Brides on TV: Monte Durham stars in TLC spinoff 'Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta'
Take one stressed-out bride, a few opinionated family members and a rolling camera or two, and you've got the recipe for "Say Yes to the Dress," TLC's popular wedding gown-shopping reality series. Now add Southern accents and a stylist who specializes in bluntness, and you've got the show's first spinoff: "Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta," which debuted Friday.
Alexandria's own Monte Durham was tapped to be the new show's tough-minded fashion director, the one to walk into the chaos, look the bride straight in the eye and say: "Have you lost your mind?" But his approach isn't to resort to Simon-Cowell, crush-your-dreams rudeness. He's more like the friend who says what he's thinking -- for your own benefit.
"I'm here to make you look the best you can on your wedding day, but I will be the first to tell you 'no,' " says Durham, an impeccably groomed 53-year-old man whose eyes say exactly what he's thinking at all times. " 'Your backside looks too big,' or 'You're too busty for this,' or 'You're too tall for this.' "
He pauses, as if he could go on about the many mistakes he's seen in his nearly two-decade career as a wedding stylist.
"The most important thing is, you've got to be comfortable," he says. "When you put that dress on, that's the ultimate goal."
Durham, a West Virginia native, has been telling people what looks great (and what definitely doesn't) for years, and credits his openness to growing up with his mother and three sisters. He began his career as a personal shopper at Woodworth & Lothrop before studying hair and makeup at London's College of Fashion. From there, he went on to work at Elizabeth Arden Red Door in Tysons Corner and became immersed in the local wedding scene.
Through his travels, he developed a friendship with Lori Allen, the owner of Bridals by Lori in Atlanta, and he worked on her daughter's wedding -- an event featured on WE tv's "Platinum Weddings." TLC noticed Allen's store and eventually decided it was the ideal location for the "Say Yes to the Dress" spinoff, and they had Durham in mind for the show from the outset.
"I think he's very brutally honest to brides, but they appreciate it," says Nancy Daniels, TLC's senior vice president of production and development, who calls Durham "a great character" on the show. "He does it in a way that he's always coming from the right place and wanting brides to look their best. They're about to make a major investment . . . and they like to have someone who's going to give them input."
The half-hour series airs at 9 and 9:30 on Friday nights. In the premiere, Durham gave viewers a taste of his brand of bridal control: One grandma hated everything her granddaughter tried on, so finally Durham sent out the bride-to-be in a form-fitting dress cut above the knee. Grandma was horrified. Durham was pleased.
"Now that we shocked Grandma, I'm going to pull a dress I know she'll love," Durham said confidently. Sure enough, when he sent out the 22-year-old in a stunning gown far more elegant than the one before it, Grandma had no choice but to say yes.
"We call that 'the full Monte,' " Durham says, on a recent morning from his home in Alexandria.
Durham has stepped away from doing weddings (his travel schedule from Atlanta to Alexandria and to West Virginia, where he runs the Studio M Salon at the Resort at Glade Springs, is too difficult), but he likes to "keep his hands in it." Today, he's doing a trial run for Abby Bonder, a 29-year-old bride-to-be from Washington, whose wedding is in October. As he works, he chats with the bride-to-be's mother and his good friend Laura Weatherly, a wedding planner who runs Engaging Affairs and has worked with Durham in the past.
The two are swapping horror stories about weddings they've done together.
"Laura has had to ease the tension after some of my boisterous outbursts," Durham admits.
Yet Durham doesn't plan to censor himself on the show any more than he does in real life.
"I guess it would be offensive to some," Durham says, admitting he was nervous his personality might not translate to the small screen. "So I was a little concerned about that. But then I said, 'Oh, why not? I'm just going to give them the full Monte.' And that seems to be working for me right now."