When some of the Married at First Sight NZ contestants decided to host an anniversary party to celebrate one year since they all tied the knot with strangers, there were quite a few names left off the guest list.
Just half of each of the five unsuccessful couples made the cut, in order to avoid catfights and name-calling, while still-smitten Brett and Angel Renall were too busy being loved-up in Canterbury to attend the Auckland do.
"We wanted to keep away from scandal and drama," explains Vicky Gleeson-Stokes. However, it's pure cackle-filled chaos when Woman's Day joins the excitable party-goers to mark the milestone with an exclusive photo shoot.
As music blares and endless selfies are taken, Ben Blackwell steals Claire Lawless' phone to send mischievous Snapchats to uninvited contestants, while Haydn Daniels zips up Lacey Swanepoel's dress, then teases, "I got closer to you than your husband ever did!"
When we finally lure all five of them in front of our camera with glasses of bubbly, insurance consultant Ben, 27, marvels, "This shot wouldn't have happened during filming. We hated each other's guts."
Nodding, primary teacher Haydn, 32, adds, "There was a lot of conflict between the cast members, but I reached out and apologised, and these guys accepted the olive branch. We've moved forward, which is nice because there were only a handful of us who have been through this unique experience."
While they all agree with flight attendant Vicky, 28, when she describes her time on MAFS as "extreme, hectic and stressful", not a single one of them regrets going on the show.
Technology contestant Lacey, 31, insists, "I came out of this a very strong person. If I did it again, I'd probably do it exactly the same way."
Haydn chips in, "And it's a good conversation starter. It'll be a fun story to tell the grandkids one day."
When talk turns to their exes, vomit sounds are made, eyes are rolled and the word "loser" is sprinkled around liberally, although function coordinator Claire, 52, says of her estranged husband Dom Timmon, "He was the one who got away. It's been months since I last bumped into him at the pub, but I'll talk to him if I see him. He's just not my type."
Most of the cast members haven't exchanged words with their spouses since 2017, but Ben confesses, "With the anniversary, a lot of memories came back and emotions have run high. I hadn't spoken to Aaron [Chisholm] since November, but this morning I called to wish him a happy anniversary. He was quite surprised and we talked about how hard the past 12 months have been. He's moving to the UK and I wished him good luck. It feels like a weight's been lifted."
Ben is now in a "difficult" long-distance relationship with Melbourne-based ex-boyfriend Jayden Jacobson – and he's not the only one who's moved on.
His bestie Vicky has been dating a new man for the past three months, while Haydn has been seeing someone for nine. Despite their cosy Instagram videos, he insists the new girl is not radio star Jay-Jay Feeney, saying, "She's just a really good friend."
Lacey has had potential suitors accuse her of being "that b** from TV who doesn't give guys a go".
However, she smiles, "My love life is good, but after my time on the show, I'm keeping it private!"
Meanwhile, Claire, who has driven up from Palmerston North for the celebrations, tells her castmates, "I'm out for a good time tonight – you guys have to find me a husband! Actually, nah, I don't need a man for anything ... except the obvious. And even then I prefer sparkly shoes."
All five contestants will be keenly watching the second local season of MAFS when it starts in October, although Vicky admits, "I'll need a strong drink with me."
Lacey agrees, "There will definitely be cringe moments that'll be easier not to watch."
When it comes to advice for the new brides and grooms, she instructs, "Go in with an open mind and a good sense of humour because it's a struggle if you can't laugh at yourself. And if you need to have a difficult conversation, practise it with someone who isn't on TV first – if they react like you're crazy, pick another approach!"
Vicky advises, "Don't expect to be happy straight away and don't expect the person you're matched with to be your Prince Charming because he probably won't be."
To which Ben adds, "Go in there with the lowest of expectations, then the only way is up."
But the last word goes to Claire, who earns a cheer from her mates when she warns the new contestants, "It's not about you – it's about ratings!"
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