The frock that rocked a nation

How a TV reality show about wedding dresses almost brought down the 40-year-old Marxist government of Angola

Features

23 Mar 2017

When was the last time a TV show really rocked a corrupt government? Was it one of the legendary investigative shows — 60 Minutes, Dispatches or Panorama? In fact, it was a tawdry reality show.

For all the efforts of hard-digging investigative journalists, one of the biggest recent scandals that came to light as a result of TV exposure was all down to the American wedding reality show Say Yes to the Dress. No, really. It almost brought down the government of Angola.

The show is a masterpiece of its type. Set in New York’s legendary and exclusive Kleinfeld bridal store, the concept is simple — every week, glamorous brides sashay in and, with the help of the brilliant cast of long-suffering stylists, they pick out their dresses. There are tears, there are rows, and there’s always a happy ending.

It’s one of the world’s most successful reality formats. One of the show’s 14 seasons is on air almost everywhere in the world, and as well as the original show there are multiple spin-offs in the US and abroad.

In many ways, it represents the holy grail of the TV industry: an endlessly repeatable, endlessly returnable format that can play out anywhere, in any language.

As long as Kleinfeld’s doors stay open, as long as people are getting married, the juggernaut keeps on rolling.

The show has made its original creators, executive producers Sean Gallagher and Abby Greensfelder, very rich. It has also made Kleinfeld — for years merely a well-regarded New York bridal boutique — into a global byword for perfection and service.

So how on earth did this harmless, fun, fluffy entertainment show end up exposing corruption in south-west Africa? Well, as the show spread word of the shop around the world, it attracted an international clientele. And in today’s hyper-connected world, you can serve the global elite for only so long before you end up with someone who is a little bit shady.

It all started quite innocently. The show is laudably keen to feature a diverse range of people from all races and colours, so when a bride got in touch to say she wanted to make the 17-hour flight from the Angolan capital of Luanda to visit Kleinfeld, the producers were delighted.

Angola is no longer the war-torn hellhole it became during its decades-long civil war. It is now one of the fastest–growing economies in Africa, and Luanda is one of the world’s most expensive places to live. So much so that one of Kleinfeld’s most popular and expensive designers, the flamboyant Israeli Pnina Tornai, has opened a store there.

The bride, called Naulila Diogo, was coming to New York for three days with an entourage and wanted every member of her wedding party fitted out with the best Kleinfeld had to offer. True to form, Kleinfeld delivered in spades, and all as the cameras rolled.

Despite a minor ‘nightmare’ in filming, when the mother-in-law’s dress arrived unfinished, Ms Diogo left thrilled, having spent more than any other bride in the history of the shop or the TV show. She bought several dresses for herself, including a slinky number embroidered with hundreds of Swarovski crystals for an intimate family ceremony, as well as dresses for her mother and bridesmaids. Her main wedding gown was a gargantuan puffball that took 300 hours of beading to create. The total bill came to $200,000 — a huge sum, but undoubtedly only a fraction of the bill for an Angolan wedding with more than 800 guests.

At first, nothing went wrong. The wedding went ahead, Ms Diogo became Mrs Graca, then months later the episode aired without a hitch in the USA. Then, as always with popular shows, it escaped on to the internet.

Within hours, there was uproar in Angola. The bride’s father, it turns out, was Bornito De Sousa, an Angolan cabinet minister. And not just any cabinet minister — De Sousa was a hardliner in the dominant MPLA, the Marxist party that has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal and through the civil war.

While hypocrisy from African Marxists is par for the course, De Sousa was supposedly different. For years he had boasted he did not take a government salary.

Until the episode of Say Yes To the Dress featuring his daughter was seen in Angola, he had a reputation for being incorruptible — he was essentially the Jeremy Corbyn of the MPLA. Needless to say, that image was completely shattered by the fact that his daughter had flown off to New York and splurged hundreds of thousands on wedding dresses.

Usually in Angolan politics, this sort of thing would be swept under the rug — dismissed as ‘fake news’. However, there was no denying it. Anyone could see exactly how much cash was being spent on every single outfit, all broken down by the TV production team in painstaking salesroom detail.

Defending himself in a Facebook post, De Sousa asked why his daughter shouldn’t have fine things, displaying what one local paper called an ‘odd mixture of petulance, reality denial, and sense of entitlement that prompted even many of his erstwhile sympathisers to criticise him harshly’.

Of course, in a country with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world and one of the highest infant mortality rates, De Sousa’s explanation didn’t wash. His daughter’s dress became symbolic of the $32 billion of diamond and oil wealth that international observers say is missing from government accounts.

The Angolan government eventually weathered the storm and the protests died down. But the scandal dealt a huge blow to De Sousa’s chances of being its next leader.

Say Yes to the Dress is still doing brilliantly on TV, although one assumes they don’t film many princesses from developing countries these days. The scandal certainly didn’t hurt the reputation of Pnina Tournai’s dresses — she’s got that boutique in downtown Luanda.

So that’s where the world is up to. A simple, fun reality format can threaten the stability of an African nation with a 40-year old Marxist government. I’m sure when Sean Gallagher and Abby Greensfelder came up with the idea for Say Yes to the Dress they had no idea of its political potential. Still, they may be on to something — perhaps the CIA should start investing in reality shows.


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