He was portrayed as a villain on Married at First Sight NZ and was "absolutely miserable" in his arranged relationship, but the reality series had a silver lining for Ben Blackwell – he realised during filming that he'd actually found Mr Right a few years earlier.
Woman's Day can reveal the Three star has rekindled a romance with his Melbourne-based ex-boyfriend Jayden Jacobson, who he dated between 2014 and 2016, after they reconnected while Ben was still on MAFS with his husband Aaron Chisholm.
"My marriage was an absolute rock bottom and I had the realisation that I'd had a very good relationship with Jayden," confesses Ben, 27.
"I messaged him to give him the heads-up that he might see me on TV and we just started chatting. The chemistry was still there. I realised that despite our break-up and my marriage, I'd always come back to Jayden. I've never been with anyone like him."
After crossing paths at a pride festival while Wellington-born Ben was living in Melbourne, the pair dated for two years, but they broke up when the insurance consultant decided to move back to Aotearoa to be closer to his family.
They were reunited soon after MAFS finished shooting last September, when Ben made a trip back to Melbourne, and the pair have been together ever since, taking turns at flying across the Tasman to make their long-distance relationship work.
While neither of them has yet said "the L word" in this second phase of their romance, 26-year-old Jayden, who works in hospitality management, says, "There's a lot of chemistry."
Nodding, Ben adds, "All my other exes have been cut from my life, but he's one of those people who will always be in my life."
Ben hints he may eventually relocate to Melbourne for the relationship, but he insists it's way too early to be talking about marriage – after all, he's not yet divorced from Christchurch paramedic Aaron, 26.
He explains, "You have to wait two years from the day of separation, which is a date that's burned in my mind. But even though Australia's just got marriage equality, I'm a little put off it after the show. If I was going to put my family through it again, I'd want them to see me taking it seriously."
Ben no longer talks to Aaron and recently blocked him on Facebook, saying their friendship "turned sour" after they bumped into each other in an Auckland pizzeria following the Pride Parade and the reunion descended into a food fight.
Ben smirks, "Aaron doesn't like Jayden very much. We've got nothing in common and it's fine. He and I got a very different treatment from the public, so we haven't had the same experience."
Jayden has seen only a few clips of his boyfriend on MAFS, but he isn't surprised Ben came across as a villain. He laughs,
"Ben has that sort of personality and people are quick to criticise, so I wasn't shocked."
Meanwhile, Ben has been in touch with controversial MAFS Australia contestant Davina Rankin and the pair have bonded over being "the bad guys" on their respective shows.
"I'm probably the most hated person from the New Zealand series and she's the most hated one from the Aussie show, but we've got a smaller population, so there's so many more people coming at her," tells Ben. "I don't know how she deals with it."
And Ben's advice to anyone set to appear on the second Kiwi series of MAFS?
"Don't expect to find love. Go in with the idea that it's not going to work out. If it does work out, it'll be a pleasant surprise."
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