The Minnesota fitness instructor who shattered stereotypes on "The Golden Bachelor" is leaving the hit reality TV show with a broken heart.
During the finale Thursday night, Gerry (pronounced "Gary") Turner, 72, dumped Leslie Fhima, a 64-year-old from Minneapolis, a decision that left them both sobbing. "You're both wonderful, but only one of you is right," he told Fhima, explaining that he had chosen Theresa Nist, a 70-year-old widow from New Jersey.
"The other night you made it sound like you chose me," Fhima told him, citing statements Turner had made on their overnight date. "You led me down a path and then you took a turn and left me there."
In front of a live audience, Fhima explained that she doesn't count on things, especially romantically, until they've happened.
But Turner had made her feel confident: "I was 100% certain I was his girl."
"I went and picked out a dress, I wrote my vows," she said. "I imagined us having a life together, walking our dogs. In my head, I had this whole life planned for us."
Fhima didn't let Turner off the hook, and the audience had her back. "So everything you told me the other night is a lie," she said as he was breaking up with her. "I don't know if I accept your apology but I understand it," she told him onstage at the live finale.
This grayer, gentler spinoff, featuring women in their 60s and 70s, won over critics and audiences who had tired of reality TV's typical 20-something contestants eyeing lucrative careers as influencers as much as any potential partner. These wise, vibrant "ladies" seemed to be genuinely searching for love.
Which made it that much harder when Turner sent them home, one by one, until he was left with two — Nist and Fhima, a former professional figure skater and aerobics champion. Turner and Nist's wedding will air on ABC-TV in January.
Learning that Turner had proposed to someone else "broke my heart," said Fhima's son Eli Fhima, who met the Indiana retiree when he was in Minneapolis for "hometown" dates.
"No one's perfect, especially in their love life. Feelings come and go. Emotions undulate," he said. "But to tell somebody 'It's over — you're the one.' And then one day later, it all changes? To have a grown man tell you he loves your mom, and then break her heart?
"To me, it shows me he wasn't really the one for her."
His mom has been handling the breakup, which occurred in late August, "with so much grace and positivity," Eli Fhima continued. "She'll be all right." She'll never stop looking for a true love, he said. But her life is filled with other kinds of love — for her children, her grandchildren, her friends.
"To see her bounce back from this, yet again," he said. "The universe has to have something even better for her in store."
Some fans are calling for Fhima, "glama" to three grandchildren, to star in "The Golden Bachelorette," a further spinoff that ABC-TV has not confirmed it'll make. "She was always meant to be the main character," one podcast host argued. Others want to see her on "Dancing with the Stars."
By depicting seniors playing pickleball and making out in hot tubs, "The Golden Bachelor" has "helped us rethink what it means to be 'old,' " wrote Dr. Jason Bae, a senior scholar at Stanford Clinical Excellence Research Center, in the San Francisco Chronicle this week.
"To me, who [Turner] chooses does not matter as much as how this show helped us take off our gray-colored glasses and see the lives of older adults in their true, vibrant and diverse form."
In his essay, Bae cited Fhima's entrance on the show. She appeared to be "a gray-haired granny hunched over a walker, struggling to get out of a car." But she threw aside her wig, walker and shapeless nightgown, revealing a sexy dress.
Perhaps more than any other contestant, Fhima has embodied the show's thesis, one that she voiced early on: "We're all breaking the stereotypical view of what a senior acts like or looks like."
She started dance parties, embraced her hearing aids and asked Turner how long it had been since he'd had sex.
Among the contestants, Fhima has attracted the most Instagram followers, as tracked by the Game of Roses podcast. More than 42,000 people followed her ahead of Thursday night's finale.
There, she shared the video of her younger, leotard-clad self competing in the 1985 National Aerobic Championship, which she won alongside her late friend David Gray, a pioneer in the local fitness scene.
"I know I look like a long-lost member of Duran Duran," she wrote, "but it was the 80s!"
Now, everywhere they go, young women and their mothers ask for photos with Fhima, said Eli Fhima, director of operations for his father's restaurant portfolio, which includes Fhima's Minneapolis and Maison Margaux.
His mother has long inspired her kids, grandkids and hundreds of people who take her fitness classes.
"We've always known the magic that she contains," he said, "but it's been really incredible to see the thousands of other people who are inspired by her."