Footage from a surprise wedding between Jarnell and Kevin Swecker. (Video by Grand Chief Attractions, edited for length)
After getting engaged in November, Jarnell Swecker and her then-fiance Kevin knew they wanted something different for their wedding.
"We've been to a lot of weddings together, and a lot of weddings were looking the same. They were so cookie-cutter, and you knew what to expect, and they all became a blur," said Swecker, 37.
On top of that, Swecker was feeling the pressure. Her friends and family members were already asking who would be the flower girl and harping on wedding do's and don'ts.
The Upper Marlboro couple wanted to get married their way. "We threw tradition out of the window," Swecker said.
On April Fools Day, around 150 guests gathered at Ellicott City's Main Street Ballroom for an event billed as the couple's engagement party. After greeting guests, the bride slipped away with her father. That's when her cousin stepped up to the microphone and made a confession: The engagement party was actually a wedding. Swecker, in her wedding dress, and her dad, in a tuxedo, burst through a side door, dancing to the Calvin Harris/Rihanna song "This is What You Came For."
Jaws dropped, Swecker said. "People are still talking about it."
Surprise weddings, first popular with celebrities looking to avoid paparazzi, have emerged as a trend among everyday couples who want to shock guests and shirk tradition. These unconventional events allow engaged couples to plan more intimate weddings on their own terms, sometimes on a cheaper budget and often in combination with an engagement party, said Lillie'ann Smith, a local wedding planner and owner of Lillie'ann Events & Designs.
"It's like killing two birds with one stone," said Smith, who has planned two surprise weddings within the last four years.
Without the pressure of friends and family weighing in, couples feel free to make their vision come alive, often without all the trappings of a traditional wedding. Smith has seen surprise weddings without assigned seating, cupcakes instead of wedding cake, and food trucks or light fare instead of seated dinner. Such amendments can be more cost-effective, she said.
Swecker said there were a million things to keep a secret to make sure her wedding had the perfect level of shock factor.
"You have to be so committed to the surprise," she said. "I was looking my best friends in the face for months and lying."
When Sheri Anderson, 48, of Pigtown, and her husband, Randford, 49, planned their February surprise wedding, they opted to tell no one about the ceremony to take place — not even their parents or their children.
"You miss out on the bridal shower and the bachelorette party, and you don't have the support of a team because no one knows," Anderson said. "You have to be connected to your partner."
Because their planned engagement party had already become so elaborate, the Andersons decided to combine it with their wedding. They planned for four months, enlisting Smith to help coordinate the blue-and-silver color scheme, the Miami-chic decor and the lounge-style theme at Preston Hall downtown.
"I think it's probably more work than a traditional wedding because if you have a traditional wedding with a planner, things are laid out for you. We didn't have anything laid out for us," Anderson said. "I didn't have any bridesmaids. I had to pick out everything myself."
Still, Anderson had unsuspecting friends and family helping run aspects of the engagement party without knowing she and her fiance would be tying the knot.
"I had one person look over the desserts, another person collect gifts, and another person look after tables ... and they just thought that was the party duty," she said.
Guests were also inquisitive throughout the planning process for both the engagement party and the wedding.
"Everyone wanted all of the details," Anderson said, but the couple remained mum and committed to their plan. "My husband is great about not talking a lot. The only thing I would do is not answer as many questions when planning my party."
Like the Andersons, the Sweckers went to great lengths to keep the wedding a secret from friends and family. Only a handful of people —the couple's parents, the caterer, and a cousin and a friend involved in planning — knew about the wedding ceremony.
"You can't talk about it to anybody. A very select group of people should know about it," said Swecker.
Swecker created a fake wedding website with a fake date, location and bridesmaids to throw off her guests.
Southwest Baltimore resident Daniel Kennedy, 28, said professional help was key to pulling off his surprise wedding in 2013.
He and his wife, Andrea, 28, invited friends, family and guests who were unable to attend their destination wedding in Punta Cana to a "pre-reception party" at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Catonsville, encouraging them to be on time for their grand entrance. They let their parents and Andrea's grandmother in on the surprise, but to everyone else — even Smith, who planned the event— the wedding was a surprise.
"[Smith] took a load off of us," Andrea Kennedy said, noting that they felt the same sense of relief that they'd hired a photographer and videographer to capture the moment. "The event went on without a hitch."
Not everyone was on time to see the ceremony, the couple said, but they had the freedom to do their wedding their way.
"If you're just a type of a person who wants to eliminate drama, kind of everyone putting in their two cents … if you're looking to not have too many hands in the pot, I recommend a surprise wedding," Andrea Kennedy added.
And the payoffs can be big.
When the Andersons surprised guests who thought they were attending an engagement party, guests were in tears (some a little upset they hadn't brought wedding gifts).
"It was great and touching," Anderson said. "We talk about it every day. There's always a moment that we didn't expound upon."
Swecker said the experience brought her and her husband closer together.
"You're holding a secret together. It's not a shameful secret. It's a really exciting secret. That experience gives you something," Swecker said.
"I wouldn't do it any differently."
Surprise! You’re at your own wedding.
While guests are typically the ones duped at surprise weddings, Grammy-nominated musician Alfred Duncan, 42, decided to flip the script for his wedding in October 2016: His guests were in on it, but his bride-to-be was the one in for a surprise.
The Charles County resident planned a surprise proposal and wedding, asking his then-girlfriend Sherrell, 32, to marry him on the spot last fall. The moment went viral, with more than 300,000 combined views on several YouTube videos, and it made national news.
"I knew that she was going to be my wife," said Duncan, adding that the two had already been taking premarital classes. "There was no point in waiting and going through the engagement process."
Duncan enlisted the help of Sherrell's favorite hair stylists and makeup artist, and got a designer to convince Sherrell that she was helping create a new line for her collection. Unbeknownst to Sherrell, the dress would later become her wedding dress.
In the process, Duncan invited around 300 friends and family members, cluing them in on the time and place, and even redirecting them within two hours of the wedding when their first venue was rained out.
Sherrell, a fitness trainer and motivational speaker, says she still gets choked up when thinking about that day. (Note: She said yes!)
"I still can't believe that it happened. People always ask 'If you had to do it again, would you?' I always say 'no' because of the anxiety and I had to relinquish control," she said.
Yet her memories of the day are "magical." Sherrell said it all worked out so well because her husband knew her preferences down to the smallest detail, and Duncan, who started his own event planning company, stresses that point: "You need to know everything about her."
"The feeling that I had that day was honestly unexplainable," Sherrell said. "I was overjoyed."