Big Budgets, Fake Drama, & Tears: An Oral History Of Say Yes to The Dress

Five former brides revisit their reality TV moment to correct the record.

by Fawnia Soo Hoo

Camila Lincowski’s 2018 episode of Say Yes to the Dress follows her heated battle with her equally headstrong mother, Oniria Correa, while shopping at the storied Kleinfeld Bridal salon. “Who wants to be a basic b*tch in white?” asks Camila. “I want a black wedding dress, so it can match my black little heart.” After a series of burns, threats, and tears, the now-Las Vegas-based real estate agent acquiesces and settles on a $5,300 embroidered mermaid gown by Alessandra Rinaudo — in white.

Camila’s experience is typical of the show’s formula. Through its 22-season history (it premiered in 2007), Say Yes to the Dress has transformed a retail rite of passage into 42 minutes of tense, suspenseful, high-octane drama, typically with the assistance of unfiltered friends and opinionated family members.

Although TLC has yet to announce its 23rd season, the show has found a new legion of fans on social media, where the hashtag #isaidyestothedress has 33 million views on TikTok. Celeb cameos abound, including Jersey Shore’s Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino and his also-made-for-TV brothers, stealing the show from sister Melissa in 2015. She’s torn between the crystal-encrusted Pnina Tornai ball gown that dominated early 2010s weddings and her eventual choice: a Mark Zunino drop-waist lace number gown for a cool $8,250. (Her brothers remind Melissa that she may not want to walk down the aisle looking like everyone else in the then-$11,600 dress.)

But what happens when the cameras disappear? Is the experience all it’s cracked up to be? Ahead, Camila and four more SYTTD brides spill the tea (or champagne) on fabricated drama, dress regrets, and what really happened off-screen.

The Bride With A 6-Figure Budget

In 2011, Kelly Dooley’s business owner mom offered up a $100,000 budget. She spent a relatively modest $34,000 on her gleaming silver, ruffled, high-low Pnina Tornai gown for her opulent Bastille Day-themed wedding, and also appeared on a spin-off, The Big Day, which billed her as “a modern day Marie Antoinette.”

At the time, I had just launched my sports bra company, BodyRock Sport, so it made perfect sense for me to be on the show from a strategic marketing standpoint.

I loved all the crystals, the long train, and the color — because it wasn’t this traditional white. It was still tasteful, in my opinion. That dress reminded me very much of French gowns from the 1800s. I just felt that it was a work of art.

We really didn’t think about [the price] because that wasn’t abnormal for us to spend that much money on something amazing. Couture retains its value, for the most part. I could sell that on Sotheby’s in two seconds. Also, the veil was seven grand, and the shoes were $3,000.

I really got manipulated and tricked [for The Big Day]. They pitched it to me [as] empowering women. I went with it because it was like “Why not?” But they literally fabricated drama. They made my mom look like this mother-in-law-zilla, and she’s not that at all.

I hated how they made [now ex-husband] Andrew look like this victim. He did not even participate in any of the planning, really, because he didn’t have any interest in doing so.

I had to do everything. If I had known that they were going to do all that stuff and make me look like I was this bridezilla, I never would have agreed to it.

There was a whole blog devoted to hating me where people would just bash me in my dress. At the time, I didn’t have the thick skin that I have now, so I’d be crying. I’d be like, “They don't even know me.”

[The dress is] at my mom’s house in the garage, boxed up. I’m going to end up putting it in a glass box at a museum. It’s amazing that [the episode is] still on all the time. My daughter was lying on my bed watching it, and she just loved it. She’s like, “Oh, my gosh, Mom, you’re so adorable. You’re so funny.” She was cracking up doing all these impressions of me, and she just is obsessed with the dress.

So, no, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. The only thing I would have done differently is not marry the person I married.

The Bride With The Fake Drama

Freelance art director Mary Hawkins, featured in 2011 on spin-off Randy Knows Best, purchased a tea-length dress with red accents and crinoline. She was surprised to find that her episode was titled “Outrageous Requests,” and that her mother-in-law Gail appeared to throw a stink eye at Mary’s red sneakers. (TLC did not respond to a request for comment on Mary and Kelly’s claims that their episodes were edited in misleading fashion.)

One of the producers from the show convinced me to do it. At the time, I worked for MTV — I made promos for Jersey Shore — so I knew what it meant to go on reality TV, and I was like, “No way, no how.” But they were so sweet, and it was really flattering.

I’m an artist. I drew out the dress I thought I would be comfortable with. I showed up with the sneakers. I wanted pockets and all these things that are really practical. It was unusual at the time, but that’s exactly what I wanted. Brides like me have always existed. We just don’t normally go to Kleinfeld’s.

[My mother-in-law] is not “conservative.” Please put that in your article. She saw the episode, and she was like, “Why did they say that about me? That is not who I am.” They also caught her in a moment when she wasn’t wearing her glasses and she was peering across the hallway to try to read a sign, and that was that squint. But she was super supportive. They really played it up.

I think my dress was $4,000. It was a lot. It was also at the low end for Kleinfeld. Instead of having something custom-made, they suggested to me to go out and buy a really big ribbon and then they styled it for me [around the waist]. They made really helpful, very normal suggestions, rather than, say, “OK, we can make you a fake cumberbund for a zillion dollars.” They didn’t treat me less than. They didn’t upsell me. I expected people to be snootier about what I wanted.

The consultants did not treat me like I was making an outrageous request. They were like, “Yeah, OK, we’ll take this seriously.”

The Bride Who Was Getting Married Three Times

Though many brides wear multiple looks today, real estate investor Monisha Akhoury was an outlier when she requested three outfits for her series of nuptials in 2013. (Kleinfeld Fashion Director Randy Fenoli sniffed, “It’s not a fashion show.”) Her 2013 episode chronicled her purchases: In the end, she left with a strapless lace mermaid gown by Romona Keveza, fitting her mom’s vision for the Catholic ceremony; a “really glamorous” Lazaro ruffled ball gown for the Indian celebration hosted by her dad in New Jersey; and, for herself, a ’30s-inspired scalloped-ruffle gown for the vineyard nuptials. The final bill tallied $15,400, with alterations.

I feel like I ended up getting a pretty decent amount of dresses for that much. The only dress that I wish I spent more time on was the one for the New Jersey wedding. [My consultant Christiana] was helpful in finding the dresses, but, in all honesty, she could have done a better job of finding [more extravagant] options. I wanted it to be a little bit more “wow.” But the other two, particularly the vineyard one, were perfect.

I got interviewed by Good Morning America as well. [Having multiple wedding celebrations] was pretty unusual, and it was pretty over-the-top. I have a few friends that called it “The summer of Monisha’s parties,” and that’s what it was. For our vineyard one, they strung probably a hundred chandeliers in the sky. People were like, “You’re too much. This is crazy.” Most people were like, “It’s going to be so fun and amazing,” but it was a little bit of a burden for some people.

Looking back, as I’m 10 years older, I feel that it was a little irresponsible of me to not consider other people’s budgets.

I actually ended up cutting [the lace church one], dyeing it, and wearing it to my best friend’s wedding the next year as a bridesmaid. The other two are at my mom’s house. She recently asked if she could give them away, and I said, “No.”

The Bride Who Wanted A Black Dress

Camila Lincowski appeared on the show in 2018, attending with her mother and two friends. She wanted a black dress “to match [her] black heart.” Randy and consultant Michele told Camila only two black gowns were available in the store. But they didn’t mention that some designers offer custom-dyed dresses.

I was so caught up in the moment of making my mom happy. I [chose a white dress] for Brent’s family, as well. Because his family is [from the] Midwest, super traditional. I feel like I already shocked them with all my tattoos. Having a black dress, everybody’s going to be like, “Are we coming to a funeral?”

I was never told, “Oh, you can [customize a white dress] in black.” No. If I’d known that, I probably would have picked a black dress [for the reception].

We had a great time, obviously, but I definitely wasn’t expecting my mom to freak out as much, especially knowing who her daughter is. So that was definitely shocking when she said, “You’re going to regret this when I die,” or whatever the hell. [Oniria said, “The day that I die, you will remember this day.”] Oh, my God, talk about pulling out the non-existing heart I have. My mom still gets a kick out of random people going up to her, “Camila! No! Yes!”

I’m actually going to do a photoshoot with my 3-year-old. She's going to wear it. Just to have a memory and then, hopefully, one day I'll pass it on to her. Then, we’ll dye it black or whatever we’ve got to do.

The Bride Who Regrets Her Budget

In 2013, health care professional Sheena (who prefers to omit her last name) sought a colorful wedding gown for the reception following her traditional Indian ceremony, as in some Asian cultures, white is associated with a funeral dress code. Her mom first declared a max of $7,000 but quickly followed up with “go up, whatever.” Her custom blush pink Pnina Tornai corset gown rang in at $11,200.

We were encouraged [to do the show] by our wedding planner. I told [consultant] Antonella the style I wanted: loud, bright, sparkles. We were really firm that it can’t be a white dress. I don’t think they fully understood the cultural aspect of why we don’t wear white. We wear red, actually, during our religious ceremony. I don’t think they knew much about that, to be honest.

My dad was like, “This is so stupid.” My parents eloped, so my mom really was living through me for this wedding and was like, “It’s only once.” Would I spend $11,000 on a dress I’m never going to wear again? Probably not. And, don’t get me wrong, I really do still like nice designer stuff. But for my sister’s wedding, I’m telling her, “Have a reasonable budget.”

Ten years later, would I do it all over again? Probably not. I’m more into privacy. I feel as you mature, you’re like, “That’s a bit obnoxious,” when they’re asking you about your budget.

I have two girls that are a year old. I’m like, “Sure, save it for them for when they get married.” [But] what if they don’t want to wear it?

But I mean, I had an overall really good experience. We’re going back to Kleinfeld next year for my sister.

The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.