When rising senior Gwen Nguyen shrugged off her black motorcycle jacket, revealing a brown and white polka-dotted dress, black tights and black sneakers, she looked just like any other University of Richmond student.

But as she spoke softly, with her long dark hair framing her face and flashed a bright, warm smile, it was easy to see why she was a favorite of the title man as a contestant this summer on “The Bachelor Vietnam.”

In fact, she finished as one of the top five contestants of the first season of the Vietnamese adaptation of the popular American reality TV dating show. 

“I still can’t believe that I did that,” she said. 

Nguyen is from Ho Chi Minh City, and at 24, she’s a bit older than most UR undergrads. But then again, she’s not average in many ways. 

In addition to being on “The Bachelor Vietnam” this summer, she's also a model who placed in the top five of Miss Supranational Vietnam 2018, a national pageant. 

After attending an international high school in Singapore, she wanted to major in art and came to UR as an artist scholar. Now, she’s switched her major to math, with minors in economics and art. 

But, spring 2017 was her most recent full semester on campus. 

Nguyen spent the summer of 2017 in Shanghai, China, for an internship and then returned to Vietnam for the fall semester. In the spring of 2018, she went back to Shanghai to take business and Mandarin classes. 

While Nguyen was still in Shanghai taking classes, her friend attended the casting call for “The Bachelor Vietnam.” The friend told the producers about Nguyen, and they messaged her on Facebook. They thought she would be great for the show, she said. 

“Initially I was very hesitant, because you know I heard a lot about ‘The Bachelor’ in America,” Nguyen said. “A lot of scandals. And I didn’t want to get involved in those kinds of scandals, if they were going to happen in the Vietnamese version. Luckily, nothing happened.”

She signed the contract to join the show five days before they started shooting, she said. 

“It was a very last-minute decision,” Nguyen said.

She decided to participate in the show not necessarily to find love, she said.

“I was single then," Nguyen said. "I was open to the possibility. If he’s the right guy, then he’s the right guy. If not, it’s still a very good experience.”

Filming started in Vietnam in mid-June and lasted a month. The contestants -- originally 24 of them -- would wake up early in the morning to do their hair and makeup.

They’d film most days until 2 or 3 a.m., which was physically tiring, Nguyen said.

The contestants always stayed in five-star resorts and were mainly based in a resort in Da Nang, Nguyen said.  

Five people on the crew were in charge of plot lines for the show. They would talk to each of the women and give feedback and direction on their strategies for winning over the Bachelor, Nguyen said. Sometimes they would encourage one woman to be more dramatic, but the emotions on the show were real and the conversations weren’t scripted, she said. 

“I just wanted everything to be natural,” she said. “For the guy that was in charge of my team, he just told us to be yourself, to be nice.”

Ages ranged from 19 to 32 among the contestants, and the women grew close, something that Nguyen wanted from the beginning, she said.

Every rose ceremony when a contestant had to leave was emotional for all the contestants, she said.

“Some people would think that we were crying for the guy, but most of the time we were just crying for each other,” Nguyen said. 

Two or three girls were very competitive and sought drama, Nguyen said, but the show didn’t have the level of scandal the American version tends to. 

“The Bachelor Vietnam” did make headlines last month, though, when an episode aired in which one of the contestants, Minh Thu, professed her love to another contestant, Truc Nhu, and asked Nhu to leave with her during a rose ceremony. 

The moment was a surprise to everyone, including Nguyen, who was friends with both women, she said. 

Nhu left the rose ceremony with Thu that night, but ultimately decided to stay on the show. But the two contestants are together now

The Bachelor for the show was Jean-Marc Nguyen, a 34-year-old French-Vietnamese COO of a furniture design and export company.

“He’s tall,” Nguyen said. “I think he’s kind of good looking. That was the first impression, that he’s tall and looked cute.”

Access and time with him were limited, she said. 

“It’s a very weird context to get to know someone,” she said.

Senior Gwen Nguyen with the Bachelor Vietnam, Jean-Marc Trung Nguyen, during one of the reality TV show's cocktail parties. Photo courtesy of Gwen Nguyen. 

During a one-on-one date, Nguyen explained to him that she would be returning to UR to finish her degree and then wanted to work in the U.S. for a few years, she said. 

“I talked about these things with him, about a long-distance relationship and what his view on that [was],” she said. “And he said, ‘You know, if she’s the right girl, then I would do anything to make it work.’ And so I thought, ‘Okay that’s a good sign, that he’s willing to put in the work to make the relationship work.’” 

The couple got to talk more during episode eight. The Bachelor asked Nguyen whether she would want to get married to him now, she said. 

“Well, I just thought to myself, ‘I’m not even in love.’ … I’m not going to drop out of school because of you and have babies right now. But I’m willing to communicate and try to make it work if it ends well for us.”

But, the next episode would be her last. 

“Having to do long distance kind of put an obstacle between him and I,”  she said. “For other girls, it was easier, and they progressed so much faster than me.” 

During the episode nine rose ceremony, the Bachelor said he had always planned on keeping Nguyen on until they’d had their serious talk, she said. Marriage was the turning point, she said.

“The other four were ready and I wasn’t,” she said. 

Nguyen was shocked and saddened, she said. 

“I had to leave that day,” she said. “I thought I was his favorite, one of the two favorites. … Everybody was very surprised that it turned out that way. Even the girls.”

But Nguyen’s time on the show was meaningful, she said. 

“The Bachelor to me, it wasn’t just a journey of finding love,” she said. “In Vietnam, it was more about, to me specifically, it was more about friendships. It’s a good platform for me to show my character and personality and my values in life through conversations and how I treat other people.”

During the filming period for the show, the contestants’ phones were confiscated, so each week she didn’t get sent home, Nguyen had to ask a producer to email her internship boss to tell her she couldn’t come to work yet. But a week after episode nine was filmed, she finally started working in investment banking. 

She spent eight weeks at her internship, then competed in the Miss Supranational Vietnam 2018 pageant, placing fifth. 

Senior Angella Lee met Nguyen when they were both first-years. After the pageant, Nguyen was already looking toward the future, she said.

“She was like, ‘Next time I’m going to make it to the top three,’" Lee said. "It’s another goal that she’s looking forward to and another opportunity.” 

Despite being a model, placing highly in a national beauty pageant and competing on a reality TV show, Nguyen said she hadn’t felt too many effects of fame. 

“After the national pageant, people knew me for my looks and they recognized me on the street,” she said. “But by the time I left Vietnam, 'The Bachelor' [had] only aired for two episodes. So not a lot of people knew then. So I didn’t feel like a drastic change in my life.”

Lee was thrilled to see her friend again at UR, she said, especially after Nguyen’s exciting summer. 

“It’s just so awesome," Lee said. "I’m just so proud. I feel like a mom and I’m not because she’s older than me. When I saw her, honestly, she was glowing.” 

Heather Russell, assistant professor of mathematics, taught Nguyen in multivariable calculus during the spring 2017 semester. She is friends with Nguyen on Facebook and found out about Nguyen being on “The Bachelor Vietnam” from her posts, she said. 

“In my conversations with her, she just seems like in general a pretty insightful and thoughtful person,” Russell said. “I think that Gwen is … not just moving through college without paying attention to the point of being here. I think she’s just a person that is mindful of the choices that she’s making and the path that she is on.” 

Back at school, Nguyen said intellectual stimulation was inspiring her again. 

“I love being in class and getting to take in the information and knowledge,” she said. “I like [to] see how I can apply [that information] in my real life.”

Looking ahead, Nguyen plans to get a finance internship in New York City this summer and finish out her degree at UR, graduating in December 2019. She isn’t sure whether she’ll return to modeling and pageantry. 

 “I think I’ll play it by ear,” she said. “If time allows. But right now, being in college is hard.”

Contact editor-in-chief Ashlee Korlach at ashlee.korlach@richmond.edu.