When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers. Though we’re living in a moment where group celebrations are either being called off or adapting to extreme social distancing, in many ways these pre-quarantine parties are just the escape we need right now.
Here, we spoke with Pittsburgh couple Stephanie Hem, a health insurance strategist, and Melissa Hem, who works in Veterans Affairs. After meeting through Instagram and getting engaged in Rome (and then again Portland, Oregon), the couple “never envisioned getting married in the U.S.,” and so threw an intimate affair in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, last July.
Melissa: This is a good story.
Stephanie: We met through a hashtag on Instagram. I took a soul-searching trip to Iceland in 2015, and while I was there I hit the #poetry tag and found one of hers. I followed her, she followed me, and an entire year went by without talking.
Melissa: I looked at her profile and well, she’s beautiful. I loved her travel photographs. There was this kind of mutual Instagram crush. Every single caption she wrote resonated with me. In 2016 I blurted out, in a DM, “the things you write always make my heart pound.” I’m sitting there sweating, waiting for her to respond, and finally she writes, “I feel the same way about the things you write.” She lived in Pittsburgh, I lived in southern California, and by the time we decided to meet in L.A., one month later, we were talking every day for hours. I barely saw her face before I hugged her, and I remember sinking into her and thinking, I’ve missed you so much.
Stephanie: She moved to Pittsburgh a couple of months before we got married. I proposed in Rome in January 2018. We were walking by this beautiful fountain and I handed her a book of Pablo Neruda’s poetry — I had cut the pages in the middle and put the ring inside.
Melissa: The book felt heavy and kind of funny and I knew what was happening. I just started crying and crying. Of course I said yes. I did a similar thing to her — hid her ring in an old 1960s Kodak Instamatic camera.
Stephanie: We were in Portland, Oregon, visiting a friend in July 2018 and she proposed on this beautiful bridge in the Japanese Garden there.
Melissa: We knew we wanted a destination wedding.
Stephanie: We both love to travel, and I never envisioned getting married in the U.S.
Melissa: I figured it would help keep the guest list only to people that really love us and wanted to come. I’m Cambodian, and most of our weddings are huge. I didn’t want to put my family in the position of having to invite all these people that barely know us, and then explain it’s a gay wedding, and deal with all that. That’s a pretty uncomfortable thing, culturally — the Cambodian community is not quite there yet.
Stephanie: Costa Rica wasn’t too far. It’s an easy destination for people in California, and we had a lot of people coming from California.
Melissa: And Costa Rica was good for our price range. We didn’t want a resort wedding, and didn’t want a beach wedding.
Stephanie: It’s funny, because when we hired the wedding planners, Tropical Occasions, they expected us to have a beach wedding, and I was like, “No, no, no, no. We don’t want people showing up in sandals. We want to wear our heels. We want everyone to look their best.” We wanted a house, a space where we could have a long table, because I envisioned the actual dining experience to be the most magical part.
Melissa: Stephanie was researching all the different villas. Our planners helped us narrow it down. The one we finally agreed on in Tamarindo was a bit of a risk because nobody had had a wedding there before. We loved it because it had all the elements: completely modern with gorgeous amenities, with space for a dining table and a dance floor.
Stephanie: We had to rent everything.
Melissa: Our planners did an incredible job finding us the right vendors. They found the lighting people, they rented the chairs for us, they found the perfect florist. Budget was a big, big consideration, as we were financing it mostly on our own. To cut costs, we brought huge suitcases of stuff, like brass candelabras we were hoarding from thrift stores.
Stephanie: We took more than 30 candleholders with us. We took a marble cake stand as well. We wanted a certain vintage-y look, and it was more economical to bring smaller things with us. We went with seven suitcases and came back with five.
Melissa: My dress floated to me in a dream. I knew I wanted something form-fitting, not a bunch of fluffy stuff. I found a designer I like, Milla Nova, and since we were on a budget, I looked at PreownedWeddingDresses.com. I’m looking and looking, and then one day I see the exact dress I want, in exactly my measurements. I got the dress and sure enough, it fit incredibly well and that was that.
Stephanie: I actually didn’t have my dress until a month before the wedding. Talk about stress, right? I wanted something that was really simple and that seemed to be really hard to find — everything was just so exaggerated and big. I saw this Safiyaa dress on Net-a-Porter and took a chance. I loved it. It was elegant, form-fitting but in a classy way.
Melissa: Our wedding was on a Saturday and we got there on Tuesday. We went to a volcano, we drove through the jungle. It was a pre-wedding decompression, like, “Let’s take a breather before we head into the big game.”
Stephanie: We got ready in different bedrooms and didn’t see each other until we reached the aisle. We wanted that first-look moment to be shared with everyone. It was almost like walking in a dream and everything became this blur. I was overcome — excited, and amazed at how our vision came to life.
Melissa: It made sense that I was the one waiting for her to walk down the aisle. I felt like I should wait for her. I’m a little older than her — I’d been waiting for her my whole life.
Stephanie: Melissa’s father walked her, and for me, it was my best friend Renee. We pretty much grew up together. I grew up Jehovah’s Witness, and my family don’t agree with my “lifestyle,” as they put it, so they were not present. It was okay. I had my chosen family there.
Melissa: My friend Kelly officiated. She’s a writer, poet, and spoken-word artist. She’s got her own incredible love story with her husband. She really understood what we had gone through to finally find one another, be with each other, and make it to this point. We kept the religion out of it, but we both have a big belief in our own spirituality. I definitely believe that God and the universe brought us together — I believe that we have been together in past lives.
Stephanie: Right after the ceremony, all the guests drove to the beach with us for a photo shoot. We wanted to make sure we got group photos with everyone, and it allowed time for the wedding planners to flip the place. When we came back, they welcomed everyone with Champagne.
Melissa: We had our dinner on the villa’s patio. The menu items were all native to Costa Rica. We wanted something that reflected the country that we were in.
Stephanie: We interviewed three different chefs and went with the person who had the most passion for Costa Rican flavors and local ingredients, someone who shared our vision. We were talking to these people over the phone and couldn’t really taste their food, so we were just going by their descriptions. We did take that chance, but we made the right choice because it tasted amazing.
Melissa: I didn’t eat a lot of it. I think there was a heart of palm soup. During the toasts, there was this crazy lightning in the background, purple skies and crazy bursts of light, behind these wonderful people giving all their love to us.
Stephanie: My friend Jody gave a phenomenal speech and anytime she said key words, there’d be thunder. It was like the sky was opening up for these speeches. It was another risk, deciding to get married in July, during the rainy season, but that’s why we chose the house with a roof over the patio, a plan B.
Melissa: We had our first dance on the lower deck area, and it was gorgeous, with string lights across the pool. It was a fusion of “I Never Knew Love Like This Before,” by Jessie Ware and then “Kiss of Life,” by Sade. Then everybody went inside the villa to dance. We had our DJ set up there.
Stephanie: We gave him a Spotify playlist with over 200 songs and said, “This is what we want.” A little ’80s, some old-school hip-hop, some good dance songs — we even had some Cambodian music for her mom and her family.
Melissa: My cousin Cindy, who made me cry during her toast, she had just finished pastry school and has her own bakery-slash-doughnut shop. We asked her to make our cakes, not only to cut costs but because she’s a great artist. She made us this gorgeous naked cake, and incorporated flowers from our florist. It was gorgeous. We did a little cake-cutting ceremony.
Stephanie: The DJ was scheduled until 10 p.m., and when he left we put on our own music and someone jumped in the pool, and once one person jumps in the pool you know what happens after that.
Melissa: We even got our wedding planners into the pool, and our makeup artist, Tara. We’d rented the villa for the full weekend, and most of our guests were staying there or at the villa next door. It was like summer camp. Two of our friends even made a love connection.
Stephanie: Everyone was dressed like they were going to a ball, so they were ready to take their clothes off and relax by then. We were in the pool and up and talking until maybe 3 or 4 in the morning.
Melissa: Our little love vortex, as we liked to call it.