By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
THE MISSION: Successfully execute a full-scale, tulle-and-tuxes wedding for an A-list client in absolute secrecy.
THE ENEMIES: TMZ; Twitter; Us Weekly; an army of paparazzi; camera phones; text messages; helicopters; this newspaper; the Internet; loudmouthed Aunt Lucille; the tent company's receptionist; everyone within 10 miles of the venue; everyone else.
THE STRATEGY: Tell no one. Only those who are crucial to the mission's completion will be informed, and then only on a need-to-know basis. Accomplices will be required to take a blood oath of confidentiality. Remember, the most dangerous threat is the one that lurks among you. Your client will call them "guests."
"It's like a military operation," explains L.A. wedding planner Lisa Vorce, who's been coordinating the nuptial celebrations of high-profile celebrities, politicians and athletes for nine years.
So if Chelsea Clinton is getting married on Martha's Vineyard in the next 10 days -- and some chatty islanders plus the National Enquirer insist that she is -- it should help to have a former commander in chief, a current secretary of state and a brigade of Secret Service agents acting as her co-conspirators. Though they've never confirmed an engagement, rumor has it that Bill and Hillary Clinton's 29-year-old daughter will wed longtime boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky at the estate of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, or some other family friend's estate, either this weekend or next. Or not.
Of course, everyone from the Clinton camp has vigorously denied that any such affair is in the works -- or that they will be anywhere in the vicinity -- but that's a strategy straight out of Secret Wedding Planning 101.
"We deny, deny, deny," Vorce says of the tack she takes with her celebrity clients. "So if anyone asks, 'Are you guys doing that event?' 'Absolutely not, no. Gosh, I would love to do that event.' " Any confirmation to the media, she says, could compromise the whole mission, er, blessed event. (What Danson told a Boston newspaper when asked whether he was hosting a wedding for Clinton, "I wouldn't mind doing that, it's just not true.")
It's all part of what's become the Manhattan Project of event planning: the secret celebrity wedding. And they're all secret these days. They don't have a choice, really -- if Madonna or Jessica Simpson were to announce the date and locale of their next wedding, the crush of paparazzi would be so thick that neither bride would make it anywhere near the altar.
When combined, our collective obsessions with fame and celebrity are the perfect tabloid storm, fueling a cottage industry of wedding watchers -- photographers, bloggers and gossip magazine editors who will stop at nothing to bring readers every crucial, taffeta-wrapped detail.
Hence, these weddings become clandestine affairs -- covert operations carried out by experts who've spent years strategizing maneuvers to allow their high-target clients to wed in private. Or at least, what passes for private in the land of the famous.Step 1: Administer an Alias
"From the very first minute we meet with them, we give them an alias. It's 'John and Sally Smith,' wedding in August '09," says Vorce. And from that moment on, she is the conduit for her client, dealing with caterers, venues, florists and never telling any of them who the event is for.
To show couples various spaces where they might want to wed, Vorce videotapes tours of the venues rather than bringing them to the locations in person. It's too risky. Once she did an event for Kobe Bryant and decided to meet the caterer at the venue; paparazzi tailed her there, stole a logo off the caterer's van, traced the caterer's personal connections and called to harass her parents into giving up details of the soiree.
"There are no limits," Vorce says, to what the paparazzi will do to infiltrate a wedding in hopes of getting photos that can be sold to tabloids for tens of thousands of dollars. So she shreds everything, knowing her trash is picked through regularly. And even as the wait staff and bartenders come on site for the big day, they won't know whom they're serving. By the time they find out, they will have signed nondisclosure agreements legally barring them from letting the word out -- though Vorce admits this rarely produces foolproof privacy. But if a wedding is under way, and the media is only then finding out about it, she's scored a victory.Step 2: Control the Guests
The most crucial step to pulling off a secret wedding is keeping the guest list very small -- "and I don't know if that's possible for a family like the Clintons," says Yifat Oren, who's planned weddings for celebrities such as Charlie Sheen and Kevin Costner.
It's a simple equation: More people invited = more leaks and, therefore, more paparazzi scaling the walls with their cameras.
Paper invitations are the ultimate liability. It's like spoon-feeding the gossip-rag enemies. Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz risked sending save-the-dates, but left off the time and location; those details were delivered by phone and text message; and guests were asked to park at a remote lot and were then shuttled to the wedding. Fergie gave out invitations as favors at her January wedding to Josh Duhamel.
Couples who really don't want their guests to let the cat out of the bag just won't tell them. "Lie to your guests. Just lie to them," says New York City-based celebrity wedding planner Michelle Rago. "You get them there for a completely different reason, and by the time it's over, it's over." (See: Julia Roberts's Fourth of July party in 2002, where she and Danny Moder surprised their guests by getting hitched just before midnight; Sandra Bullock's ruse was a birthday party when she wed Jesse James in 2005.)
Anyone who is invited and given specifics about the event must be inducted into a sacred circle of trust. John F. Kennedy Jr., the last child of a president to pull off a secret wedding -- word of Jenna Bush's date and location were out, though they successfully sneaked off for a secret rehearsal dinner bash -- asked only 40 guests to watch him and Carolyn Bessette wed in a small chapel on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, in 1996.
The invitation came by phone, recalls friend Robert T. Littell, and Kennedy warned him, "You can't even tell your mother." But protecting the secret became kind of a game, Littell says, and added an exciting layer of tension to the event.
When word got out that photographers had sneaked onto the island but were caught by security guards, a cheer went up. And as the wedding wound down, "there was a sense of victory, frankly," Littell says, "that we did it."Step 3: Scout the Location
Did you see those pictures of Scarlett Johansson's wedding to Ryan Reynolds? No. Because they got hitched last year at an island nature preserve off the coast of Canada with only 40 friends and family members. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck invited no one to their 2005 nuptials in Turks and Caicos. Kenny Chesney and Renée Zellweger successfully pulled off a secret wedding in the Virgin Islands, also in 2005 (though their marriage was less than successful and ended four months later). Seal and Heidi Klum made it official on a Tuesday in Mexico.
If privacy is the biggest priority, it's best to leave the country. But when a high-profile pair wants to wed in the United States -- perhaps because it's the country the bride's father led for eight years -- seclusion is key.
Any open space must be tented to thwart prying eyes overhead in a helicopter. An indoor affair at a private residence is optimal. Beyoncé reportedly evaded onlookers by traveling in the cargo area of a flower delivery truck to Jay Z's apartment building for their 2008 wedding. Once inside -- and with her mother acting as caterer -- the affair was conducted in almost stunning privacy.
Wedding planner Oren thought Kevin Costner and his bride, Christine Baumgartner, would be protected by the expansiveness of their 160-acre ranch in Colorado. But sure enough, the paparazzi climbed a mountain flanking a nearby highway and, with high power lenses, zoomed in to catch images of the 2004 soiree.
Have a wedding anywhere outside, Vorce says, and "you're a sitting duck."Step 4: Secure the Premises
Celebrity wedding planners work hand in hand with specialized security companies to try to protect their clients from paparazzi and onlookers. Blueprints are drawn up to cover any outside space, no-fly zones are requested when possible and guards are stationed around the perimeter of the property and in nearby boats at waterfront weddings.
Still, there's no plan so airtight it can't be breached. Guards were on location throughout Avril Lavigne's 2006 wedding to Deryck Whibley at a private estate in Montecito, Calif., recalls her wedding planner, Mindy Weiss. Halfway through the reception, however, some guests heard a rumbling in the bushes. An animal? No. Just an enterprising paparazzi who'd buried himself beneath a hedge the day before the wedding.
"They'll go to bizarre, great lengths," sighs Weiss.
But the truth is, we're all paparazzi now, with our iPhones and BlackBerrys and digital cameras. And celebrities are one bratty nephew's text message away from being swarmed with media. Enter the metal detectors and mandatory gadget check. Every electronic device is collected at the door. "It's an uncomfortable thing we have to communicate to the guests," says Vorce. But often the claim tickets are elegantly embossed, so, you know, that's as good as a picture.Step 5: Create a Diversion
It was 1997 when Weiss had her first brush with celebrity wedding mania. Photographers showed up with cherry pickers to get shots of the wedding she'd planned for Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi. Now, she says, "Besides being wedding planners, we become escape artists.
"We sit here in my office and strategize on how to do this," she says. Often a limo with a piece of tulle hanging from the rear door is sent out as a decoy to lead photographers in the wrong direction. And Weiss has learned to do the dodging and weaving herself. When Fergie was being trailed on the way to a meeting at her reception site, Weiss told the singer to pull into a shopping mall and head to the Banana Republic. Weiss rushed in ahead, told the staff Fergie would be coming through and needed to be let out the service door. Weiss met Fergie at the exit and the two made a getaway.
"It's a little bit of a game that we play with the paparazzi," admits Vorce. "Because we can leak certain things to send them in the wrong direction."
So this chatter about Chelsea and Marc on Martha's Vineyard?
It might be all part of a master plan. Or not.