a political run for Pabon's seat seemed to producers like a great potential story line for Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After, which was already in the planning stages. And while some of those involved would have preferred that Higgins (a registered Republican since October 2014) run as an independent, no one seemed to regard his unwillingness to do so as a deal breaker.

Neither, we're told, were major anxieties spawned by the prospect of having to provide equal time to Pabon. The equal-time rule only pertains to broadcast TV, not cable — and besides, Pabon would have been offered the chance to appear on Happily Ever After if he wished. In addition, members of Higgins's team went through the legal implications of the show and concluded that there were no significant obstacles.

House confirms that the folks behind the show weren't blindsided by Higgins's plan. "They knew all along," he says. "Ben had checked with them ahead of time."

At first, our source says, the political run was seen as the spine of the show — but after further consideration, producers decided to make it merely an element of the narrative, which would otherwise concentrate on the run-up to the wedding.

In the days before the July 18 start of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, all systems were go for the Higgins race. But thanks to the dark tone of that event — plenty of commentators called Donald Trump's acceptance speech "apocalyptic" — the momentum was reversed. After the RNC concluded, our source says, producers were worried about viewers connecting Higgins and Trump, albeit without explicitly saying so. Instead, they expressed concern that the Democratic Party would file a lawsuit in an effort to stop the show — and even though Higgins's supporters were confident such a gambit would be unsuccessful, the network suits said they didn't want to risk the negative publicity.

Potential options included moving the show's debut to January, after the election was over. But in the end, Happily Ever After representatives decided that if Higgins ran, the show was history. Our source says he was initially willing to bow out of the program, even though it would have meant a tremendous financial hit; not only would he lose the money he was slated to receive for Happily Ever After, but he'd also forfeit cash for any cameos on other ABC shows. (Even his appearance on a July 31 episode of Celebrity Family Feud would have been impacted.) But what really convinced him to drop his challenge to Pabon was learning that he couldn't marry Bushnell for two years because of the wedding-rights issue. Even if they were married by a Justice of the Peace, the couple might have been considered to be in violation of the contract if anyone gave them a wedding gift.

As such, Higgins signed on to a Disney-vetted statement that reads:
I regret that I must withdraw my candidacy. Despite my best efforts to pursue this opportunity in good faith, I recently received information that has made such a pursuit unworkable. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will not be able to move forward as a candidate. I find solace in knowing that our intentions and actions have been fair and sincere. I entered into this endeavor wanting to bring positive change to my community, and it is with that same spirit that I will move forward, albeit on a different path.
Also weighing in was Dustin Olson, Higgins's campaign consultant. Olson declined to comment for this story beyond the following statement:
Ben and our team are incredibly disappointed. Ben had worked to develop a strong message and solutions to make a big difference to people in his community, including solutions for affordable housing, protecting the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, defending small businesses, and expanding personal liberty and freedom. Between support from our friends in the Republican Party, building a talented campaign team, and lining up financial support, we were ready to kick off the campaign with huge announcement rally next week. Mostly we are disappointed with the situation because the people who live in House District 4 deserve much better representation. The abuse of power and rank hypocrisy demonstrated by Dan Pabon in his disturbing arrest video, clearly demonstrates Pabon lacks the sound judgment to continue serving in an office of public trust. We agree with the Denver Post that Pabon should do the honorable thing and resign. Sadly, his replacement can't be Ben Higgins.
Just as frustrated by this turn of events is GOP chairman House, who puts the blame for Higgins's aborted candidacy squarely on the network — and gives it an ideological spin.

"The ABC media arm is much like a lot of media arms. They're more liberal than conservative," he says. "I don't think they like the idea of one of their guys getting in and becoming a Republican legislator, because I think he would have won the race."

Indeed, House believes that the idea of Higgins running and losing was more attractive to network types than was the prospect of victory.

"As Pabon's problems became more clear, I think ABC began to think it would no longer be tolerable, because Ben might actually get into the state House and start legislating on a conservative basis," House maintains. "It's really disappointing that he doesn't have that opportunity now."

Higgins's withdrawal leaves the Republicans without a District 4 hopeful — but given Pabon's problems, a win isn't out of the question.

In House's view, "Pabon did something that is a complete breach of the public trust, and I think he needs to do the right thing as a legislator. People are calling for his resignation, and I think it's probably appropriate. When you start leveraging your status in the government to try to deal with a crime, that's way over the line."

In the meantime, House and company are actively recruiting candidates to take on Pabon. He expects the process to be completed by the end of the first week in August.

Shooting for Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After is already under way. Here's the 7News report featuring the Pabon video.