Chrissy Teigen turned John Legend into a fan. Roxane Gay has devoted countless Twitter threads to it. Amy Schumer says the cast makes her “starstruck.” Lady Gaga admits she could watch it every day for the rest of her life.
90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014 as a TLC docuseries about American citizens who fall in love with someone in another country, bring their foreign partner to the United States on a K-1 visa, and must marry within 90 days before their partner is deported. Since then, it’s gained a devoted following of about 3 million viewers per episode who watch the series’ many spin-offs and iterations, which include—ready for it?—90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?; 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days; 90 Day Fiancé: What Now?; 90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk; 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way; and The Family Chantel.
Each season has seen new growth for the sprawling franchise, driving TLC to become the number one cable network on Sunday nights in 2019. Look at #90DayFiance while the show is airing and you’ll get a sense of the cultural phenomenon this show has become.
And if you watch a few episodes, you may find yourself lying awake at night wondering what will happen to Jorge and Anfisa after he's released from prison, guessing names for Loren and Alexei’s baby boy due this spring, or demanding to know what the hell is going on with Paul and Karine on any given day.
But how did a TLC reality show about visas turn into must-see TV? This is the story of 90 Day Fiancé, as told by the people who were there.
A Fresh Idea
Matt Sharp, founder and CEO, Industrial Media’s Sharp Entertainment: In 2012, maybe even earlier, I saw a television news piece about Americans going abroad to find love. These were people from all walks of life and all states who started talking to people online and fell in love. And, in many cases, they were going to meet them in person for the first time. To me, this felt like an incredible new world.
So we started looking into it, to see how prevalent it was. We discovered that once people found [others] abroad and traveled to meet them, they would then propose. The most interesting part of all, to us, was the K-1 visa process. We were blown away that after these people meet and fall in love, they go through all of this process for the visa. The second they hit U.S. soil, there’s a ticking clock. They had to be married in 90 days or leave the country.
I went around and pitched to a bunch of places, and everyone said, “No, you’re crazy.” But then I was at Realscreen [an annual unscripted entertainment conference for producers, networks, and agents] in 2013 and sat down with Howard Lee, who is now the general manager of TLC, and immediately he said, “We’re doing this.”
Alon Orstein, senior vice president, development and production, TLC: My boss at the time, Howard Lee, and I sat down with Matt Sharp and watched the sizzle tape of the still-untitled show that would track people bringing in someone from a foreign country to the U.S. and have to marry them in 90 days.
It immediately sparked with us. What we saw and heard felt really fresh. [TLC wasn’t] in the love-and-relationship space at that time, but we were starting to think about diving into that more. Our family shows had smatterings of it, and some of our most successful moments were when we tracked budding romances. This pitch felt like a real opportunity to focus exclusively on love and relationships.
It seemed so perfect for TLC. It was authentic. It was not manufactured reality. These were people who had already connected. They may not know each other well, but they met on their own and they came from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. We immediately triggered the series and went right into casting and production.
Sharp: It’s difficult casting this show. Other reality shows just take people and put them in a house together, like The Bachelor. But we are finding real couples that already exist and found each other organically. We’re not making anyone fall in love.
We started by speaking to immigration attorneys. We said, “We’re doing this documentary show about Americans who have fallen in love with people abroad. If there’s anyone in your world who would be interested, please give them our information and have them reach out.” People started trickling in.
[Season one featured Russ Mayfield, an Oklahoma-based field engineer who met Paola "Pao" Vesga Salcedo, a fashion designer and aspiring model, in Colombia while in the country on a work assignment.]
Paola Mayfield, cast member, 90 Day Fiancé, season 1; 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After, seasons 1–4: We found out about the show because [my husband] Russ hired an attorney.
Russ Mayfield, cast member, 90 Day Fiancé, season 1; 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After, seasons 1–4: It was the first season of the show, so no one knew about it. I didn’t want the pressure of the K-1 visa to rest solely on me, so I hired someone who knew what they were doing with the process.
Then one day my immigration attorney called and said, “This show called and wanted to know if you would share your lives with everything going on with the K-1 visa.” We had a couple of casting interviews. During one of them I was visiting Pao in Colombia, so we got to do a casting interview together.
Dan Adler, executive producer, 90 Day Fiancé, Industrial Media’s Sharp Entertainment: When we got those first casting tapes, we thought, These are people who you would have never seen on cable television before.
Russ Mayfield: My first question to them was “Is this going to be like Jersey Shore?” That was the only reality show I was familiar with at that time, and I didn’t want it to be anything like that. They said, “No, you’re just sharing your love story.”
Orstein: For that first season, we didn’t know who we were looking for outside of people who were engaging, had interesting backstories, were willing to be totally transparent and authentic. We looked at Russ and Pao very early and were intrigued by them. We felt they jumped off the screen and had a really interesting story to tell about how she was going to be acclimating to life in Oklahoma. That was so different from the life she knew in Colombia. They caught our attention from the get-go.
Paola Mayfield: For me, filming the show [coincided with] my first time in the U.S. When I arrived in the U.S. on my K-1 visa, I also hadn’t seen Russ in forever. So I arrived at the airport in the U.S. and all I knew was life in Colombia.
I felt like I would have time to get ready after I got off the plane, but when I landed, Russ was there and the cameras were waiting. I thought, Oh my gosh—I’m so nervous. I felt like, What am I supposed to do now?
Adler: They had already invested time and money in their love. When we got those first cuts back, it was raw and authentic.
That first season we almost wondered if it was too authentic. You’re watching these individuals who don’t know each other that well sitting in their living room, talking to each other, trying to figure their life out. They’re not screaming and yelling; they’re not in some big, beautiful house. It was like, “Is this too real?”
But we just decided to lean into the real. Other networks wouldn’t have done that. Other networks would have said, “We need to brighten up this world. We need to make them look nicer, make their house look nicer, make them look more interesting.” The people we cast were going through something authentic. The stresses and triggers of the 90-day process—we thought, Let’s sit back and watch it play out and not feel pressured to tell them to be louder or flashier. Let’s just work with who people really are.
Russ Mayfield: We had no idea what to expect when it came to filming. It got frustrating, because we wanted to be spending time together but there were always cameras around. I always wanted to do my best and look my best. So we just went with the flow. The amount of filming we did compared to what aired was frustrating—how much we worked versus what was presented.
A Slow Start
Ornstein: I think we all had a feeling that we had something special from the early days, once we got into production and started looking at the material. It did very well that [first] season, but it wasn’t this instant smash hit. It grew.
Sharp: If you’re watching Twitter, you can see when America is watching a show. This didn’t start as a juggernaut. When we started production for season two, we were trying to think about how to tell different stories.
Adler: Season two brought the game-changing couple of Danielle and Mohamed.
[Mohamed Jbali, then 26, met Danielle Mullins, 41, in a chat room. He moved from Tunisia to Ohio to marry her, but viewers—and Mullins’s family—were skeptical of his intentions. Jbali, meanwhile, felt misled by her tenuous financial situation.]
When we sent their casting tape to Matt, I thought he was going to say this was a no-go. We were looking at them and thinking, Huh—we haven’t told this story yet. We try to document both sides. In that storyline, Mohamed very clearly felt he was misled by Danielle. Whatever people might believe about his original intentions, he continues to insist that he came to America thinking certain things about Danielle and her finances and her world. He has a certain point.
But then you look at her and her life, and there’s a huge amount of skepticism [about him]. Danielle didn’t always express that to the degree we hoped, so we would make sure she had conversations with other people. If Danielle isn’t saying what America is thinking, then let’s show a conversation with her sister or a friend so people see their questions being asked.
Ornstein: We really endeavored to raise the bar in casting and to keep looking forward, to keep it fresh and tell different kinds of stories [in season two].
Sharp: All the questions that arise with each couple, all the culture clash that happens...it’s fascinating to people. It’s something we talk about all the time. Something that was part of the original pitch is that it’s interesting to see people’s interpretation of what love is. To see what that might mean in different places around the world and in different cultures. I think that’s part of why people watch. You see how love is so different for everyone.
Ornstein: We’re always hopeful going into any series. You want it to have spin-offs. You want it to have extensions. But no one predicted it would rise to this level. It became more popular after season two, and each successive season got more and more popular.
It’s become a part of the cultural zeitgeist in a major way. We have had other shows like this at TLC, but this one really resonated. This is a show that’s so socially active. This just became a show where people would come up to their friend or family members or hairdresser and start talking about it. It always surprises us how many people are superfans and know all the ins and outs of so many couples’ stories.
Other Stories Emerge
Ornstein: We made the decision to start tracking couples for Happily Ever After? [a spin-off that continues to follow popular couples from 90 Day Fiancé]. That’s when we really started to see momentum and the potential for a franchise. There were stories continuing to unfold after our cameras left.
Sharp: We realized after that first season that people really fell in love with these couples. People wanted to continue to watch them. It was like, “You’re married...now what?” Nothing is more stressful than the first year of marriage. So we asked ourselves, “Why aren’t we following that?”
Russ Mayfield: We had gone through the K-1 visa process and everything was moving along. Pao got her 10-year residency card. Right around that point, or shortly thereafter, I got laid off. Sharp Entertainment was always in contact with us, always checking in. They would say, “How’s it going? What’s going on in your lives?” So that’s when I broke the news to them that I was laid off.
It was around the time that [90 Day Fiancé castmates] Danielle and Mohammed were going through their divorce, so I guess it was the perfect pitch for production. That’s what got us into the first season of Happily Ever After?
Ornstein: There’s a lot of investment in these characters, this experience, and the whole intense 90-day period. Most couples do end up getting married and most are still together. Viewers want to know what’s going on. It was just a natural extension for us to keep our cameras rolling.
New Fan Favorites
[Season five featured David Toborowsky and Annie Suwan, who met while Toborowsky was living in Thailand. They eventually moved to the United States but experienced financial difficulties that caused a strain on their relationship.]
David Toborowsky, cast member, 90 Day Fiancé, season 5; 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, season 3; 90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk, seasons 1–3: I moved to Asia in 2013, when I was not in a good place in my life. I wanted to hit the restart button. I found myself there after the economic downtown and a divorce. I met Annie through a mutual friend, and I proposed.
A friend of mine had been watching the show and said, “You two have such a story to share.” I had already applied for the K-1 visa, so I reached out to casting. I wanted to share my life.
Adler: Annie [Suwan] was our first international story. She was like the OG Before the 90 Days [a spin-off that follows couples before they go through the K-1 visa process]. We were over there [in Thailand] trying to follow the story of her and David [which we hadn’t done before]. And there was so much fish-out-of-water stuff with David.
Toborowsky: We filmed our first season in Thailand. We didn’t know if we would even get the visa. You can never anticipate what’s going to happen during production. You just have to trust they’re helping you tell your story.
Annie Suwan, 90 Day Fiancé, season 5; 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, season 3; 90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk, seasons 1–3: The people filming, you become like family with them. You would film for like seven days straight sometimes. For me it would be like, “Hi, mom! Hi, camera guy!” We had a crew of about 10 people with us in Thailand, and everyone looks different. I’m from this small village, and now you have a white guy, an African American guy, people from Australia. And everyone in the village is like, “Whaaat?”
Toborowsky: You’re meeting someone’s family for the first time and then showing up with a production crew. And then you throw in this K-1 visa process. I think that’s what makes this so unique. You’re not just falling in love with someone, and not just falling in love with someone from another country—you don’t even know if you can get them to this country back with you.
Suwan: We showed people you just keep being happy, even when bad stuff happens. And maybe your life is colorful. It’s okay. It’s a show about family.
Toborowsky: There are many people my age who went through hell in ’08 with the housing debacle and the economic downturn. I wanted to share that you really can change your life. Annie is 24 years younger than me. I wanted people to know there is hope.
Suwan: You put your life in the camera’s eyes. Sometimes your life situations are very hard to understand from the outside, though. My family loved filming. They had never met other people from outside our village before. But they don’t really have a clue about all the cameras. That’s why I have just chosen to be real. My family, they are country people. Nothing is secret. I just told them to be real. You want to shoot a chicken and make a roast? That’s great.
Ornstein: We’ve had surprises along the way with the show. Like Sumit being married. We found out during production. We were floored by that.
[In the debut season of 2019’s 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, production found out in real time that Sumit Pawar, an Indian man in his 30s for whom 61-year-old Jenny Slatten had moved from California to be with, was married. When his wife’s family found out about Jenny, they confronted him and he was arrested for adultery.]
We are tracking these people to the best we can while being flies on the wall. I think the success of the show is because it’s about surprises for even the couples themselves. They don’t know how things are going to unfurl.
Adler: With Jenny and Sumit, if you looked at them from the beginning, he misrepresented himself as someone he was not. But in the end, there is no one who can watch that story and see when they say goodbye to each other and not say, “These two individuals are in love.” They’re a couple where I bet people watch for a part of the season and thought, Come on. But by the end, you’re crying because of the love they have and they can’t be together.
Sharp: I walked by Dan’s office while he was watching the final episode of The Other Way and Jenny and Sumit were saying goodbye. Dan was crying.
Adler: If you watch their intro package in episode one and then watch that final episode, it’s amazing we were able to capture that. It’s amazing individuals like this exist. We can’t make this up. I never in a million years would have watched that intro package and guessed where it ended. It’s beautiful, amazing, and sad. We’re always amazed by where these stories go.
Sharp: We don’t claim to understand every couple. When we look at potential couples for this show, we look to say, “This is an interesting story to tell.”
Ornstein: Jenny and Sumit was a standout story for us. It was definitely one that resonated with us internally. At the time, Jenny was the oldest individual who has ever been on the show. That was something that also made her a unique case. Someone in their 60s might be looking for love too. Something very unique about TLC that you don’t see with other networks that are tracking love and relationship stories is that we’re all different ages, shapes, and sizes. At its core, we don’t see this show as a show about immigration. We see it as a show about relationships and people who are on that journey.
A Different Kind of Reality Show
Sharp: Depending on how you chose to film it, there’s a slicker version of this show that could exist. Early on, we were looking at Teen Mom as a model of being a fly on the wall. We think at this point in nonfiction television, viewers have a detector in their chest. If something doesn’t feel real or authentic, it goes off. But once we saw the footage coming back and the rough cuts, we saw something riveting. The subtlety of it. The most sideways glance, or the most awkward situation—that was a 10. That was because of the authenticity.
Adler: From a technical standpoint, we hire producers and EPs who know what we want and how to capture that. We are documentarians. I know it’s reality TV, but we want to be flies on the wall. We want to disappear. Because of this 90-day window of production, the couples become less and less aware of the camera, and their guard drops. We’re with the couples for such a long period of time that you get these moments that really are the show. You’re there before and after things happen. Whole storylines come out of that.
We tell producers we don’t want to ever see someone enter the room. If you see them enter, it feels produced. Be with them. Don’t put cameras behind the counters. Even though that’s a better shot when someone enters a store, that shows that production was able to get there first. We don’t want the audience to ever feel the camera is in a position of impossibility. We want the camera to literally follow the couple and for the audience to see that.
That’s why you have rolling between moments, letting things breathe. It's uncomfortable sometimes because of that.
Sharp: You don’t need some huge brawl in a show for it to be entertaining if it’s real.
Ornstein: There’s a natural skepticism built into this world, but we are rooting for everyone to make it work, to find what they’ve been looking for. We’re just trying to be as authentic as humanly possible and tell that story. So if there is someone in a person’s life who is very averse to their relationship, we want that voice. If there’s a friend who is 100% in support of it, we want that voice. As the couples themselves are on their journey and start to have second thoughts, we want to tell that authentic piece of the story.
Sharp: When you begin watching this show, you realize there is no black and white. There’s an incredible world of gray that the audience loves to watch and, to some degree, play along with at home. There hasn’t been a season where you didn’t have that feeling of “I can’t believe that just happened.” There hasn’t been a season where you didn’t think, This is so unexpected. There is a mixture of genuine love that runs through this entire thing. There have been some standard archetypes and tropes about how love has been told on television and nonfiction before. On one end you have The Bachelor: “What if we put model types in a house and see what happens?” This show is the furthest from that. It’s about the journeys of real people and seeing what happens. That is the exceptional piece. The twists and turns happen naturally when we’re not trying to come up with those things as producers.
A producer’s instinct is always “Wouldn’t it be great if this happened…?” But that’s not this show.
[The latest season of 90 Day Fiancé follows Michael Jessen, a 42-year-old divorced father from Connecticut, and his 23-year-old Brazilian model girlfriend Juliana Custodio.]
Michael Jessen, 90 Day Fiancé, season 7: About a year and a half into trying to get Juliana’s K-1 visa, I was contacted by my immigration lawyer, who said, “This is a little unusual, but I was contacted by this show 90 Day Fiancé and they asked if I had any interesting cases. I thought of you guys and your situation, and they asked if I could put them in touch with you.”
One thing led to another, and here we are. I had never seen the show at that point. But my son Max was a big fan. When he found out we were in the casting process, he assumed we were already on it. He was so excited. If we hadn’t been picked, he would have been so disappointed. And if we had the chance to do it and didn’t, he would have never let me live it down.
Juliana wasn’t as for it.
Juliana Custodio, 90 Day Fiancé, season 7: I know how people can be judgmental, and I know I can’t handle it.
Jessen: She had 40,000 Instagram followers before the show was even a possibility. For a young model in her career where she is, that’s a lot. Most of her friends have five or 10,000 followers. She was getting a lot of traction in her career, and she had experience being visible and how it created judgmental circumstances.
We’re getting acclimated to what it’s like to be in this sort of spotlight. [Juliana’s] been very sensitive, and I don’t blame her. The more time has gone on, I don’t follow those negative thoughts or threats. I can’t understand what motivates people to be so rude and mean.
What people don’t see is the amount of direct messages we get through things like Facebook and Instagram. It’s really overwhelming. People say, “Love you guys!” “You’re my favorites!” Especially with my story and my ex-wife, Sarah, and how we get along. People say, “You’re an inspiration. I don’t get along with my ex and this gives me hope.” That’s cool. But you have to block the negativity.
Custodio: Because I was a model, I thought I was used to these things. But if you really, really look, a lot of people are racist and rude. I get emails that say, “You’re a bad girl.” People are being really, really, really bad. I wish I didn’t get that.
Jessen: We want people to realize we’re real people, living real lives. You may not necessarily see the entire story or the entire picture of what’s going on in our lives. You’re getting a small slice. We would like to be seen for what we are: sincerely in love and having worked really hard on this visa process for two years. It was grueling. We hope we can be portrayed as close to what our life is and what we feel our relationship is.
But now that I watch the show myself, I can see the appeal to sit and watch and enjoy a disaster. I see that with some of these other couples.
Paola Mayfield: The people who choose to show their lives in this moment, we are people. And people go through hard times. Sometimes people are so mean and judgmental, and they don’t see it that way.
Russ Mayfield: You put yourself in this really vulnerable position, and the amount of criticism is ridiculous.
Paola Mayfield: It’s so hurtful. The comments—that’s the worst part. I’m not perfect. I’ve made wrong decisions during our time on the show, and I’ve apologized to my husband for them. But people are so involved in our lives because they’ve seen us in the show. But there’s nothing I can do for them. I can just move on. That’s the only solution.
[Social media] gets people to go online and say things to the cast. They fight with others for you, they defend you. That’s the good and the bad of social media, the way it lets you interact with fans. I wish I could tell people, “Don’t be so mean to people on social media.” Cyberbullying is so true. Why would you be mean to someone who has never done anything bad to you? There’s so much hate.
Russ Mayfield: We don’t want to let that impact us, or avoid going out in public because we’re afraid of being recognized and what people will say. We want to go out and enjoy ourselves and act normal. We do get stopped, but you just keep going along.
The Positive Side of Fame
Paola Mayfield: My life has been on camera since the moment I arrived in the U.S. We’re all a family now—when I go to these events and see people from TLC, it’s a family. It’s been an amazing experience for me. This show has been a part of my life since the moment I got here.
I never could have imagined in a million years this would be my life. I am grateful for it. I had really bad moments throughout the series—there are parts of me that are not proud. But the comments from people made me realize when I am wrong. Hearing from people has made me think about decisions in my relationship. I was lucky to get that.
Toborowsky: People come up to us all over the planet and say, “Can we take a picture?” We always say, “Of course.” The fans make the show. We would be nothing without the fans. I’m very active on social media; Annie’s very active on social media. It really means something to the fans. If someone says to me in the bathroom, “Can I take a picture with you?” I always say, “Yes, but let me just wash my hands first, just like you would if you just went to the bathroom.”
Suwan: My mom is amazed that I am famous in America.
Toborowsky: They don’t have a clue how much she’s on television here. They don’t speak English. They don’t get the show where they are.
Suwan: My mom has YouTube now. So if my uncle comes over to her house, they show her a two-minute clip of the show. They can’t understand it, but they love it.
A Uniquely American Story
Sharp: Absolutely part of the secret sauce of the show is that the best way to get a clear perspective of America is to see it through someone else’s eyes. You get to see what America’s like through Larissa’s eyes, or Luis’s eyes, or Pao’s eyes in their interviews and reactions.
When they walk into situations and share what it looks like to them, it certainly speaks to where we are in America right now. It’s not just location or situational, but who we are, what our values are, and what are expectations are in terms of love and relationships and Americans’ relationships to foreigners.
Ornstein: One of the appealing things about the show to us is that it gives us the opportunity to explore all of these other cultures and countries and religions and open up windows into a world that viewers might be curious about but may not know a lot about. At the same time, we’re very much interested in exploring more about America and the country we live in and the different towns and cities and different people’s lives and experiences and hopes and dreams. We are equally motivated to peel back the curtain on America.
Sharp: This show is obviously not about politics, but it’s a very interesting thing because while there are a lot of policies and talk about tightening up the borders and immigration, the reality of the situation is that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can find love and it doesn’t have any bearing on location. The world is moving in such a different direction, and those two realities are at odds.
Season 4 of 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days premieres Sunday, February 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Jennifer Gerson is an Ellie-nominated journalist whose work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Teen Vogue, the New York Times, Marie Claire, the Guardian, and other national publications. A founding editor at jezebel.com, she is also the recipient of the 2015 Maggie Award for her reporting on reproductive and sexual health and policy.
Originally Appeared on Glamour