Somehow, it was only in 2014 that FOX aired a reality dating competition with the premise “What if twelve American girls kind of didn’t remember what Prince Harry looked like?”

I Wanna Marry “Harry,” which was pulled from the air and cancelled after only four episodes, was formatted almost identically to FOX’s 2003 reality show Joe Millionaire, except instead of promising the contestants that the bachelor was loaded, they would heavily imply that he was secretly the Crown Prince of Wales, at least until about halfway through the season when they just began outright lying.

“Harry” was actually a random 23-year-old English chap named Matthew Hicks, who bears an “Oh, I totally see it now” resemblance to the royal. The girls were American actresses, models, and actress/models who teetered in high heels and chittered amongst themselves with uptalking glee every time Matthew Hicks mumbled into the room.

As inane as that premise for a reality show is, its ridiculousness becomes even more apparent when the central bachelor has a personality like a piece of wet cardboard. It seemed like Matthew Hicks was a nice person, but he was a nice person who’s trying his absolute damnedest to fool a group of women into thinking he’s Prince Harry. So questions like, “So, what do you do for a living?” and “What’s your name?” are answered with, “Oh, this and that,” and “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The result was that Hicks had both the appearance and personality of Prince Harry’s figure at Madame Tussauds.

FOX's "I Wanna Marry Harry" - Season One
Credit: FOX/Getty Images

By all accounts, FOX pulled out all of the stops to gaslight these women into thinking this random stranger was Prince Harry. “Harry” arrived via helicopter to the “palace” (actually Englefield House, an estate that’s been used as filming location for, among others, X-Men: First Class, The King’s Speech, and Disney’s Descendants). He was surrounded by a security detail at all times, including a butler named Kinglsey (portrayed by English actor Paul Leonard), and constantly referred to either as “Sir” or “His Royal Highness.” Dates were interrupted by “locals” asking for his picture. One contestant stumbled on a photoshopped photograph of Hicks with his “brother” Prince William.

You’d assume producers might have realized the girls would doubt that the then-fourth in line to the British throne would be looking for his bride among a group of 23-year-old American cocktail waitresses on a FOX reality show, and that while the cameras were off, they might have just privately told the contestants just to play along.

But according to the show’s winner, Kimberly Birch, the show created a cultish atmosphere to perpetuate the hoax.

In an interview with Splinter in 2015, Birch said that, off-camera, at night, “people from production would stand outside your room, when you’d think that they didn’t know you were up. They’d whisper, ‘You have to get him back to Buckingham Palace. The Royal Family’s very upset. They’re not happy about the show. It’s this new thing they’ve never done before, and they’re trying to be up and up with social media, and the way that the world is.’ They really messed with us.”

It even went a step further: “They actually had a therapist come on set at one point and talk to a few of us who were saying it wasn’t him. We found out later that it wasn’t a real, licensed therapist. It was just someone from the production team. [The therapist said] ‘You have to learn how to trust your mind. I understand that you’re in a different country, and you don’t know what’s going on, but you have to trust the people here. It’s not good for you to keep questioning.’ It was really crazy.”

And this was after a full week of complete isolation before the filming began so, as Birch put it, they would go a little stir crazy. “They flew us out there and put us up in a hotel a week before we started filming. They locked us each in our own separate rooms, where we had no TV, no cell phones, no books, and absolutely nothing to do for a full week.”

It’s as if producers knew that in order to engineer their hoax with any chance of success, these girls would need to be overtired and isolated, completely enveloped in a pocket-universe in which alcohol is unlimited and Prince Harry looks a little different than you remember him.

In the three years since I Wanna Marry “Harry” was born into existence, Prince Harry has distanced himself from his playboy reputation, a transformation completed and crowned with his glossy engagement to Meghan Markle, the American actress and humanitarian with cool-girl-next-door poise and perfect hair.

Matthew Hicks hasn’t tweeted since 2015, but his Instagram is filled with pictures of mountains and blue skies. He’s been road tripping in New Zealand in a van, he told EW via email. “About time, good on him!” he wrote about the real Harry’s engagement.

Hicks and Birch kept in touch after the show but never continued a romantic relationship. Reality show couples under the best circumstance are tenuous: couples that are supposed to declare their love for each other have only dated for about a month, in highly staged scenarios, simultaneously with a dozen other women. Hicks had the added hurdle of not being able to tell these women anything about himself, and also maintaining his role in an accessory to an implausible group gaslight attempt.

But ridiculous as it was — and it was ridiculous — the show was attempting to tap into something real: the American fixation on English royalty and a fantasy of a fairytale romance. There’s an entire genre of films, most on Hallmark or Lifetime, about girls falling in love with royals from imaginary foreign countries. It’s a dream that seems foolish or eye-rollingly regressive, but it’s one deeply embedded in the American psyche, like gold ore in the California hills.

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge may have technically been a commoner at one point, but Markle feels as if she belongs to us — she’s an ordinary American, albeit a preternaturally gorgeous one.

We have always worshipped the beautiful and rich and famous, the unattainable who live in a social strata above us, and there is nothing less attainable to Americans that the British aristocracy — so unattainable that 12 of us could be adequately fooled by a helicopter and security detail and red hair dye. At least, it had been unattainable for Americans, before Ms. Markle became the one who gets to finally marry Harry.

I Wanna Marry Harry
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