Beatrice FormanThe Philadelphia Inquirer

When Season 16 of “The Bachelorette” aired in December 2020, Zac Clark returned to the work he did before falling in love with Tayshia Adams on national television: managing substance abuse and mental health programs and launching the nonprofit he co-founded to provide grants for treatment.

But now Clark, who grew up in Haddonfield, had thousands of Instagram followers, a now-ex-fiancée and a notoriously obsessive fan base.

Appearing on the reality dating show helped Clark raise more than $1.6 million for his nonprofit, the Release Recovery Foundation, allowing him to begin exploring grant partnerships in Philly. It’s also become one of the most defining aspects of Clark’s public persona, even after his split from Adams in 2021.

“I worked really hard for four years to prove that that one experience doesn’t define me,” said Clark, 40. “The other side of it, of course, is how fortunate I am to be able to use my story on a very public level to help people.”

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Clark didn’t compete on ‘The Bachelorette’ to become an influencer; his sister Kathryn Cannici, 36, nominated him because she was “pregnant and probably bored.”

That hasn’t stopped Clark from using the show to build a brand as a sobriety influencer. After becoming one of the first “Bachelorette” contestants to go on TV about a personal experience with addiction, Clark amassed 480,000 followers on Instagram. His profile is a mix of clips from his mental health podcast, ads for Narcan and tips for mindful running. Posts revisit his recovery journey.

Clark’s post-show arc is a departure from the Bachelor(ette)-to-influencer pipeline, where competing long enough can lead to a career in social media. Clark doesn’t do that, exactly; he worked in behavioral health before appearing on the show. But he uses the standard toolkit of sponsored content, podcast appearances and subtle thirst traps to “make recovery look cool and hip and sexy,” he said.

Clark’s transition from Bachelor Nation bro to recovery mogul wasn’t possible for much of the show’s history, according to talent agent Paul Desisto, who has represented dozens of Bachelor(ette) contestants since the 2010s. Contestants made the bulk of their post-Bachelor(ette) money through club appearances until 2017, when they started getting paid to place ads on social media.

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Now, the Bachelor(ette) influencer bubble is bursting. Bachelor alums’ follower counts are plummeting as social media becomes oversaturated with the stars of other dating shows, making it difficult for more recent contestants to get paid thousands of dollars for an Instagram post. You can’t just be the person who reality TV defines you, Desisto said. You have to be compelling but authentic, and find a balance between who you were before The Bachelor(ette) and who you can be after The Bachelor(ette).

“I went on (‘The Bachelorette’) and I was as real as I could be,” Clark said. “And that’s how I’ve continued my life. There’s nothing fake about me.”

“His story is bigger than the show”

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Clark had never seen an episode of “The Bachelorette,” Cannici said, and had no thirst for fame, but he was a natural charmer. His yearbook superlative at Haddonfield High School was “Life of the Party,” and he describes his teenage years as a slide show of baseball, Eagles games, “Bud Light and bong hits.”

Those were replaced by harder substances when Clark graduated from York College, where he played baseball, in 2009. After surviving a brain tumor, Clark began abusing opioids prescribed to manage the pain, eventually turning to heroin before checking into rehab twice: once after getting a DUI in Pennsauken, and again after a bank teller in Camden stopped Clark from cashing a forged check he’d stolen from his father.

Clark, sober since 2011, has opened five addiction treatment and transitional housing facilities in New York. He started the Release Recovery Foundation in 2019 and has given out more than 100 grants as of early 2023, covering the cost of treatment for people from marginalized backgrounds.

“It wasn’t like (Clark) got sober and everything was all roses,” Cannici said. “But it’s crazy to see how far my brother has come. … His story is bigger than the show.”

Clark said his followers were partly what brought him back to Philly: Fans kept asking Clark to spend time in Kensington, a neighborhood with a notorious open-air drug market that’s at the center of a debate over the boundaries of harm reduction, law enforcement and rehabilitation.

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In April, he hosted a football clinic with the Philadelphia Eagles at Kensington’s Conwell Middle School and spent two days shadowing employees of Savage Sisters and Roz Pichardo’s Sunshine House. Clark left with a desire to build formal partnerships between community groups and his scholarship program.

“The last time I was there, I bought drugs for myself, and now I can go there, get out of the car, and think about nothing but how I can be of service,” Clark said. “The people I’ve met need to be given the opportunity to actually recover. And if they don’t get that opportunity, they just stay in this cycle.”

From roses to recovery springs

Clark’s sister calls him a “unicorn” within Bachelor Nation for seemingly bypassing the reality show’s all-encompassing world of recap podcasts and revealing books.

Instead, Clark rarely mentions the show on social media, hoping to shift attention to recovery resources. “You’ve saved so many lives and changed them for the better. My son is one of them,” one woman commented under a clip from Clark’s podcast. Others thanked him for introducing naloxone — which can reverse opioid overdoses — or for advice on how to support family members in recovery.

“I feel like a lot of people leave that show and it’s just about, ‘How am I going to get paid?'” said Matthew Rinklin, 41, who co-founded the Release Recovery Foundation with Clark. “When Zac left the show, he took his fame and put it all into our work.”

Rinklin said Clark’s time on “The Bachelorette” was an almost immediate windfall. The foundation raised $85,000 from a T-shirt fundraiser in early 2021, Rinklin said, fueled by three of Clark’s Instagram posts that collectively garnered 150,000 likes.

Clark said the stigma of being on “The Bachelorette” manifests itself in subtle ways, such as when you’re leading an intake interview for a family entering their child into treatment.

“They make a joke about me being on TV, but very quickly they make a decision to put their son or daughter’s life in my hands,” Clark said. “There are blessings and curses to this whole experience.”

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The work of sobriety influencers like Clark “breaks through the shame and secrecy of addiction,” said Nancy Irwin, a licensed psychologist who treated addictions at Seasons Malibu for nearly a decade: “When you see someone sharing their story and seeing that the world is still turning, it opens up more possibilities” for self-forgiveness and eventual recovery.

Still, Irwin says there’s enormous pressure on public figures who make recovery central to their personas to do everything at once: be perfect but nonjudgmental and transparent, but only when it comes to mistakes for which there are solutions.

“The expectations are extremely high. They have to do what they say, but still be humble,” Irwin said. “We can’t expect perfectionism.”

As for Clark, he still feels like the kid from South Jersey who got a second chance.

“This was my life before, and this is my life after. I got through the shame and came out the other side with the belief that my purpose was to help others,” Clark said. “Recovery is a gift.”