Michelle Walder was a bundle of nerves as she walked down the aisle, just like other brides through the ages. ‘Absolutely petrified,’ as she puts it now.
That is, until she locked eyes with husband-to-be Owen Jenkins. ‘The minute I did, everything felt ok,’ she says. ‘He had a very calming presence around him and, in that moment, he was just everything I needed.’
It must have been particularly reassuring, too, because until that moment the 26-year-old hadn’t so much as clapped eyes on her groom before — and vice versa.
Indeed, the couple knew so little about each other that it was only when they sat down to sign the marriage register after exchanging vows that Michelle and Owen found out how old each other was, what they did for a living and where they were from (a primary school teacher from Hastings and a 32-year-old IT account manager from Sheffield, respectively).
But then that’s what they had signed up for, after deciding to take part in the latest series of Channel 4’s Married At First Sight, in which complete strangers are dispatched down the aisle having been matched by relationship ‘experts’, then given six weeks to decide whether to make a go of it or not.
Michelle Walder and Owen Jenkins are pictured signing the marriage register shortly after meeting
Now in its fifth year, the programme has been accused of cheapening the institution of marriage, despite attempts by the producers to cast it as a ‘ground-breaking social experiment’ to determine whether science could help couples find lasting love.
The answer, thus far, sadly appears to be a robust ‘no’. While there have been some lasting unions in series filmed abroad, the UK has yielded not one single long-term success story from its 12 ‘matched’ couples.
While some initially opted to stay together after the six-week settling-in period, none has lasted beyond six months. Against that backdrop, Michelle and Owen are practically veterans — for here they are, nine months after their mid-March wedding, happily cuddled up together at the home they share in Sheffield.
Michelle permanently relocated there in the summer, and the couple are about to buy their first property together after making a joint mortgage application in the autumn.
Notwithstanding their marriage vows and in the absence of children, that’s about as big a commitment as you can make, so could this — whisper it — mean they might actually be the show’s first proper success story?
They both think so, although Owen slightly objects to questioning about the likely longevity of their union.
‘To me, we’re just like any other married couple,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t question a couple who’d been married for nine months, because you’d assume they’d been together for however long before — but you don’t always know what their story is. I know we got married on television so people are inevitably curious — but, to me, that was the least important thing.
‘As far as I am concerned, all these months on, we’re just an ordinary married couple.’
Not quite, of course — aside from getting married on TV, the duo also did so with the ghosts of series past and their rather dismal statistics hovering over proceedings.
Against that backdrop it’s a wonder anyone with half a brain cell would apply — and the likeable and intelligent Michelle and Owen are not lacking in that department. Nor do they seem remotely motivated by the 15 minutes of fame afforded by the show. So why did they take part?
Michelle and Owen are practically veterans — for here they are, nine months after their mid-March wedding, happily cuddled up together at the home they share in Sheffield
For Michelle, the elder of two sisters born to beauty therapist mum Anne, 61, and postman dad Gary, 58, in Horsham, West Sussex, the answer seemed to be a genuine curiosity about the process.
Single for two-and-a-half years after a couple of long-term relationships at university, she had grown to hate ‘superficial’ dating and was intrigued to see what rigorous matchmaking would throw up.
‘For me, the marriage thing was kind of a means to an end,’ she says. ‘It was more about the matching process. I wanted to meet someone, and I thought if this ends in an amazing marriage, then great; if it ends in a great friendship, I haven’t lost anything. It kind of felt like a win-win.’
One of the series’ first contestants, Emma Rathbone, would beg to differ, having told the Mail earlier this year that she underestimated the impact becoming a TV divorcee would have on her life.
It’s something Michelle admits she didn’t particularly dwell on.
‘I think whenever you apply for this sort of thing you don’t really believe that it’s going to happen for you,’ she says. ‘But on the day of the wedding it hit me that, if it didn’t work out, it was a divorce situation. But I put my confidence in the process.’
Owen confides that he signed up on a whim when an advert for the show popped up on Instagram.
‘I was on dating apps until last Christmas and I met some really lovely women, but it was just the format I didn’t enjoy,’ he says.
‘With this, I was drawn to the fact that the person that you’ve been matched with is as committed to making it work as you are.
‘And then I really enjoyed the process of it. You find out a lot about yourself. And actually, I thought the statistics were decent. One of the matchmaker’s success rates in terms of making long-term relationships was 10 per cent. It doesn’t sound a lot, but I reckon it’s a tenth of that on Tinder. So that gave me a lot more confidence.’
As in previous series, prospective brides and grooms submit a video to producers and are subjected to credit and criminal record checks before personality and psychological tests.
Although perhaps mindful of criticisms of previous series, the format has been tightened, meaning out went the rather gimmicky claims of matching DNA and facial symmetry, replaced by more rigorous questionnaires and assessments including speaking to friends and ex-partners.
In the final round, prospective participants meet a team of matchmakers face to face. Then they learn if they have a match.
For Owen, that came two weeks later, at which point he decided to break the news to his mum, Rhiannon, 59, a former social worker, along with older sisters Sinead and Gwynie.
‘Mum’s main comment was she was happy she was going to be at my wedding. She always thought I’d go off travelling somewhere and come back with a wife,’ he says. Initially reticent, his dad has since come round and wholeheartedly welcomed Michelle into the fold.
Her parents also seem to have been remarkably sanguine, although Anne struggled with the speed of the process.
‘I think that felt very rushed for her,’ admits Michelle. ‘When I first told them I’d applied, they didn’t think it was a serious thing at all, so that when I said that I’d got matched, there was an element of: ‘What on earth is happening?’
‘But my dad is a very relaxed, bubbly sort of person, so he just bumbled along, and by the time the wedding day came along Mum was in her element.’
The wedding was on March 14 at Eastwell Manor in Kent, with Michelle looking gorgeous in a lacy long-sleeved Cath Adam gown.
Yet the fact is that, for all that matchmakers ask probing questions about ‘type’, there is no formula for chemistry. Happily, in this instance, Eros seems to have played his part. ‘I was instantly attracted to her,’ says Owen. ‘In fact, I did a little fist bump to myself just to celebrate that she was gorgeous.’ The sentiment was mutual, although Michelle admits she had lower expectations.
‘I actually went into it assuming I wouldn’t be attracted to Owen physically at first, but I instantly found him attractive and I’ve found him more and more attractive as I’ve got to know him,’ she says.
Still, there were a few agonising hours when Owen didn’t quite know what was what.
‘The only thing I struggled with was that the whole way through the wedding day I didn’t know if she found me attractive or not, because she basically smiled from the moment I first saw her until we got back to the honeymoon suite,’ he says.
‘After the cameras had gone, I think I actually said: ‘Do you fancy me, because I can’t tell?’ Happily, she said yes.’
Both, understandably, would like to draw a discreet veil over their wedding night and honeymoon, other than to say the chemistry was ‘good’.
It’s certainly clear they hit it off on all fronts, something that seems apparent today — their body language mirrors each other’s and they nod as the other is talking.
‘The moment we sat down to sign the register, we just started getting on — we didn’t even think about it,’ says Owen.
They talked non-stop on the five-hour train journey to their six-day Edinburgh honeymoon and, by the end of that, had bonded enough to have decided to go into the looming national lockdown together.
‘There was never a question of whether or not we were going to do it together. The question was where we were going to do it,’ says Owen. It meant a hasty change of plan from the Brighton flat rented by the production team for their six-week ‘trying out’ period to the Horsham home of Owen’s mum, who had relocated to the coast.
They stayed for ten weeks, the first month of which they were on their own and without the presence of the cameras which usually characterises this period.
‘We had a month before we saw everybody else and we didn’t have to worry about a camera being in our face, so I think we were really lucky,’ says Owen.
‘It made the start of our relationship very intense, but also much easier in a funny way.’
By the end of that first week, they had told each other they loved each other.
‘I think we’re very different personalities in a lot of ways, but what we realised quite early on is that our morals and values are very similar,’ adds Michelle.
Indeed, while they have had their disagreements — Michelle’s ‘horrendous’ messiness and Owen’s aversion to spicy food being minor issues — they have never argued. So far.
‘He is very logic-based and I am very feeling-based, but we tend to arrive at the same conclusions,’ Michelle says.
That includes on the issue of starting a family. Michelle says: ‘We’re definitely both on a similar radar, in that we want that in a few years, but equally I’m still quite young and we’ve also had only nine months of a relationship, so there are lots of things we want to do together first.’
Among them are going out dancing until the small hours, and a foreign holiday, neither of which they’ve managed to pull off, given the restrictions the country has been under.
They have, though, met each other’s friends and families, all of whom seem to get on well. ‘Our sisters literally live round the corner from each other and get on really well, and really strangely we realised that Owen’s mum also went to the same college as my dad at the same time back in the 1970s,’ says Michelle.
Both admit that they could little have predicted their happiness. After all, this time last year, they didn’t even know of each other’s existence.
Yet here they are — three months away from their first wedding anniversary — in love, and about to move into their newly purchased home. Is it a vindication of the show? Or pure luck?
The newlywed couple veer to the former. Either way, their gamble seems to have paid off — and it would be a churlish soul who did not wish them very well indeed.