In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.
Kimberly Birch must not have been feeling well. That was the only explanation, a producer told her, for why she was suddenly having doubts. Birch, then 24, was one of the final three contestants on Fox’s ill-fated, swiftly canceled 2014 reality series I Wanna Marry Harry, in which 12 American women competed to win over someone who they thought was the English prince. But Birch’s weeks-long suspicions were confirmed right after a car ride to a filming location in London: As she was driven by a tourist shop, she spotted a Prince Harry mask hanging in the window. It didn’t look anything like the man she’d been courting for the prior few weeks.
“I was like, ‘I knew it,’” Birch told Refinery29 over the phone recently.
In 2012, the then-27-year-old Prince Harry had been papped during a wild weekend in Las Vegas that cemented his status as the party boy royal. By 2014, an image of the Prince’s naked butt was still imprinted on tabloid-readers’ brains — an image preferable to his previous public gaffe when he dressed up as a Nazi for a Halloween party in 2005. Then, that spring, his relationship with English actress and model Cressida Bonas came to an end. Hypothetically, it would have been the perfect time for the royal, now teetering on 30, to do some reevaluating and settle down. Given his history, would it really be that crazy for it to happen on reality TV?
That was likely creator Danny Fenton’s thought process when he teamed up with Ryan Seacrest and Zig Zag productions to make I Wanna Marry Harry, which premiered on May 20, 2014. But rather than a story about the hilarity of a royal lookalike in search of love, audiences were witness to a cringey social experiment that served more second-hand embarrassment for the contestants than it did any dreams of romance.
“How stupid are these girls?” one viewer asked on Twitter.
“Am I as dumb as the contestants on I Wanna Marry Harry for watching 2 episodes of I Wanna Marry Harry?” another wrote.
While the series aired in full in the UK, US viewers only had the chance to watch the first four episodes of the “royal” dating series before it was moved online — but that was plenty of time for it to be met with derision. Time Magazine referred to the contestants as “America’s most gullible women.” The AV Club said the show was “terrible, obviously.” The Atlantic said the show made them “sad.” And The Guardian wondered if it was perhaps “the worst reality show concept of all time.”
The concept — tricking women into thinking they were after Prince Charming when they were really pursuing a frog — wasn’t new. The show borrowed heavily from the 2003 series Joe Millionaire, in which 20 women were led to believe they were competing for the heart of a millionaire, whose true financial situation — a non-millionaire construction worker — was only revealed after a winner was chosen. But I Wanna Marry Harry took this conceit to a whole new level. The women, aged 20 to 26 and ranging from models to teachers to account executives, arrived in England to meet a mystery suitor who looked a whole lot like Prince Harry. Later, they’re literally told it is. Audiences, however, were clued in on the sham from the beginning, while the contestants got sucked further and further into the elaborate facade. The women were portrayed as gullible bimbos as best, and prime examples of American idiocy at worst.
It wasn’t easy for producers to convince the contestants they were dating Prince Harry. Throughout much of filming, many of the women didn’t know what to believe. Three contestants who spoke to Refinery29 painted a picture of vulnerability and confusion that was achieved through isolation techniques, heavy-handed clues, and just plain gaslighting from the producers, resulting in one of the most ludicrous, elaborate — but ultimately forgotten — reality shows of the past decade.
“[The] logical part of my brain was telling me this does not look like Prince Harry. This is an absolute ridiculous premise. This would never happen in real life,” Birch said in her heavy Long Island accent during a phone call. Now an actress, she doesn’t sound much different than the tanned, dark-haired, optimistic Meadow Soprano-esque contestant first seen on screen. “But the other part of your brain is being completely brainwashed. You’re secluded from your friends and family, you have no access to any sort of media outlet, and you are in this castle [being told that] if you’re questioning if this is Prince Harry or not, you’re crazy.”
It wasn’t like Birch could turn to her fellow contestants for reassurance: The women weren’t allowed to talk to each other between filming, according to contestant Meghan Jones.
“They called it ‘being on ice’ and if you’d start talking, [they’d say,] ‘Girls, you’re on ice, you’re not allowed to talk right now,’” Jones told Refinery29 over the phone. “They put us in such isolation, and I think it’s because they wanted you to go a little nuts, ‘cause it makes better TV.”
This is standard for reality TV, according to I Wanna Marry Harry series director Ashely Gorman. What wasn’t standard was that Gorman received a phone call asking him to direct the series without receiving any details about the premise.
“I was told it was a reality show and could I make it look like a Hugh Grant romcom and that was it,” Gorman, who had previously directed episodes of UK reality series like The Biggest Loser and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! NOW!, told Refinery29 over the phone. “They didn’t tell me where it was going to be filmed… It was shrouded in secrecy.”
Gorman had to blindly trust in an experiment without being privy to its end goal, not unlike the contestants. While all the women who spoke to Refinery29 were told they were joining a show called “Dream Date,” upon getting on the plane to England, they had no idea if the show had many suitors, one suitor, or if it was a Bachelorette-type situation. To make things even more unclear, once they landed, they reportedly spent three days isolated in hotel rooms without access to phones, TV, the internet, or even books.
“You couldn’t even see the person bringing you food,” Rose Bricklin (Rose Copeland on the show), a bubbly, strawberry blonde with big, eager eyes, told Refinery29 over the phone.
They were also interviewed by a psychologist to assess their mental state before filming, and Bricklin remembered answering a very specific question.
“He asked me, ‘Is there anything that you would really not like?’” she recounted. “And I said, ‘I wouldn’t like it if the producers lied to me.’”
After their initial isolation period, the contestants were brought to Englefield House — the same Elizabethan country home in Berkshire where Pippa Middleton would later wed — where they’d remain for the rest of filming. As they began to familiarize themselves with their new impressive estate, Birch said she spotted tabloids strewn about, emblazoned with headlines about Prince Harry being ready for his princess. (In retrospect, Birch said, this all felt very fake.)
When the twelve contestants first gathered outside for tea during filming, they began to imagine who their dream man was going to be: A famous athlete, perhaps? Or maybe someone royal-adjacent? Or maybe…
“That’s Prince Harry,” contestant Andrea Fox said just 12 minutes into the series premiere, as the contestants’ mystery man exited a helicopter. The man to whom she is referring had red hair and was wearing khakis and a blue button-up — one of many outfits that producers intentionally based on Prince Harry’s real wardrobe.
Rather than a prince, the man in the helicopter was Matthew Hicks, a 23-year-old environmental consultant and opportunistic Prince Harry lookalike.
“I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous to be honest,” Hicks revealed to Refinery29 on the phone after some convincing — he said he’s tried to “steer clear” of rehashing his time as a fake Harry as of late. Hicks, who had posted photos of himself on a professional look-alike website, believes the show interviewed a number of Harry twins before landing on him. He was instructed not to act like the famous royal but instead to be himself while taking some creative liberties when it came to facts about his background and upbringing. He made it clear he never wanted to flat-out tell the women he was Prince Harry. He didn’t want to lie.
“I only agreed to the show if I would come out of it looking how I wanted,” he explained. “I didn’t want to disrespect the girls.”
However, in episode five, the only other recurring character — the butler, Kingsley, played by Paul Leonard — confirmed the girls’ increasingly frenzied suspicions: Yes, they’re dating “Prince Harry.”
“How long does it take a bunch of American girls to figure out they’re hanging out with Prince Harry?” Birch asked in the scene, amid squeals from the women surrounding her at an ornate dinner table where they convened every night. During these evening meetings, Kingsley would pluck two women from the group. One would be asked to leave, while the other would be treated to a night in the “Crown Suite” — a nicer room away from the other contestants that usually also resulted in a one-on-one date.
The Prince Harry reveal was supplemented with staged paparazzi attacks and fake fans butting in on the women’s dates to get a photo with the “prince.” But despite all the work that went into constructing this false narrative, Jones now says she never actually believed Hicks was Prince Harry.
“I wanted to play the game enough to where I would stay on the show, but not enough to where I was losing what I really believed in and my integrity,” she said. You wouldn’t know this from watching — Jones convincingly plays along the whole time, gamely referring to Hicks as “Sir,” the only way he’s ever addressed. The alias was apparently even written on his mic pack.
However, Jones says she was never there to find love.
“I wanted more TV time,” she admits now. “The more episodes you’re on, the more followers you’re going to get, the more opportunities you’ll have. I went on for the experience, the exposure — and if I met a guy and fell in love, that’d be cool.”
That didn’t happen. While the pair went on a number of dates and adventures, even sharing a “snog” or two, Jones says no real feelings developed.
“I think it [was] manufactured feelings because [love was] the only thing you actually focused on,” she said, comparing her relationship with Hicks to craving fast food. “Like when you’re on a no-carb diet, all you can think about is pizza.”
Jones made it all the way to week six, her no-bullshit, honest nature getting her into a few scraps along the way. She was aggressive in her pursuit of Harry, making lewd jokes to the women about his penis size and calling them out when they reacted poorly to her brash persona. Bricklin said the then-26-year-old Jones “terrified” her. Ultimately, the tension in the house between her and seemingly die-hard believer Kelley Andrews, 25, specifically led to Jones’s surprise elimination, but she didn’t once let slip that she wasn’t falling for the Prince Harry schtick.
Bricklin, on the other hand, never played along. The 23-year-old was perhaps more familiar with the British monarchy than most: She had family in England, and knew that the red-headed suitor exiting the plane was certainly not Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor.
“When people first started saying they thought it was Prince Harry, I right away was like, Oh my God, no, you can’t be that dumb,” she explained, saying she attempted to steal moments with fellow contestants in the bathroom to help them see reason.
“The producers did not want me doing that,” she said. “They made it clear [that] everyone’s allowed to think who they think it is [and] it’s not your place to say.”
Ultimately, she believes her steadfast skepticism is what prompted her elimination in episode seven. Her disbelief ended up becoming a plot point, and in the end she confronted Hicks about his true identity.
“I know you’re not Prince Harry,” she said, right after being informed she was being sent home. Dramatic music floated underneath their conversation, punctuated by somber glances.
“No, I’m not Prince Harry,” he admitted. “That was a lie.”
But, according to Bricklin, that scene was also a lie.
“I actually never confronted him myself,” she said. “He let me go and I just said bye and that was it.” Instead, she believes producers pieced together snippets of interviews she had given them to manufacture the dramatic breakup scene.
After Copeland’s exit, only three contestants remained: Birch, 25-year-old blonde sweetheart Karina Kennedy (with whom Birch says she was very close), and Andrews. Andrews, who declined to be interviewed, never appeared to waver in her belief that she was dating Prince Harry. Birch attempted to tell Kennedy about the Prince Harry mask she’d seen, but a producer admonished her. However, once Birch was declared the winner — and Hicks confirmed his true identity to her — she broke the news to her still-head-over-heels friend. Birch worried that, as a believer who spent weeks thinking she was falling in love with royalty, Kennedy would be crushed by the truth.
“She was laughing,” Birch recalled. “She was like, ‘Kim, the only reason I was so heartbroken and so in love was because I really thought this was Prince Harry.’ And so when she found out it wasn’t, she was totally fine.”
Kennedy did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Birch and Hicks split the prize of 250 thousand pounds (about $300,000)— and then went their separate ways. They only saw each other a few times after filming (once in a meetup orchestrated by producers to see if their romance could last beyond the show, and a few more times during press opportunities), but they never developed deeper feelings. Birch’s no-carb diet was over; she was no longer craving pizza.
“I would say six months after we filmed, I was [driving and] listening to the radio station in New York and they were saying, ‘Oh my God, did you hear about the show that’s coming out with all these stupid American girls who actually think they’re dating Prince Harry?’” Birch told Refinery29. That was when she learned the show’s real title: I Wanna Marry Harry.
You don’t understand what brainwashing is, you don’t know what they did to us, she remembered thinking.
The unique experience bonded the women, a number of whom went to Las Vegas together following filming — a nod to that wild, tabloid-dominating 2012 weekend. However, they didn’t see each other again in an official capacity until the show’s Los Angeles premiere in May 2014.
“Matthew was there, but his Fox handler kept him on a very tight leash,” Jones remembered. “Us girls wanted to go out for drinks afterwards. His handler was like, ‘No, he’s not allowed to.’ He’s a 23-year-old man!”
Fox did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Despite these frustrations, none of the contestants interviewed in this piece, nor Hicks, hold any ill-will towards the show or producers. Jones said her experience was positive almost solely because of a close friendship she developed with one of the producers, and Birch said she doesn’t blame them either.
“They’re just doing their job and they did a really good job,” Birch laughed. “Like, you made me feel really screwed up in the head!”
The show’s stuttered and stunted rollout ultimately allowed it to fade into the ether. Though the premiere immediately followed an episode of American Idol’s thirteenth season, it didn’t take off, and ratings slid even more by episode 2. But Jones says she got the exposure she wanted.
“I had a morning radio show, I had a morning TV show,” she explained. Her platform of 68,000 Instagram followers and steady stream of readers to her blog, “The Meghan Jones,” has allowed her to sell her artwork, which includes custom pet portraits.
“It really launched certain things for me, but it’s like a weird haircut,” Jones joked. “I don’t even think about it but then I see an old photo and I’m like, Oh Jesus Christ.”
As for Birch, she received a Master of Arts in Drama Therapy following the series, and now works as an actress in New York City. .
“I wrote my thesis on the show, on brainwashing,” she said with a laugh.
But for others, the show was merely a blip. Copeland is now a full-time mother, and Hicks, who was offered opportunities as a TV personality or presenter, gracefully abdicated his throne.
“I was quite happy just going back to my old job and cracking on with my life,” he said. He now works with a behavioral unit in a school and is on his way to becoming a physics teacher. His current girlfriend actually knew him during his I Wanna Marry Harry days. Hicks says she hasn’t seen the show.
One of director Gorman’s next gigs, however, was with Prince Harry himself. He took part in filming the Invictus Games, a sporting event for wounded and sick armed services personnel created by the royal, but didn’t get a chance to speak with the Duke. However, Gorman has a suspicion that he definitely watched the show.
“It aired in the UK and it was quite noisy there when people were talking about it. So he must have [seen it],” Gorman said. “It would have been very odd if he hadn’t been aware of it and I’m sure out of intrigue he would have tuned in.”
Prince Harry has only become more of an iconic figure in the years since the show aired. In 2016 he began publicly dating American actress Meghan Markle. The two wed in 2018, and had their son Archie shortly after. Now, they’ve left royal life behind almost entirely, up and moving to Los Angeles. It’s a plot almost too far-fetched for reality TV.
“All of us were like, ‘There’s no way Harry would marry an American who’s on TV,’” Jones remarked.
Like I said. Almost.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?
It’s Time For A Radically Different Kind Of Realit
Has Reality TV Always Been So Sexual?
15 Seconds Of Fame: The Future Of Reality TV