Sat. Sep 18th, 2021


After a half-century of dating shows, the genre has grown increasingly outlandish. Naked dating, marrying complete strangers, secret cameras – it can’t be long before singletons are blasted into space in one of Elon Musk’s rockets to find love. But behind all the gimmicks, do any of these shows lead to long-lasting love? We spoke to four couples.

First Dates

First Dates invites two single people to have dinner at a restaurant with hidden cameras

Hema Sabina Kalia, 37, a food stylist, and Ajai Kalia, 44, a chartered accountant, both from London, met in 2016

Ajai: On Friday nights it was my ritual: pour a bottle of wine into a pint glass, have dinner, and watch the show. One evening I thought, why not apply? I wrote,I’ve proposed three times in my life and I’m still not married,” and hit send.

The cameras are unobtrusive – like CCTV, you don’t really notice them. As I stood there waiting for Hema, my main concern was not wanting to drink too quickly. Before the show the producers explained how carefully they try to match participants. So when Hema walked in and I saw she was Asian, I thought, very sophisticated algorithm! Asian girl, Asian boy. Tick! But when we sat down, we got on so well. There was definitely chemistry. We ended up being the last people in the restaurant. They were talking about us in the back! We were oblivious to the fact that everyone else had left. That’s the mark of a good first date.

When the bill came, I offered to pay and Hema said we should split it. I was thinking, what will my family say? Then I thought, I’ve offered twice – I don’t want the evening to end on a sour note.

By the time the episode aired four months later, we were an established couple. I was just relieved they hadn’t made me look like an idiot. We invited the producer who had set us up to our wedding in 2019. You don’t expect to go on a TV show and meet the person you will spend the rest of your life with.

Hema and Ajai on the show, after their first date.
Hema and Ajai on the show, after their first date. Photograph: Channel 4

Hema: I’d been single for about five years, tried all the apps, but nothing had worked out. My friends forced me to apply for First Dates. It all happened so quickly. I got a phone call and they took me through a series of questions, asking me what sort of person I’d like to meet. The key thing for me was that he was funny. The next thing I knew, I was walking up to the restaurant. The walk up is hard. I didn’t know he would be in there waiting for me. When I went in and saw him I thought, he has amazing eyes.

It felt like a normal date. There wasn’t any silence. It was relaxed. When we left, he gave me his number and told me to text him when I was home safe. I always say to my friends, if the guy doesn’t ask you to text him at the end of the date, saying you got home safe, it’s a no. So I texted all my friends. I said, he said it! They were like, yes!

We watched it at a big party with all our friends. Got loads of drinks in and just hoped for a good edit. My mum was texting me all the way through, saying, “I’m crying!”

It’s so weird, how we met. But we don’t talk about it much. It was such a long time ago.

Cameron Hamilton and Lauren Speed met on Love Is Blind in 2018.
Cameron Hamilton and Lauren Speed met on Love Is Blind in 2018. Photograph: Handout

Love Is Blind

In Love Is Blind, singles try to match, fall in love and get engaged without ever seeing the person they are dating, then marry a few weeks after meeting

Cameron Hamilton, 30, and Lauren Speed, 33, both digital content creators, from Atlanta, Georgia, met in 2018

Cameron: I didn’t apply to be on the show – casting reached out to me. I’m not sure how they found me, as I only had 300 Instagram followers. When they told me the premise of the show, I thought, who would be crazy enough to get married after two weeks? But I was looking for an adventure. My dating life wasn’t going well. I was bored in my corporate job.

We bonded over our love for our families. Also, sparks were flying right out of the gate. We wanted to be together fairly early on, but still had to go on dates with other people. On my other dates I’d be trying to get more information about Lauren.

Proposing was nerve-racking. It is a huge moment in anyone’s life and I had to do it through a wall. When I asked Lauren to approach the wall it felt like I was watching myself from above. I had an out-of-body-experience.

On our honeymoon, it was awkward because there were, like, 10 cameras in a hotel room and we’re in robes, and they are zooming in, and we knew our parents would be watching. We didn’t want it to get too physical. On screen, it looked like we were awkward, but it was just having all those people in the room.

I never had any doubt that I was going to marry Lauren. I felt I really loved this woman and we were deeply compatible. Lauren told me she was going to say yes. But I mean, who knows for sure what will happen at the altar? When she paused [before saying yes], that moment felt like for ever.

Since then it’s like any other marriage – a continual process of working things out. You have to show up every day and put in the work.

Lauren: The producers of the show direct messaged me – I had about 6,000 Instagram followers at the time. I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? Besides, my mum was putting major pressure on me to get married and have babies.

On a few of my dates with other men on the show, if there was no chemistry, we’d just take a nap. But with Cameron it was easy. Conversation flowed.

I tried not to imagine what Cameron looked like because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I homed in on his voice and personality instead. Flirting in the booths was no different to flirting on the phone. You just say things with a bit of innuendo.

When Cameron proposed, I was so nervous I started shaking. I was like, oh my God, is this really happening? I thought I was going to poop my pants. My body was there – I don’t know where the rest of me was.

I had doubts, coming up to the wedding. It was so fast. I said to Cameron, “I love you, but this isn’t how I pictured my wedding.” In the end, I decided I was tired of sabotaging my own happiness. A big part of it was how certain he was about how he felt towards me. I had never been with a man before who had no doubts.

The wedding day was a blur. It felt like riding a rollercoaster. Watching it back on TV, I was like, wow, I didn’t even know we had a harpist! It was so strange, watching the show. Like experiencing all the emotions all over again. When we have kids, we’ll be able to show them the show and say, this is how Mum and Dad met! It’s like Netflix made us our own home video.

Michelle Walder and Owen Jenkins met on Married at First Sight in 2020.
Michelle Walder and Owen Jenkins met on Married at First Sight in 2020. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Married at First Sight

A show where single people marry partners chosen by a panel of relationship experts, without meeting them

Owen Jenkins, 32, a global account manager, and Michelle Walder, 26, a teacher, both from Sheffield, met in 2020

Owen: I was in a bar with a friend and he went outside for a cigarette. I was flicking through Instagram and saw an advert for Married at First Sight. He came back and I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I signed up for this?” Later I got home, had a few more beers and signed up.

The pre-production process is thorough. They interviewed me for hours and spoke to my friends, and my ex-girlfriend. It felt like a way to meet someone in a similar position to me. I’ve never liked modern dating, the way everyone is talking to multiple people. It felt like competing for someone’s attention.

On my wedding day, I didn’t know anything, apart from the fact that her name was Michelle. I hadn’t even seen her photograph. Our family and friends were waiting with me for Michelle in the chapel for about 25 minutes before she walked in. I was studying the faces of her family, trying to figure out what she might look like.

I told myself before she walked in, it doesn’t matter what she looks like. Truly, I’ve always been more attracted to personality than looks. I knew as long as I liked her personality, attraction would build. But, of course, it’s always a worry in the back of your mind, that you won’t fancy them. Thankfully, when she walked in, she was a complete worldie – gorgeous!

Our first proper conversation was when we were signing the wedding register. I saw her full name and found out what she did for a living, and we had a chat then. The start of our relationship felt no different to the start of any other relationship, except we were married, obviously. We fancied each other straight away. I’d say we waited a normal amount of time before being intimate.

From day one, we’ve been very open with each other about what we want. We’ve just bought a house and are renovating it. In the future, we’ll look at having kids. Normal relationship stuff. We rushed the start of our relationship, but now we’re like any other married couple.

Michelle Walder: When I told my family I was thinking about going on Married at First Sight, they thought I was joking. My mum found it difficult because she missed all the moments when you plan a wedding with your daughter. But on the wedding day she was over the moon.

It was only as I was standing outside the chapel door that everything hit me. I thought, oh God, this is big. Then the doors opened and I walked in and saw him for the first time.

You have to be open to the fact that the attraction might not be there at the beginning. So it was a pleasant surprise because I thought he was gorgeous.

The kiss at the altar was quite strange. I was so nervous! But there wasn’t any awkwardness between us. We were comfortable straight away. When we sat down to sign the register, we were instantly bantering. He felt like my husband.

As the show was being filmed, the Covid-19 pandemic had just hit the UK. We got married on 14 March, and went into lockdown together. Covid gave us time to really get to know each other without external distractions.

Owen and I have said to each other that we probably wouldn’t have worked out in real life. I think we’d have had a nice time but it would have fizzled out. On paper, we’re not exactly what the other person wants, but we’re what the other person needs. When I was dating before, I didn’t always pick the right people. The matchmakers did a great job.

Gemma Warren and James North met on Naked Attraction in 2017.
Gemma Warren and James North met on Naked Attraction in 2017. Photograph: PR

Naked Attraction

A show in which single people choose prospective partners based only on their naked bodies

James North, 31, a joiner from Essex, and Gemma Warren, 28, a beauty therapist from West Sussex, met in 2017

Gemma: I’d had a run of crappy relationships. It felt like I was wasting my time. A friend suggested Naked Attraction and I thought, why not? My mum thought it was hilarious. I didn’t tell my dad. He didn’t need to know. Besides, he goes to bed early, before the show is on.

I didn’t prepare physically for the show. I’d vaguely planned to go on a diet but I had one diet shake and it was disgusting. I did have a wax – fully, everything off – got my nails done and a spray tan.

Everyone in the studio is lovely. They do your hair and makeup, which makes you feel like a movie star. You’re walking around in a bathrobe, waiting for your cue. I was so nervous that I started sweating. All I could think was, what if I have bits of fluff stuck to my armpits? Also, I was scared of tripping over all the wires and lights. But when it came to it, I whipped off my bathrobe and walked out there with a spring in my step.

Gemma Warren, right, on Naked Attraction just before she chooses James.
Gemma Warren, right, on Naked Attraction just before she chooses James. Photograph: PR

James had really lovely legs and a nice bum. People ask, did you look at the willy size? Well, of course. There are six penises in your face. But it wasn’t like, that’s the willy I want to have for ever. I wanted to assess everything. I fancied his bum. His legs were lovely. He had lovely genitals as well. But, primarily, it was James’s whole body that attracted me. It wasn’t just because he had a nice willy, or his smile. I wanted to get to know him.

On our first date, we didn’t stop talking. I unloaded my life story on to him – I have a tendency to ramble. After our date we had a few drinks, then went back to our hotel, changed , went back out again, bought snacks and walked around the streets, just talking. We don’t live together, but we see each other as much as possible. We’ve been doing long distance for four years. I do nag him to move in with me, though.

James North: ‘I’m glad I went on. I ended up with Gemma.’
James North: ‘I’m glad I went on. I ended up with Gemma.’ Photograph: PR

James: I was watching the first season of Naked Attraction with my mum. An advert came on saying, “Fancy trying your luck?” I said to her, “Shall I give it a go?” Mum said, “If you go on that show, I will kill you.” I pulled my phone out and applied. I’m confident around people I know, but on the day, I was nervous. When you’re hanging out with all the other lads, it’s just a laugh, really. It’s bloody weird. We didn’t have enough time to size each other up. You have to get naked and walk into the pods, and wait in there for a while.

I did not forget I was naked at all. I was very cold. They put the fans on us.

I thought Gemma looked really nice. I liked her smile and her eyes. That’s always been alluring for me. She pointed at my bum. That’s the part of my body I always get compliments on. I’ve got a woman’s bum.

I love everything about her. She’s easy to talk to. She doesn’t shut up. It’s really easy when you just have to be the one who listens.

Whenever the show is repeated, I get texts from my friends. I can’t watch because I hate the sound of my voice. It’s so cringey. But I’m glad I went on. I showed my mother how far I’m willing to go to spite her and ended up with Gemma. All in all, I crossed a few things off my bucket list.

Challis and Brent Zillwood met on The Undateables in 2015.
Challis and Brent Zillwood met on The Undateables in 2015. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

The Undateables

An observational documentary series that follows the attempts of people living with challenging conditions to find love

Challis Zillwood, 33, a carer, and Brent Zillwood, 29, a film-maker, both from Devon, met on The Undateables in 2015

Challis: A friend of a friend posted on Facebook, “Does anyone want to go on a date? It will be filmed.” I jokingly responded, “I need all the help I can get.” She said, “All jokes aside, you will be perfect for this guy.”

Before I met Brent, a member of the production crew came to meet me, and said, “I promise you will like this guy. You guys are so similar.” I thought they were just saying that. But when I met him, I thought, we really are. We have the same dark sense of humour.

We met at a restaurant by Exeter quay. It was a gorgeous sunny day. We had such a good time that we talked for five hours. The producers were like, we have to stop now. It’s time to go home. We’re done for the day. We exchanged numbers off camera. The producers asked us to re-enact it, but we refused. It was a natural thing that happened.

A year to the day after we met on 22 August, we got married in Las Vegas. It’s the craziest thing. It’s so bizarre how it worked out for us. I was so close to dropping out of the show. Literally, the day before our date, I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. I was worried about getting crucified on Twitter. But I’m so glad I did.

Brent: I have Tourette syndrome and had been doing a bit of work with the charity Tourettes Action. The production company got in touch with me through the charity, and asked if I’d like to take part. I wanted to raise awareness of TS, so I said yes.

The morning of my date with Challis, I woke up feeling really positive, but nervous. You can see it in my face when you watch the episode. Producers showed me a picture of her, and they couldn’t use any of the footage because it was like someone pressed my “off” button. I knew they wanted me to say she was gorgeous, but I couldn’t say anything. I went into self-protection mode. I thought, this girl is too damn gorgeous to be interested in me. Genuinely, when I saw the picture of her, I thought: am I being punked? Is Ashton Kutcher going to turn up?

I liked her sense of humour straight off the bat. There was no small talk. They created some awkward silence in the edit, but I don’t know how they managed that because we literally didn’t shut up.

Watching now, I cringe at the clothes I was wearing. Fingerless gloves! I look like a bandit. If people recognise me in the street and ask where they know me from, I tell them Crimewatch. They don’t say anything else after that.

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