I Wanna Marry "Harry" debuted on FOX a year ago last month. On this reality dating show, 12 American women were led to believe they were competing for the affections of Prince Henry of Wales, better known as Harry, the rakish, redheaded bachelor who was then fourth in line to the British throne. Of course, it wasn't really him, hence the quotation marks in the show's title. In reality, the contestants were mooning over 23-year-old Matt Hicks, an environmental consultant who resembles Prince Harry.
The series, essentially a mean-spirited, aristocratic update on Joe Millionaire, drew widespread ridicule and scorn. Viewers and critics alike were aghast: How could these women possibly believe that this guy is royalty? Low ratings led the network to cancel I Wanna Marry "Harry" after four episodes, but the remaining four could still be watched on Hulu, FOX.com, and On Demand. Its IMDb score currently hovers at 3.8.
But Marry "Harry" nevertheless developed something of a cult following — thanks in part to the genuine remorse Hicks seemed to feel over his deception, as well as the down-to-earth charm of Kimberly Birch, the 24-year-old Long Island native he ultimately chose.
We caught up with Birch, an actress, who filled us in on her career and offered some startling revelations as to what life as a contestant on I Wanna Marry "Harry" was like when the cameras were off. (FOX and Ryan Seacrest Productions have declined to comment on this story.)
What are you up to these days?
I’ve been acting since I was a kid, mostly theater, and I’ve kept up with that. Right now I’m rehearsing for an Off-Broadway show called Savage in Limbo, written by John Patrick Shanley. That’s starting in September. I also go back to school in September, to NYU for drama therapy.
[Drama therapy] is a very interesting field, and a lot of fun. It’s basically just using drama and acting techniques as a therapeutic method.
I remember reading that you had worked in social work previously — is that right? Drama therapy sounds like it fits in with that interest, too.
[Laughs.] Sort of. The show never really got my job right. I did promotional modeling throughout college, so I think they said I was a promo model, and then at one point, they changed me from a promo model to a social worker. Then I think they changed me back to a promo model at another point. I got my bachelor’s in psychology, and I did case work right when I got out of school, but I was never actually a social worker.
[The production team] knew I was an actress. That’s what I was doing at the time: some films, commercials, and theater. But I guess they didn’t want that portrayed on the show, that I was into acting, because then [viewers] would think that everything was fake. So they told me, “Give me something else, something else that you do!”
As an actor, is the show something you put on your résumé? Has it been helpful, harmful, or neutral for your career?
That’s tricky. In the acting world, being on reality TV can be viewed as a negative thing: like you don’t really know much about the actual craft, that you’re just trying to get famous. Some people look down on it; other people think, “Oh, good! She’s been out there, so she must know some people.” You need to feel it out. It depends on what I’m auditioning for and who I’m talking to.
I actually got a new manager from having done the show, because it looks good that I’ve gotten some exposure. But if you were to send a demo reel to an acting agency, you wouldn’t put the show in there.
I have to bring up the question which I’m sure you get asked constantly: Are you still in touch with Matt? What’s the story?
[Laughs.] We still talk on a regular basis, which is awesome. We’re not in a romantic relationship as of now, and I think that’s mostly because of the way that our lives have been after the show. We Facetime at least once every two weeks, just to keep up to date. You never know what’s going to happen in the future. That’s what we both say. As of now, we just maintain a friendship. We’re actually meeting up in Croatia in August.
What was the casting call like? What did you know going into the show?
It was really vague. They told us that if you’re young, you’re single, you like adventure, and you like to travel — I mean, who doesn’t? — then this is the perfect reality show for you.
At first I was a little dubious about doing reality TV, because you can be portrayed in either a very positive or negative light, but my parents convinced me. I was just told that I was going to a country in Europe for a Bachelor, Bachelorette-type show. And that was it.
How long did the entire process take, from when you first flew out to the UK to the finale?
About a month and a half. They flew us out there and put us up in a hotel a week before we started filming. They locked us each in our own separate rooms, where we had no TV, no cell phones, no books, and absolutely nothing to do for a full week.
That doesn't sound like fun.
They do that with a lot of reality TV shows, I’ve read. It’s a way of removing you from reality and putting you in seclusion so you go a little stir crazy.
Did you have the chance to talk to the other contestants during that week?
What did you do to pass the time?
When I look back… what did I do, for a full week in my room by myself? I think they had the Bible, like a standard hotel room. I started memorizing, like, the first 30 books of the Old Testament.
I was begging the room service guys for pen and paper so I could color or something. The show wasn’t that tough compared to what led up to it.
On the show, you seemed relatively unconvinced that the man you were dating was royalty. Were there any particular moments you remember that made you skeptical?
There was one moment, when we were in London. They always had chaperones from the production team with us, to make sure we weren’t talking to one another and we weren’t looking at things we weren’t supposed to be looking at. And we had to walk down one block, one short block, to get back to the car from where we’d had a date. We were told, “Just look straight ahead and keep going.”
You tell me to look straight ahead, and I’m going to want to look the other way. I glance over to my left and there’s a souvenir shop. They had little masks on a stick with the eyes cut out. Masks of Prince William, of the Queen, and one of Prince Harry.
I saw that picture and realized — I’m not nuts. Everybody here, on this set, on this production team, is crazy. I’m not. The whole time, you’re confronting them, saying, “This is all set up,” and they’re like, “Okay, yeah, you’re going crazy.” You’re so brainwashed into it that you go with everything in order to keep yourself feeling sane.
They actually had a therapist come on set at one point and talk to a few of us who were saying it wasn’t him. We found out later that it wasn’t a real, licensed therapist. It was just someone from the production team.
What did the therapist say?
“You have to learn how to trust your mind. I understand that you’re in a different country, and you don’t know what’s going on, but you have to trust the people here. It’s not good for you to keep questioning.” It was really crazy.
Wow. Watching at home, I’d wondered if the production staff had more of a “wink, wink, go along with it” attitude behind the scenes.
No, no. They were really trying everything they possibly could to convince us that this was him. Even little things in the middle of the night — they have cameras in your room while you’re sleeping. Not the camera crew, just stationery cameras. They keep an eye on you and they can still record everything that you say.
Sometimes, people from production would stand outside your room, when you’d think that they didn’t know you were up. They’d whisper, “You have to get him back to Buckingham Palace. The Royal Family’s very upset. They’re not happy about the show. It’s this new thing they’ve never done before, and they’re trying to be up and up with social media, and the way that the world is.” They really messed with us.
Did anyone on the production team ever explicitly say, “This is Prince Harry?”
Yeah. Several times. The way that they did it was more subtle, so that it really got to you. Your own reality started breaking down, and you were totally lost as to what was really going on. After Kingsley [actor Paul Leonard, as the show’s butler-in-residence] sat us down and told us, “This is him,” production was like, “It’s such a great relief to let it out, that, yeah, this is Prince Harry, but this doesn’t mean you have to treat him any differently.” And then they’d always refer to him as His Royal Highness. They did a great job. I’ll give them that.
Did you watch I Wanna Marry "Harry" as it aired?
Yes. My family and friends had a big party every week for the first four episodes. Once I saw the first episode, I was like, “Okay, I think I can handle this. I don’t think I did anything that bad, so I’m in the clear.”
On reality dating shows — especially on I Wanna Marry "Harry" — the dates are so luxurious. You were staying in a castle. What has real-life dating been like since then? Do you find yourself missing the fairytale surroundings?
I wouldn’t hold anyone up to that level. I wouldn’t expect anyone to set me up with a date on a hot air balloon, or dinner at the top of Tower Bridge. While it was happening, it was like a dream — now it’s back to normal. Dinner, movies, that kind of stuff. I keep it to myself and I laugh about it in my head: the extravagant dates that I was so lucky to have gone on, the amazing fantasy that not everyone gets to have in their lifetime.
Do you ever get recognized?
I do, which is crazy! I’d say maybe 50 times, especially right after the show, in Long Island and New York, where I live. I get recognized a lot at the mall and when I go out to eat. I went to Ocean City, Maryland over the weekend and three girls came over to our table and asked, “Are you the girl who won that show?”
It’s a weird feeling. You didn’t really do anything. You’re just being recognized because you were seen on TV.
Now that you’ve had this experience, do you find yourself more invested in news about the Royal Family?
[Laughs.] I try to avoid it, actually. My dad’s English, so he keeps me up to date with everything. He’s obsessed with the show. He brings me every news article, like, “Did you hear what Prince Harry’s doing now?”
If you could go back in time, would you do the show again?
Absolutely. It’s one of those things in life that doesn’t happen to everyone, and it’s just so surreal. I would 100% do it all again, even though there were times when I wanted to jump out the castle window.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.