Wedding contest losers win big after all
Looks like their dream came true after all.
Deborah Singer and Craig Stuart entered a contest to win a free wedding in Charleston. They lost, but in the process won the hearts of wedding vendors from Florida to New Jersey.
And as a result, the Arkansas couple tied the knot in the Holy City on Saturday.
"Something inside of me told me I had to shoot her wedding," said Elizabeth Leighton, a photographer who donated her services. "I just thought that it would be something good — for her, for me, for her soul, for my soul, to be able to capture her day for her."
Singer and Stuart had entered the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau's "The Ultimate Wedding Giveaway." The winner was chosen by online voters, based on short videos the couples had submitted.
The race for first was "very close at times," according to marketing director Louise Ballard.
In the end, Stuart and Singer placed second with 13,185 votes. The winning couple, South Carolina natives and pseudo-celebrities from their time on the reality show "Survivor," had 15,588.
But the Arkansas couple's video, in which Singer tells of her medical bills due to breast cancer and her dream of getting married in Charleston, resonated with some viewers who weren't about to let her walk away empty-handed.
A perfect Match
Singer was in her late 20s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"The experience really put life into perspective for me and made me realize that life is short and should be shared," she said in the couple's contest video. "I wanted to find my soulmate."
She found him on Match.com.
Stuart had entered very specific criteria. Among other things, he wanted to find a redhead who liked cats and Thai food.
He lived in Arkansas and she in Georgia when they met online in 2005. They felt an instant connection and two weeks later met in the Atlanta airport.
Singer remembers telling her mom that Stuart was the first man she could picture waiting for her at the end of the aisle.
She eventually moved to Arkansas to be closer to Stuart and got a job producing documentaries for nonprofits. Stuart is the executive director of Visiting Angels, which provides in-home care for the elderly.
Ten months later, on Singer's 32nd birthday, Stuart proposed.
Having grown up in North Carolina and having traveled here multiple times on family vacations, Singer knew she wanted to get married in Charleston, particularly in one of its historic churches. But when she found out that most charge nonmembers $2,500 to $3,000, it took the wind out of her sails.
She's been cancer-free for nearly five years, but is still paying medical bills. Because her risk of developing cancer again is high, she is monitored twice a year with breast MRIs and mammograms.
She learned about the wedding giveaway in a print ad and decided to give it a try.
Clearly it didn't work out as she had planned, but now she thinks the outcome was better.
For one, Singer believes she had more freedom in her wedding decisions. Second, she and Stuart learned after they entered the giveaway that they would have had to pay taxes on the prize, valued at $80,000. They ended up spending about $10,000, far less than what they estimate the taxes would have been.
Singer is quick to point out the contest opened doors for her and Stuart, giving them the exposure, and assistance, they needed to have their dream wedding.
Acts of kindness
A jewelry store manager in New Jersey sent Singer a gift: a pearl necklace and matching earrings to wear on her wedding day.
A makeup artist who has worked on shows such as "One Tree Hill" and "Dawson's Creek" came from North Carolina to do Singer's makeup. (It stayed on through the tears.)
Two photographers, Leighton, who lives in Florida, and Tomme Hilton of Charleston, shot the wedding for free.
Multiple other local vendors wanted to donate their services, including Hannah Alexander of WED. The wedding planner, who had a tumor removed from her breast at 21, said she felt compelled to help Singer.
"When we first talked on the phone, she just had such a great spirit about her," Alexander said. She called the bride "humble," "laid-back" and described her as "a bona-fide sweetheart."
Free music was provided by Lee Edwards, owner of Lee Edwards Entertainment.
"We really thought that it was a couple that deserved the opportunity to have a beautiful wedding in Charleston," Edwards said.
Stuart and Singer received discounts from various vendors, including Redeemer Presbyterian Church, McCrady's Restaurant, The Cake Stand, Snyder Event Rentals and The Mills House Hotel.
Singer said she and Stuart were "blown away by the outpouring of support." Without it, they wouldn't have been able to have their wedding in Charleston, which she calls "one of the most romantic places in the world."
The bride was overcome with emotion halfway down the aisle.
"You dream about that moment — walking down the aisle — your whole life, and it felt surreal to be in it," she said. "You see certain faces in the crowd, certain family members, certain friends. It's so nice to know that the people that were there love us, support us and believe in us."
Both she and Stuart were thrilled with how the event turned out, and afterward gushed about the vendors who helped them.
"The setting, the ceremony, the reception ... it was exactly what we wanted, and we're not just saying that," Stuart said.
"It was just so perfect," Singer said. "I wouldn't have done a single thing differently."