Confessions of a Luxury-Wedding Planner
Illustrations by Daniele Castellano
Sunday mornings, for wedding planners, are reserved for prayer. Not because it’s a particularly pious profession but because that’s the day when clients who were married on Saturday figure out if they’re happy or not. Should they choose unhappiness, Sunday is when they decide whom to blame. And Monday is when the emails come.
I say “decide” because weddings are funny affairs—tense, expensive, fraught with emotion. They are revisited—by the couple, by the family, by the person paying the bills—time and again. They mark the beginning of a couple’s new life but sometimes of other things too: family feuds, broken friendships, a long hangover of fiscal regret. So even if the party went great, on Sunday the wedding planner prays.
Will the email be full of joy and praise? Or will it be one of complaint? Back when I was a luxury-wedding planner in New York City, my business partner and I once got an email from a bride, written as she helicoptered off to her honeymoon, saying that her wedding had been a “transcendent experience.” A call from the bride’s mother directly followed. “Repeat after me,” she said. “I am bad at my job. I should never do this job again.” Sometimes the clients just need to vent. Sometimes they threaten to sue.
The work of a luxury-wedding planner is only partly about the planning. Yes, you help the couple plan what you hope will be a stunning event—but your main job is to be a professional wedding friend. You’re the person who cares if the bow on the favor has swallow or inverse tails, or if the maid of honor is being a passive-aggressive bitch when none of the bride’s other friends wants to talk about it anymore. The family is paying you to care as much as they do.
When I became a wedding planner, no one in my own family could comprehend my utility. My grandparents, who raised me, had what was called a “football wedding.” They rented the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and piled tinfoil-wrapped heroes on a table. People would shout out what sandwich they wanted, and another guest would toss it across the room. “How complicated could a wedding be?” they wondered. Had I chosen to be a professional mud wrestler, I do not think it could have confounded them more.
So whenever one of our events was featured in a bridal magazine, I would bring it to family occasions and show it off the way other people might show off pictures of their babies. “See,” I would say, pointing to a dreamy sailcloth tent glowing with custom-made chandeliers. “There was nothing but a field here. We built all of this.”
Unfortunately, this only added to the confusion. “Don’t they realize they could have bought a house with all of this money?”
I would have to explain that my clients didn’t need a house. They already had one. They probably had several.
A few years after the recession, I did a lavish wedding on Long Island. The bride was stressing about putting a custom lining on her invitations that would add another couple thousand to the already large stationery bill. She and the groom had been given a seven-figure sum to spend both on their wedding and on buying and decorating their new home, and the bride had a thing for mid-century-modern furniture. Was the liner worth more than a Wassily chair? She went back and forth, back and forth. I couldn’t say a thing, but finally her mother reached her limit: “We’re rich!” she cried out in exasperation. “Get the liners!”
Months later, the same mother, while admiring the tent we had spent days erecting for the reception, said, in total seriousness, “I hate that it’s only being used for one night. I wish we could find some homeless people to stay here when we’re done.”
I once got a call from a woman in a panic: Her daughter was getting married in a few weeks and she needed my partner and me to save this wedding. She offered no further details over the phone, insisting that we come uptown to her apartment so she could properly convey the scale of the conundrum. Right before she hung up the phone she whispered, “By the way, I’m very, very rich.”
And she was! She lived in one of those opulent places with an elevator that opened up into the apartment itself, because that’s how sprawling it was. A maid in a uniform greeted us and escorted us down a long, art-lined hallway and into the library, where the mother of the bride was waiting.
She explained the dilemma. Her daughter was embarrassed by her family’s wealth, and had been living as a closeted rich person for years—her friends had no idea. The bride had refused to let her mother have anything to do with the wedding, because if her mom got involved, the jig would be up. Everyone would see she’d just been cosplaying poverty. And so, armed with information from the internet and her mother’s checkbook, the young woman had gone off and planned what she imagined was an “average wedding.”
With the event just weeks away, the mother had started poking around and realized, This is terrible! Her daughter didn’t just have conflicted ideas about her own privilege. She also had bad taste—or at least unfortunate notions of what the “average” bride wants at her wedding: things like jam jars for wineglasses, picnic tables for seating, a limited bar.
Her daughter could pretend all she wanted, the mother said, but their friends and family knew that they were rich and were expecting a nice affair. After much argument, they compromised: They would hire a wedding planner. And the only wedding planner in all of New York they could agree on was me, probably because while many of my competitors were specializing in opulence, I had cornered the market in “understated luxury.”
The mother insisted that we meet right away because the bride was planning to reach out and hire us the next day, and the mother wanted me to be clear on how it was going to work. My job, in addition to making sure the wedding was not an embarrassment, was to say yes to everything the daughter asked for. If the bride questioned what something cost, I was to say it was “already included in the contract.” The mother didn’t care how expensive anything was; she would cover it secretly. Did this sound crazy? Absolutely. Did I need the money? Yes.
I was amazed by how well the strategy worked. “You could serve these baby lamb chops,” I would say, to which the bride would reply, “But is that going to be more expensive than pigs in a blanket?,” and I would assure her, as I had been hired to do, that everything was in the contract.
But then one day the bride proclaimed her desire to reduce the carbon footprint of the wedding by having edible escort cards. The escort card is the folded-over piece of card stock that tells a guest where to sit. The bride had the idea to stick toothpicks with little tags showing the names and table numbers into bacon-wrapped dates, combining appetizer and escort card and thus saving the environment.
I nodded yes, and then emailed the mother in a panic, something to the effect of: “It’s going to look like a table full of floating turds! What are we going to do?”
“For Christ’s sake, why can’t you be my daughter?” she wrote back.
The mother said she’d grown up poor like me but, unlike me, had married well. “Marry rich!” she would tell me. “It’s so fun!” I still haven’t had a chance to give this a try, but I suspect that she’s right. We agreed: When you have more money than God, what better way to spend some of it than to throw other people a luxuriously good time?
Anyway, they say that there are no accidents, but the daughter, in town for wedding things, logged on to her mother’s computer and saw our entire exchange. She insisted, quite understandably, that I be fired immediately.
When my business partner and I began planning weddings, in 2003, America was in a wedding craze, nurtured by an abundance of magazines: Bride’s, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, Town & Country Weddings, Inside Weddings, InStyle Weddings. The Wedding Planner had hit theaters in 2001. Then we had Bridezillas and Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? Soon you could scour wedding blogs all night: Style Me Pretty and Weddingbee and The Bridal Bar (and my very own blog at the time, Always a Blogsmaid). On the Fridays before weddings, I used to binge-watch Say Yes to the Dress to calm my nerves—at least these weren’t my clients.
Weddings have always been luxury goods. And like all luxury goods, they’ve been coveted, emulated, and knocked off by the masses. Even white dresses became a thing only after Queen Victoria was married in one in 1840. Wedding envy is as old as weddings themselves, but it was supercharged by the mid-’90s dawn of TheKnot.com. Weddings as we know them today—with their Instagram-ready ombré floral arrangements and embroidered custom veils and pom-pom farewells—began with an online group of brides-to-be called the Knotties.
Someone with a name like JuneJerseyBride334 would post photos of, say, her bedazzled escort and menu cards.
“Are we supposed to have menu cards?” SomethingBlue305 might ask. “I don’t have menu cards.”
“If I can get DH to splurge, I’m gonna get some!” FallForTedForever might add. “Printing these pics and stealing all your cute ideas!”
The Knot offered brides-to-be advice about budgets and listings of potential vendors, but it was the chat rooms— and the camaraderie and friendly one-upmanship found there—that kept users coming back. The Knot created a community; it made being a bride an identity. And it transformed weddings into a competitive sport.
An especially beautiful wedding might be featured on the site, or picked up by The Knot’s magazine. Soon more and more people began planning weddings not just around their guests’ experience of one special day, but around how the images of that day would look to strangers online. By 2010, I had clients walking in asking about our publicity strategy: Where do you plan on sending the photos once the wedding is done?
That was the year Instagram was founded, making it far easier for couples to share their content themselves. Thirteen years later, couples can hire a professional wedding social-media adviser, a service that can cost up to $3,000. A company such as Maid of Social will develop a “strategy” for your wedding, attend and photograph it, and post the shots to your Snapchat and Instagram accounts, hashtags included—“because the day you just spent 14 months planning should be seen by the world.”
Being a bride used to mean being royalty for a day. Now it means being a celebrity. Either way, the only sure path to really distinguish yourself—to capture the oohs and the aahs and the attention—is to spend a lot of money.
The average wedding in America costs about $30,000. Historically, money for weddings was cobbled together through savings and gifts from parents, but today many of the celebrations are debt-financed affairs. Surveys have found that roughly 30 to 45 percent of couples report taking on credit-card or other debt to pay for them. Wedding loans—personal loans marketed to engaged couples—can carry interest rates as high as 30 percent.
At the same time, ultra-luxurious weddings—the kind no one needs credit cards to pay for—have become a bigger slice of the market. Last year, approximately 13,000 weddings in America cost $1 million or more, according to the consulting firm Think Splendid. Which means that each week across America, some 250 millionaire and billionaire families are setting trends the rest of us should never dream of emulating.
At one of Marcy Blum’s recent weddings, on a private estate in Palm Beach, Florida, she built her clients a miniature golf course. A video of guests put-putting around in their black-tie finery is available on Instagram, where Blum has more than 100,000 followers. Blum has been planning weddings for more than 30 years and has worked for moguls including George Soros and LeBron James. Like a lot of people in this industry, she wasn’t born rich; she was raised in the Bronx by a salesman and a schoolteacher. But she’s rarely intimidated. Say you’re talking to Bill Gates, she told me: “He may be the smartest person in the world, but what does he know about lighting or a table setting?” Blum was my mentor—I’ve spent more nights than I can count crying on her sofa—and is still a close friend.
The golf course wasn’t just some holes and a putting green: She and her design partners also created a concession stand, provided custom pencils and scorecards (inscribed with Talk Birdie to Me), and had staff dressed up as caddies offering putting tips.
Blum declined to tell me how much the mini golf added to the budget. But some of her clients spend $2 million or $3 million on their wedding—about $8,000 a head. Some spend more, but she didn’t want to elaborate—“I don’t want people to think I’m that expensive before they call me,” she said with a laugh.
What does all this money go to? Primarily: infrastructure. The least sexy things are the most expensive—landscaping to clear a field; electrical lines to get power to said field; tent companies to erect a clearspan or sailcloth structure for 300 people and then to heat or cool it; lighting to illuminate it; driftwood flooring; restroom trailers; decorations to make the trailers look like elegant powder rooms; another tent for the caterer; refrigerated trucks to keep the food cold; propane stoves to get it hot; even more landscaping to level another field far away where the vendors’ vehicles can be parked.
For all of this you need many, many, many workers. Blum’s weddings might employ up to 40 vendors, each with its own staff—hundreds and hundreds of bodies, mostly blue-collar laborers, many of them immigrants. All of these people can be there for upwards of a week working around the clock. It’s sort of like being in the circus.
The day of the wedding, her clients will fly in professional dressers like the ones who work for the stylist Julie Sabatino’s company, The Stylish Bride. Sabatino’s website refers to her dressers as “ladies in waiting” and shows them wearing white gloves and little aprons. The starting rate for just one is $2,450; a luxury wedding sometimes has 10. They sew and they press and they “do the bow ties,” Blum told me; they’ll pin garments into place and follow the bride around with a water bottle with a straw in it so she can drink without ruining her lipstick.
Throughout this time, Blum usually employs security guards and a cybersecurity firm to keep hackers out of the guest list. There’s a caterer to provide staff meals, and an on-site calligrapher to accommodate any last-minute changes to the seating chart. She even employs a “concierge event meteorologist”—Andrew Leavitt of Ironic Reports—to help prepare for the possibility of a “rain call”: the dreaded moment when the planner needs to inform the bride that the outdoor celebration she dreamed of needs to move inside. Leavitt will call “every, like, 15 minutes” to update her on a possible storm front: “It’s moving this way; it’s moving that way.”
Weather, after all, is the one thing Marcy Blum can’t control.
Early in my wedding-planning days, I signed on to do the reality-TV show Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? I didn’t care about the fame, but I wanted more clients. If there were an Emmy for reality-TV performance, I could’ve won it. Enthusiastic, romantic, anxious that everything go exactly as planned, I had clipboards and checklists and said things like “This is what I live for” when my clients gushed over their reception room. I could do 20 takes of me entering a bakery to see a cake, looking both ecstatic and urgently concerned, and each was like the first time.
Our clients who agreed to do the show weren’t billionaires—they were normal people. They liked getting a little taste of stardom, sure, but mostly they wanted upgrades on things like flowers and lighting—a nice wedding on camera. The producers, of course, wanted something different. Nice weddings are nice. Messy weddings are great TV.
For my first reality-TV wedding, there I was—at a catering hall deep in New Jersey wearing a very unfortunate blue-velvet blazer—trying hard to seem calm while frantically calling the florist, who had gone missing. After many hours and excuses, he did eventually show up—but with at least one fewer centerpiece than promised. Naturally, the producers wanted us back.
We did Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? a couple more times, but as I got better at my job, I had a harder time pretending to be overwhelmed or anxious about things I could do in my sleep. Our last foray into television came in 2014. It was a chance to star in a new show whose concept was extreme weddings. We were assigned a ceremony for 70 guests at the base of a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The shoot involved the bride entering by helicopter and six hours of setup and taping under the hot sun on black lava with no restroom. The entire thing went off smoothly. But reality TV doesn’t appreciate expertise—we knew they’d never pick up the show.
In any case, my off-screen weddings were providing plenty of drama.
I once worked with a bride who had all of her wedding gifts sent to our office. I was confused until I realized that it gave her an excuse to keep stopping by. She knew that her fiancé was cheating on her, and she needed someone to talk with about it. They still got married, though, and had a resplendent wedding brunch. (I love a wedding brunch.)
Another bride could not settle on a design scheme, and was growing intensely frustrated. She said something like “I just don’t like pink. Never show me anything pink!” She had sent me a dozen images of things she loved, all of which involved the color pink. She was wearing head-to-toe pink. Even her phone was pink. “I think you love pink,” I said, as I looked her dead in the eye. “You actually love pink.” She ended up having a pink wedding.
At my final meeting with one couple, they kept talking about how they wanted to put “edibles” on the bar. I had designed a gorgeous wedding for them, with a custom chuppah and matching chandelier hand-built by an artist in Brooklyn, and a bunch of Edible Arrangements on the bar would completely destroy the vibe. I tried very hard to be polite about it. “People have strong opinions about edibles,” I said. This was true about chocolate-covered pineapple slices, and it was also true about weed gummies.
Another couple was getting married on an enormous estate, and the father of the bride decided, against his better judgment, to go all in on making it the wedding of his daughter’s dreams. He would use this occasion to give her every outrageous thing she’d ever asked for in her life. We hid that pony for days.
When the weddings were over, many of our couples would take us out for a reunion meal, where they would spend hours reminiscing and reliving their favorite moments. Sometimes these nights were fun; sometimes, less so. I got divorced right before one of these dinners, and over appetizers the bride asked me what had gone wrong. “I guess I just felt dead inside,” I said. Later, she followed me to the ladies’ room. When I came out of the stall, she was waiting for me. “I feel dead inside too,” she said.
The term the wedding-industrial complex entered the vernacular in 2007, around when Rebecca Mead published her takedown of the wedding industry, One Perfect Day.
Mead was a cynic about the entire endeavor. She seemed to think that levelheaded couples should just take themselves to a courthouse and get on with their life while other, flightier fiancés were seduced by wedding professionals eager to swindle them out of their hard-earned cash. “These people think of themselves as providing a service that is needed,” Mead told Salon. “But they’re also creating that need and generating the desire, and they’re certainly aware of it; the best ones are very clever marketers.”
But this was the era of the McMansion, the big-screen TV, the luxury handbag—insatiable consumer desire was hardly limited to weddings, or created by wedding planners. As Jodi Kantor pointed out in her review, “We’re all nouveau riche now.” When the recession hit shortly thereafter—disproving that assumption—Mead’s take solidified in the popular imagination. Years later, articles still warn couples about wedding “taxes” and “premiums” and ways to avoid being “scammed by the wedding industry.”
It’s not the wedding professionals’ fault that weddings are expensive. The fact is that weddings are luxuries, not necessities. It costs a lot to make something look nice; it costs even more to make it feel nice—to make sure all your guests are comfortable, and well fed, and entertained. A wedding is not a photograph of a wedding. A wedding—a good wedding—is immersive theater, a living, breathing work of art.
But Mead wasn’t wrong that wedding professionals are clever marketers. A handful of people dominate the luxury end of the market, and the trends they pioneered have taken widespread hold. Julie Sabatino basically invented wedding styling in the early aughts. Back then, when she told people what she did, they assumed she was a hairstylist, she told me. Today wedding stylists have cropped up all across the country, most charging a fraction of what she does.
Michael Waiser is among the most expensive caterers—“stupid expensive,” I’ve heard people call him. His food—foraged mushrooms under a quail egg and shaved black truffles, leche de tigre with plantain threads, that sort of thing—is all kosher, and starts at about $550 a head. He started out working the New York kosher-catering circuit in the days when kosher was not exactly a coveted culinary experience. But Waiser realized that affluent Jewish foodies—just like their wealthy gentile peers—wanted something special.
Allan Zepeda immigrated to Brooklyn when he was 3 and started taking photos for the youth group at his Pentecostal church—he’s entirely self-taught. “Thanks for calling the Latin kid,” he said when I reached out. He photographed the weddings of Sheryl Sandberg and Serena Williams. His destination-wedding rates now begin at $50,000. Beautiful images are only part of his success; couples love him because he treats them all like Vogue models.
The thing all of these people understand is that “billionaires buy experiences; they don’t buy things,” as Rishi Patel, a luxury-wedding designer based in Chicago, told me. And one of those experiences is having a very good time planning their wedding.
The mother of the fake poor bride, it turned out, couldn’t bring herself to fire me. We’d had a blast together upgrading the bride’s budget-conscious, twee affair into a jewel box of an event, and we weren’t ready to quit. Instead, we came up with a ruse—even more elaborate than the first—to get us through the wedding day.
I had one of my employees pretend to work for the caterer, and—I’m not particularly proud of this—we introduced the bride and this woman, assuring her that I was no longer involved. Except that I absolutely was. And nothing the bride and this woman talked about held any water, because the only thing that mattered was what happened between me and her mother. And what was happening was a lot. We ordered custom furniture to maximize the space in the room. We brought in an enhanced cooling system. We had the floor refinished so no one would trip.
On the day of the event, after straightening every fork and folding every hemstitched linen napkin, I made myself invisible. I left everything in the trusted hands of a few of my staff members, who were disguised as waiters. I posted myself in a restaurant a few blocks away and fielded the mother’s hysterical texts: “She’s going to find out! She’s going to find out what we’ve been doing!”
I assured her that this charade would soon be behind us. But I didn’t realize the reason she was certain her daughter would find out was that she was going to get drunk and tell her. Halfway through the reception, she pulled the bride aside and confessed the entire scheme. The bride saw red. She was surrounded by traitors on her wedding day! Her own mother was sneaking behind her back, carrying on an adulterous mother-daughter affair with the wedding planner!
At the end of the night, my phone buzzed one last time: “She knows everything. This is goodbye!”
“We are always gonna be the help,” Michael Waiser told me. “I’m probably the most expensive help there is. But I’m the help, right? And I think that you have to remember that.”
By 2015, I was burned out. Not so much by the weddings themselves as by the role I had to play. Shortly after Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy in a statement full of anti-Mexican sentiment, this half-Chicana wedding planner found herself at a Friday-night tasting listening to how excited the bride’s and groom’s families were about the venue and the band and the food and … future President Donald Trump. Real friends could have said what they thought. But wedding friends—hired friends—had to go on with the show.
It is easier to get a divorce than to quit a wedding. I know because I successfully did the former but never the latter, and I liked my ex-husband a lot more than any of the brides I tried to walk away from. Almost always, the conflict came down to the budget: The bride wanted something she couldn’t afford, and instead of accepting that, she decided I was incompetent.
Some of my most abusive clients were the ones who were stretching themselves, going into debt to have the wedding that they wanted the world to see them have. But unlike bags or jewelry, you can’t really knock off a nice wedding. Things would get more and more tense, and finally we would call a meeting. This should be a joyous experience, and it was clear they weren’t happy. We should just part ways and refer them to—and the bride’s lip would start quivering. We’re sorry. Please don’t leave us.
I was used to my wealthy clients thinking they could bend reality to their will, but I got truly taken advantage of only once. The bride called us to say that she and her younger sister were both getting married in the same year at the same venue. For what seemed like obvious reasons, she did not want to work with the same planner as her baby sibling. I quoted her our rates and there was silence.
Her sister’s planner, she said then, was cheaper—something like $12,000 less.
To which I replied: Good for your sister!
We nevertheless agreed to meet, and by the end of our coffee date, I could see by the needy look in her eyes that she wanted me to be her wedding best friend—the one person who didn’t care about what her sister was doing with her wedding; the one person who didn’t care that her sister was getting married, period.
Her mother called: They loved me, but the issue was that the other planner cost less. Again I said: Good for you; they were welcome to use that planner for both events. But they wanted me. Eventually, they signed the contract and sent in the first of several deposits.
Two weeks before the wedding, we called to remind them that the final payment of $10,000 hadn’t come in yet. They said the check was in the mail. Two days before we left to begin setting up, we tried to charge their card on file, but it was no longer valid. When we rang, they told us they would give us a check when we arrived. Three days into the tent installation, when we would ask for payment, the mother or father would say they would go to the house right away and get it. Each time, they would get distracted. On the day of the wedding, we still hadn’t been paid, and debated what to do. It wasn’t like they didn’t have the money. Obviously we would show up. When we asked the father for the check, he barked at us: How dare we harass him on his daughter’s wedding day?
But the day after, when we arrived to break down the party, the family was nowhere to be found. No check, no credit-card number. We made the trip back to New York bathed in shame. Thirteen years in the business, and we’d been played by multimillionaires.
That Sunday we prayed extra hard, but on Monday the bride’s father reached out. He had made an itemized list of minor infractions that he believed entitled him to withhold our last payment. I’ve blocked out exactly what they were, but they were absurd—napkins not up to snuff, lights flickering in the restroom trailer. I called him and said this was simply not right. We had done what we were hired to do. But he had decided, it seemed clear to me, that if the little sister’s wedding planner was taking less, I would have to take less as well, contract be damned.
Go ahead and fight me, he said. “I’ll have so much fun spending my money suing you.”
The biggest wedding in the news lately, between Brooklyn Beckham, the son of a Spice Girl and a soccer star, and Nicola Peltz, the daughter of a billionaire, cost $3 million to $5 million, the tabloids say, and ended in lawsuits and scandal—the bride’s father is suing two wedding planners who briefly worked for him; the planners have countersued. But every time I read about it, I find myself thinking of the hundreds of people whose labor made it all happen.
Critics who roll their eyes at wedding excess seem to forget that this excess creates a lot of jobs. So much of the work behind a wedding is invisible, but it’s done by real people, people who suffer when the wedding industry goes downhill. Wedding planners and designers and florists and caterers ate a lot of soup during the recession. They did the same during the pandemic. Both times, it was the rich who came back first, like a spring thaw.
Rishi Patel was the designer on the Peltz wedding. He told me that after large projects, he often gives his clients a book with sketches of everything he made for their wedding—the chuppah, the table settings, the stage where they took their vows—and a note at the front that says something like I hope you are as proud as I am that you were able to employ 200 people for these two weeks. He and Marcy Blum are among the many luxury-wedding professionals who have started posting behind-the-scenes videos of their events on Instagram, to humanize the amount of work that goes into them.
Blum does this, she told me, in part because critics are always saying things like “There are all these hungry people in the world, all the homeless people. You could have fed 8 million people with that wedding.” Her clients already give millions to charity, she said. For someone like that, she asked, “what are they supposed to do—have a picnic? What is a quote-unquote appropriate amount to spend on your child’s wedding?”
You might not be surprised to hear that after the mother of my fake poor bride told me it was farewell forever, it wasn’t quite. I got some emails, the occasional text. The strange part about it is, although I believed the bride had every right to be upset, I never felt guilty for what we did. And I suspect that her mother didn’t either. Our bond had nothing to do with how she felt about her daughter, and everything to do with how she felt about her money: just fine. She not only didn’t mind having it; she didn’t mind spending it.
This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “Confessions of a Luxury-Wedding Planner.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.