Pushy mothers, drunken guests, tussles over the bill – there’s no such thing as a wedding without a drama.
And Sarah Haywood, one of the most sought-after wedding planners for some of the world’s richest people, knows only too well how emotions can spiral out of control when there’s an explosive cocktail of fairytale expectations, feuding family members and, of course, money.
Over the past two decades, Sarah has planned opulent weddings for pop stars and royalty, at venues ranging from Kensington Palace to the Tuscan hills, the Middle East and Monaco.
With her average event costing more than £1 million, Sarah – named US Vogue’s number one international wedding planner – and her team work with royal warrant holders, Michelin-starred chefs and the most exclusive couturiers, florists and bakers to create magical, immersive experiences, sometimes with the likes of J Lo or Michael Bublé flying in as the entertainment. One client spent £4 million on their day.
‘There are three big purchases in your life – the car, the house and the wedding,’ says Sarah, who got into the business after planning a party as a sideline to her work in TV production.
She knows better than anyone that no other occasion requires the same attention to detail as a wedding, and now she’s transformed herself from wedding planner to wedding fixer for a new series in which she troubleshoots for ordinary British couples whose big day is heading for disaster.
Whether they’ve blown the budget bridezilla style, the wedding dress company has suddenly gone bust or the vineyard they’re hiring for the reception has no wine, there’s no problem unflappable Sarah cannot solve.
‘The show reminded me of the early days when I was still building the business,’ she says. ‘I now work with the stratospherically wealthy whose weddings are multi-million-pound productions.
‘They don’t have a band, they have Coldplay. They don’t have flowers, they have a jungle in a marquee.
‘So what I loved about doing this show was that it really grounded me. It reminded me that at the heart of everything we do, there are two people getting married, and that’s a really big deal.’
Normally she’d plan the wedding from scratch, but in The Wedding Fixer series she’s parachuted in when the couple need help.
‘It isn’t me going in and saying, “Oh, I’ll find you a fabulous florist.” It’s me going in to try to understand what the stresses and strains are and why the couple are feeling overwhelmed.
‘So I’m like a wedding agony aunt really. The reason planning a wedding is so stressful is because of the emotion and the expectation.
‘There wasn’t a single practical problem to solve where the nub of it wasn’t actually about something else.’
Take Adam and Daniel from east London, who were preparing for what self-confessed perfectionist Adam hoped would be ‘the perfect wedding’ while his fiancé Daniel was more easy-going. When Sarah met them, Adam was turning into a ‘groomzilla’.
His obsession with every tiny detail – like how the bows should be tied onto the dresses of the ‘groomsmaids’ – was at fever pitch and at risk of sending Daniel over the edge.
‘Adam had all this anxiety tied up with approval from his mother,’ says Sarah. ‘Yet he already had it. She loves him for who and what he is, but his anxiety was manifesting itself in things like which type of plates to choose.
‘People were losing the will to live with him. His mother is meticulous and she wanted some wow factor, so there was that going on as well.
‘I knew the dinner was their big wow factor and I literally checked every single place setting.
‘We went through several shades of white for the plates and whether they matched the tablecloths, but deep down it wasn’t about that. It was about the fear of getting it wrong or being judged.
‘I was a raving lunatic on my wedding day. But people get tied up in all the emotion and expectation, so what I say to clients when somebody’s got an opinion they don’t want to hear is that sometimes all you’ve got to do is listen and explore that option, because people just want to be heard.’
When it came to Naomi and Lee’s wedding in Bromley, south London, there were some complex issues for Sarah to solve.
Strong-minded Naomi was determined to do the wedding flowers herself but Sarah knew that would involve a gruelling crack-of-dawn start at the flower market, followed by hours of work making all the arrangements for the venue.
The couple also wanted their dog Pickles to be the ring bearer – the stuff of nightmares – and there was a further issue when Sarah heard that the vineyard where the couple were having their reception seemed to have run out of their favourite wine.
‘But when I really got to know Naomi, I realised her controlling aspect was actually an insecurity, so she needed to feel comfortable.
‘She used to have an overbite and to rectify that, some years ago, she had reconstructive surgery, so she looks different now.
‘She was very concerned with how she would look and whether people would judge her, and it was coming out in things like, “I’m going to be very busy, I’m going to do my own flowers,”’ says Sarah.
‘As for the wine, I said it was the vineyard’s problem and they needed to deal with it. Sometimes you just need to be firm.
‘Everybody wants an experience for their wedding, and I’d say going to a vineyard but drinking wine made by somebody else is a bad experience. I thought the owner probably had a secret stash, so I went to get it sorted.’
Sarah has experienced many logistical challenges in the weddings she’s planned, including VIP guests arriving in private jets so early there have been no staff at the aerodrome to meet and greet them, and a wedding cake so wide it wouldn’t fit into the hold of the plane transporting it.
But Josie and Ben’s big day in Walsall in the West Midlands presented Sarah with new challenges.
Josie was marrying for the third time and was haunted by mistakes she’d made at her previous weddings, which was preventing her from sticking to any decisions she’d made for this one such as her jewellery and hairstyle.
‘It was hurtful to see how people joked about being three times married around Josie.
‘Somebody said to her, “If I don’t make this wedding, I’ll come to your next one”, and she laughed it off.
‘So I stopped her and said, “Why are you joking about this? This is not a joke.” It was manifesting in her being controlling, wanting it to be the perfect day.
‘But on the day she finally said, “None of these things matter. I didn’t spend the day wondering if my necklace was straight because the man was right this time.”’
Sarah herself married at a London registry office in 2001, followed by a church blessing a week later for 200 people and a marquee reception in her garden with her favourite food – bangers and mash. Would she go back and change anything?
‘I would change the decor, but I don’t regret anything,’ she says. ‘It was the best day of my life. And that’s how it should be for all weddings.’
The Wedding Fixer starts on 25 February at 10pm on W channel.