By Kim Janssen
They’re household names, actors, authors and CEOs from some of Chicago’s wealthiest families.
But when they throw a party, the city’s power couples don’t necessarily want everyone to know about it.
That’s why many of them put their trust in Reva Nathan, 62, a wedding planner who has stood behind the scenes at high-end downtown events for 35 years. In all that time, she says, she’s never had to deal with anything so vulgar as a “bridezilla, or even a groomzilla.”
Too discreet to publicly discuss most of her clients, Nathan had a rare moment in the spotlight in 1994 when she organized the Oscar party for South Side-raised director Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump.” But her bread and butter events include catering to lawyers and big shots from the world of finance, people who are used to getting what they want.
A background in psychology (she turned down the chance to get a doctorate at the University of Chicago to start her business in 1980) proved useful in the emotionally charged wedding business, she says.
But although the average U.S. wedding now costs an eye-popping $31,000, according to theknot.com, that isn’t nearly enough to get you a meeting with Nathan. Her “average” weddings run from $100,000 to $500,000.
Would-be clients with smaller budgets are politely encouraged to instead spend her fee of $7,500 to $15,000 on “something else that will make you very happy.”
While TV and movies have made wedding planning an appealing career, the reality is less glamorous, Nathan told the Chicago Tribune during a recent chat at her office. “I ask them why they want to be a wedding planner, and if they say ‘I’m creative,’ I advise them to reconsider, because that is only 10 percent of the job,” she said.
We talked to her recently about celebrities, wacky wedding ideas, and reality TV. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What did studying psychology teach you about weddings?
A: You have two families who all of a sudden are put into this situation that they’re planning something together. It can bring out the best and the worst in people.
Psychology has helped me to just listen to what everyone is saying, figure out what the true feelings are behind what they’re saying and try to come up with a peaceful solution. I try to remind everybody that it is a happy and joyful occasion.
One of my favorite moments is when I’m about to send the bride or the groom down the aisle. I love that emotion, that one moment, and I try to calm them down. I hold their hand, and if it’s the bride I tell her how beautiful she looks one more time, and if it’s the groom, I usually crack a little joke, just to get them to smile. I’ve had a few who were so nervous they said, “Reva, will you walk in with me?”
Q: Reality TV paints a terrifying picture of the modern bridezilla. Have clients become more demanding?
A: Everybody’s entitled to make you work a little harder! But I don’t watch those shows. They’re so overproduced and far-fetched, that’s not the reality.
Brides and grooms are more established today than they were 30 years ago. They’re not in their early 20s. So they’re putting their business background into the planning. If they’re lawyers, they read the contracts a little more carefully. If they’re in finance, they love spreadsheets more than the average couple.
Q: Have their demands changed?
A: So many young brides go on Etsy or Pinterest and see thousands of pictures of weddings on farms or in barns or on beaches. They love the pictures, but it doesn’t translate well to a wedding here in Chicago. One of the challenges has been taking their pictures and trying to make it work.
Q: What do celebrities look for that other clients don’t?
A: Definitely discretion. They want to ensure that they and their celebrity guests are treated anonymously, that no vendor is interrupting them or asking them for pictures, that there isn’t publicity of their events after the fact. Other than that, they want what everybody else wants: a fun, well-organized, creative party.
Q: Is there any difference in how people behave at a $500,000 wedding?
A: No. It just means more people, more expensive venues, more expensive flowers. Everything is a little bit more on a grand scale. Sometimes I don’t think that you could tell that a person spent that much money. It’s always very tastefully done, and it’s very private what they’ve spent, it’s between them and me.
Q: Have you ever had anyone leave a bride at the altar?
A: I’ve had people cancel as close as two weeks before the wedding. It’s sad and it’s very expensive. I try to help them retrieve as many of their deposits as possible. But I’ve had clients who’ve lost close to $100,000.
Q: What do people fight about the most?
A: Guest lists can be stressful. Brides and grooms want to include as many of their friends as possible but may not want to include their parents’ friends. Or the groom’s family has more friends to invite than the bride’s family, and the bride’s family is paying.
Q: What’s the wildest request you’ve entertained?
A: I did a wedding at a luxury resort in the Bahamas, the bride and groom chartered a plane for 140 guests and paid for their travel and stay. They wanted to cut their cake on the terrace, and as soon as they kissed there would be an enormous fireworks display behind them.
I was on a walkie-talkie to trigger the display. But there was a two-second delay before the fireworks went off, so I had to say, “Keep kissing, keep kissing!”
Q: How do you dissuade people from their wacky dream wedding ideas?
A: I say, “Oh, well that’s a possibility! Have you considered X, Y and Z?”
Q: What’s the worst idea you’ve ever heard?
A: To not serve dinner at a nighttime wedding. I explained that although it’s a novel idea, the majority of their guests would go home from that wedding remembering that dinner was not served and that they were hungry, as opposed to that it was a great and novel idea.
Q: What’s your greatest fear?
A: Disappointing my clients on the most important day of their lives. I have a recurring nightmare that I am still putting out the place cards when guests are arriving.
Q: What are you like as a guest at other people’s weddings?
A: I cannot relax. I always want to pick debris up off the floor and move stuff around. But it’s nice to sit down.