‘It taught me about brainwashing’: how reality show stars fell for a fake Prince Harry

<span>Faking it … Matt Hicks pretending to be the prince in I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’, the 2014 reality show</span><span>Photograph: Fox/Fox Image Collection/Getty Images</span>
Faking it … Matt Hicks pretending to be the prince in I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’, the 2014 reality showPhotograph: Fox/Fox Image Collection/Getty Images

Next month marks a decade since one of the most ridiculous reality shows ever aired on television. I Wanna Marry “Harry” was a dating show in which 12 American women dated Prince Harry, then the world’s most eligible bachelor. Only, obviously, it wasn’t him at all. The “Harry” in question was a lookalike: according to the show, a “99% lookalike” (I will let you be the judge).

Airing on Fox in the US before making its way to ITV2, the reality show consisted of the dozen potential girlfriends being whisked to a secluded mansion in the Berkshire countryside, then going on a series of dates with the fake prince. It was constantly implied by the production team that they were in the presence of royalty: Harry was even referred to as “sir”, when really he was plain old Matt Hicks, an environmental consultant from Exeter who had had his hair dyed ginger. The stunts for the ruse were quite something: from “sir” being whisked away by men in sunglasses after a “security incident”, to fake paparazzi invading a date before being tackled to the ground. Fake Harry was even Photoshopped into an image alongside the real Prince William for a potential date to stumble across while Hicks went to the bathroom.

The reviews were scathing. The Guardian called the programme “a cliche wrapped in a stereotype wrapped in a button-up dress shirt that looks like something Prince Harry once wore,” while the Telegraph described it as “fodder for the braindead”. Comments on X (then Twitter) ridiculed and belittled the women for appearing to fall for the ruse. Yet the truth was more complex, as I discovered while making The Bachelor of Buckingham Palace, a new six-part podcast that delves into the making of the series.

It turns out the women involved had not expected to date Prince Harry at all. Rather, they had applied for a show called Dream Date, which offered them the chance to find love (and of course appear on television and possibly build a career). They were flown to the UK with little notice. This was years before The Crown, and Harry and Meghan were not yet dominating the gossip pages: the younger prince was not as recognisable to average Americans as he is now. From the moment the women arrived at the mansion, they were cut off from the outside world. Their phones were confiscated and they were often unable to speak to one another on set when the cameras were not rolling.

Only one woman would go on a date at a time, so afterwards she would naturally go back to the group to reinforce the idea that “sir” was indeed Prince Harry. On a trip down the River Thames, members of the public were planted to shout “Harry!” from a nearby bridge. And of course, this being a reality show, there was an additional pressure for contestants to treat the situation as genuine in order to avoid being eliminated from the show.

“It taught me a lot about brainwashing, because your reality is being screwed with,” contestant Kimberly Birch told me. “You’re not trusting yourself any more. It is this group consciousness believing what everyone else was believing in order to feel sane. I can see how people are very easily manipulated, even into things like cults … I get where they’re coming from.”

Another contestant was called Meghan (surname Ramsey Jones), which, 10 years on, only adds to the surreality: this was two years before Meghan Markle started dating the real Prince Harry. This Meghan was similarly caught up in the brainwashing, telling me: “At the end of the day, if someone is feeding you a shitburger and every day everyone around you is telling you: ‘It’s ground beef, it’s ground beef, it’s ground beef!’, you start wondering: ‘Wow, is this shitburger really ground beef?’”

I Wanna Marry “Harry” was unhinged as a format, yet it revealed a lot about the state of reality television at the time. Shocking shows were often used to draw in viewers, from Bridalplasty (in which women competed for plastic surgery ahead of their wedding day) to Touch the Truck (an endurance show to find out who could touch a truck for the longest amount of time without sleeping or wetting themselves). There was also Playing It Straight, where a woman had to guess how many of the male contestants she was dating were actually gay.

The show most similar to I Wanna Marry “Harry” was perhaps Joe Millionaire, in which potential suitors were encouraged to believe they were dating someone rich – the twist being that at the end of the series he was revealed to be a “a working-class Joe”. Hicks, of course, wasn’t just pretending to be rich. He was pretending to be fourth in line to the British throne.

The ruse didn’t always work, however. Several contestants were taken to London for dates, only to spot Prince Harry masks in the window of a card shop. “It jolted me right back into reality and it opened up my eyes to what was happening,” said Birch. “It was like: ‘Oh my God, that is what Prince Harry looks like! This guy is not Prince Harry!’ My jaw was just to the floor, because it was such a validation. I felt so justified in all my questions and my resistance to everything.”

Assuming the show was called Dream Date, the women were not informed that the real name of the show would be I Wanna Marry “Harry” until it had been revealed to the viewing public. “I was like: Oh my God, is this going to be terrible?” says Ramsey Jones. “The name of the show is horrible. It’s going to be awful. They’re saying all these horrible things about us.”

Hopefully my podcast will serve as a handy reminder: next time you’re laughing at someone behaving moronically on a reality show, remember that you never know what sneaky tricks have been going on behind the scenes.

• The Bachelor of Buckingham Palace is on Wondery+ on 22 April.