Hollywood Flashback: In 2014, an American Woman Fell for a Fake Prince Harry
Fox's reality show 'I Wanna Marry "Harry"' attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of 20-something princess wannabes: "It did well on the coasts and with people who got the joke," says British creator Danny Fenton. "But people in the middle thought it was laughing at the Americans."
Meghan Markle is not the first American who wanted to marry Prince Harry.
In 2013, London-based ZigZag Productions' CEO Danny Fenton awakened from a deep sleep, he says, with the words "I wanna marry Harry" in his head. The phrase would form the concept for a dating show with American women who'd like to marry Britain’s Prince Harry, or someone they thought was Prince Harry. The princess wannabees were led to believe that the man romancing them was sixth in line for the crown. In 2003, Fox had developed Joe Millionaire using the same premise with a construction worker, albeit an unusually handsome one, pretending to be rich. This time it would be a London environmental worker posing as Prince William's younger brother.
After finding his Harry look-alike (Matthew Hicks, then 23), Fenton rounded up a dozen 20-something American women, brought them to England and put them up in a castle. The meeting of "Harry" and the women would form the basis for I Wanna Marry "Harry" — a reality show that premiered on Fox on May 20, 2014.
The show was set to run for eight one-hour episodes but, after premiering at 9 p.m. following American Idol, Harry averaged just a 0.4 rating among adults 18-49. It was pulled after only four episodes aired, with the remaining quartet airing on Hulu.
The Hollywood Reporter tracked Fenton down to learn more about the royal wedding simulation that failed to capture hearts the way the real one has.
You woke with the words "I wanna marry Harry." Then what happened?
I rang up my agent and asked if she thought there was something in this. And an hour later we had a buyer. Then we decided to partner with Ryan Seacrest because I thought it would help with the profile of the show.
What was the core idea behind the show?
The idea was it would be a dating show that would fulfill the dreams of an American girl to marry a prince. But this was all contingent on us finding a Harry look-alike. We must have looked at around 300 of them from the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Were you surprised by how many Prince Harry look-alikes you found?
They all had a resemblance. Actually, Matt had to dye his hair. There were some professional look-alikes, but we preferred someone like Matt who'd never done a day of look-alike work in his life because he wasn't trying to give us a performance as Harry.
What was the selection process like with the women?
We looked at women with interesting backstories, like bad relationships or unlucky in love. One odd thing was I was in L.A. on a family vacation and our server was one of the women we'd chosen. I knew her from seeing the video. In the course of the meal, she told us she was "going to be on a reality show, but you can't tell anyone about it." She asked what London was like, I said it's a small place and we might bump into each other. And then when we met on the set, she remembered that I'd had the ribeye steak. She was the one who wouldn't accept it wasn't Harry when we told her. She insisted it was him.
Were the women really fooled into believing it was the real Prince Harry?
I think the majority of them believed it was Harry and the rest never let on and played along with the game. But the way we played it, we never told them, "You're going to England and you're going to meet Prince Harry." We told them they were going to Europe and they'd be meeting an eligible bachelor. The first day they're sitting on the terrace of the castle and a helicopter lands in the field; out comes a guy with ginger hair and he's surrounded by bodyguards. And they said to themselves, "Oh my God, it's Prince Harry." We didn't say it to them; they convinced themselves it was Prince Harry.
Was there ever a moment when the premise was exposed?
The majority of the show we kept them in a very controlled environment. But when we got down to the last three girls we got more brave and we helicoptered over London and Harry would say, "Let me show you my grandmother's house," so we went over Buckingham Palace and over the Tower of London. But at one point one of the women walked by a gift shop that had memorabilia in it. And when she saw a mask of the real Prince Harry she basically realized our guy was not the real prince. When we got back to the castle, she was telling the other women she didn't think it was him. So the next day we took her past the same shop and overnight we'd had a mask made of our guy; put the mask in the window and she says to the other women, "Look at the mask" and then "Omigawd, it's him." That was the only time we almost got caught out.
What was it like breaking the news to the winner?
Before we told her she was the winner, we told her he wasn't the real Prince Harry. She said, "I'll accept you for who you are, not because you're a prince." And then they rode off in a horse-drawn carriage.
Did you hear from the royal family about the show?
We never sought approval from the royal family and we never heard from the royal family. But I was told anecdotally that Harry himself loved the show and would have loved to have been in it himself. I think the idea of the show amused him. The irony is that the girl our Harry chose was a wannabe actress and a Meghan Markle dead-ringer. It's almost like we predicted the future.
Why do you think it only lasted four shows?
It did very well in the U.K. on ITV and in Australia, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. In the U.S. it did well on the coasts and with people who got the joke, but people in the middle part of the country thought it was laughing at the Americans. At least that was our analysis.
What happened to Matt Hicks?
He just sent me a commercial he did in Israel with a Meghan Markle look-alike, so he's still working it as Harry.
A version of this story also appears in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.