By Romy Oltuski
Updated: Jun 05, 2018 @ 11:28 am
Photo Illustration. Photo: Getty Images

To fans of The Bachelor, the name Ashley Iaconetti most readily conjures up an image of the striking, 30-year-old reality star with mascara-stained tears rolling down her face. Iaconetti, better known as Ashley I, became a franchise favorite for her weepy emotional outpourings, in which she spoke truth to the hardship of keeping it together and sobbed onscreen so often that ABC started a “cry count.” And she’d do it over again the same way, she tells InStyle.

"Don’t be afraid to be emotionally sloppy," Ashley says, by way of advice to current Bachelorette Beca Kufrin and, really, anyone looking for love. Ashley still remembers the first time she teared up in front of a Bachelor camera crew. “Oh, probably day three [of filming]. Something struck a nerve, and I just was like, ‘Holy moly, I’m going to lose it right now.’” Ultimately, not holding back throughout her four #BachelorNation seasons has been what made them so memorable for her—and her so memorable for us. “You don’t have to be too composed,” she says. “Express what you’re feeling in the moment. People like seeing vulnerability on TV.”

Almost as much a hallmark of her TV persona has been her longtime will-they-won’t-they flirtation with fellow #BachelorNation alum Jared Haibon. Ashley’s mostly unrequited infatuation with Jared was a fan-favorite narrative for three years on Bachelor in Paradise seasons 2-3 and The Bachelor Winter Games. She had googly eyes for Jared from the moment they met in Paradise, but Jared’s affections waxed and waned, leading to a long friendship of asynchronous crushing. Which is why shippers felt a validating collective joy when, on May 22, Ashley and Jared announced that they’re dating and shared their full, messy, on-again-off-again timeline on Ashley’s web series The Story of Us.

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Throughout their situationship, Ashley and Jared joked about a marriage pact, of the “if we’re both still single at 35” variety. Now, it looks like they'll beat their deadline. “We talk about the future all the time,” says Ashley. “We talk about marriage and kids and all that.” Though they live separately in L.A. at the moment, “We both figured that we’ll move in together in the next 6-9 months,” Ashley says, adding, “I tell him we have to start having kids by 33.”

Was Ashley nervous to speak publicly about her relationship just two months after finally making it official? This question strikes her as somehow false; among Bachelor alums, accelerated courtship is the norm, and two months is a saga. Plus, she says, this partnership has been brewing for three years.

“It felt oddly natural,” Ashley says of the moment she and Jared gave a name to their romance in late March. “It wasn’t like this huge moment, like ‘Oh my god, that’s my boyfriend!’ For the past three years, I’ve always said, ‘Jared—he’s my boyfriend; he doesn’t touch me.’ Because we really filled all of those boyfriend-girlfriend boxes in our lives, emotionally, but we never had the physical. So it’s like, ‘Great! My boyfriend now touches me!’”

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Ashley admits that during the many months when her romantic feelings outweighed Jared's, the imbalance of emotions was difficult—though, remarkably, she never seemed to let a bruised ego impede her pursuit. She did, though, try to move on. “You have to date other people. You have to close that section of your mind off from him and be like, he’s just my friend,” she says. “If he comes around, he’ll come around, but there’s nothing I can really do to force that.”

“People say that we give them hope—and that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have nothing on us,” Ashley says with a laugh. “I think that people like the way that it’s a real-life Bachelor love story. It didn’t unfold in two months—it was far more real because it had so many ups and downs. It wasn’t, like, a televised fairytale. It took three years of work.”

Now, Ashley and Jared's date nights consist mainly of staying in and watching movies. “He likes to come over and bring me flowers all the time. He also will bring over my favorite candy for hanging out at night, a bottle of wine. We’ll always watch our favorite movies together. We watched Jerry Maguire the other day. What he does is he quotes all of my favorite romantic movies, every day. He knows that makes me melt.” (A self-described romcom sap, Ashley says her favorite-ever Bachelor franchise scene was when she quoted an entire Titanic scene to Jared. “Inside, I think he thought I was bananas.”)

And, of course, The Bachelorette is on her watch list too. Ashley has big feelings about Becca’s suitors this season. “The guy I can’t stand has already been eliminated,” she says of Kamil, who, upon arriving at the mansion, remarked that relationships are all about meeting each other halfway but asked Becca to walk 60 percent of the way down the driveway toward him. “I would have eliminated him the second he got out of the limo.” Ashley’s favorites include Garrett, “Chicken Guy” Adam, Blake, and, most of all, Colton. “I see him being, like, the next Ben Higgins. He’s got the looks, the personality, he’s so philanthropic.”

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Colton also shares a key characteristic with Ashley: They’ve both talked about being virgins on national television, Ashley famously so on Chris Soules’s season of The Bachelor, her first appearance in the franchise. She wasn’t waiting for marriage but rather for “the right balance of comfort, safety, and all consuming attraction,” she's written. And some say the revelation was the flashpoint that catapulted her to fame.

It was “uncomfortable” to say the least, “but I’m happy I did it, because so many girls come up to me and thank me for being so open about it, making them feel better about their decision to wait,” Ashley says now. “They’re like, ‘Thank you for making the pressure on me so much less.’”

“The first time I’d really talked about it was in the audition process,” she recalls. “I was like, 'I know it’s going to make me stand out.’ It’s true. And it’s definitely a big part of my love life.” That audition was the first time she’d discussed her virginity with anyone outside of her trusted inner circle. “It was something I wasn’t even comfortable talking to a lot of my friends at school about. And here I am, just like, I’m going to confide in a stranger. That was a little nerve-wracking. But once you start talking about it, it’s like alright, whatever: it’s me.”

Unabashedness has been Ashley’s guiding principle since day one of her reality TV career, and it’s served her well. She credits her emotional, cards-on-the-table, ugly-cry honesty with shaping her relationship with Jared and teaching her to understand and appreciate who she is.

Life is pretty good for Ashley I right now. Maybe even too good, she worries. “I’ve had anxiety lately because I currently have the dream apartment, the dream boyfriend, and the dream job. And apparently, you can’t have all three at the same time. But I do right now,” she says, apprehensively.

So she’s taking it one day at a time. Some days, that means writing her beloved, cheeky Bachelorette recaps. Some days it’s taping her two podcasts, "Almost Famous" and "I Don’t Get It," or her web series The Story of Us. She’s also gearing up to shoot an eyeliner ad for Fenty. And the best nights end with eating candy and watching movies with Jared.

As for the haters who say that Ashley and Jared’s cloud nine is all a publicity stunt? That particular criticism she actually takes as a huge compliment. “That would be an Academy Award-winning acting job—on both of our parts,” she says.