03/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Sitting in her three-bedroom Minneapolis bungalow, watching Rick Rockwell propose to Darva Conger on FOX's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Elizabeth Weinlick burst into tears. "It was the look on her face," she explains. "I knew what she was experiencing."
And how. On June 13, 1998, in front of some 3,000 onlookers, Elizabeth had competed with 27 other women at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., to marry David Weinlick, a man she had met only briefly five days earlier. "I was chosen for David at 3:30," she says. "We got married at 4:30."
Still, the Weinlicks' moment wasn't quite as surreal as the Y2K version. David, 29, an English composition teacher at the University of Minnesota, is far from being a multimillionaire, and the competition was run by family and friends of the groom, not a team of ratings-hungry producers. But the most important, and surprising, difference: They're still married. "It's been absolutely fantastic," says Elizabeth (née Runze), 29, a nursing student at Minneapolis Community College. "Every single day is laughing and happy. People who don't know our story think we're a normal couple."
Yet they never would have met if it hadn't been for a bride-shopping contest called The Campaign to Elect a Mrs. David Weinlick. David, raised in Minneapolis by his father, Hermann, 62, a Moravian minister (who is divorced from David's mother, Sylvia, 62, a teacher on an Indian reservation), had drifted through a series of frustratingly brief relationships when he told his friend Steve Fletcher, 22, that he really wanted to get married. "Dave would date people who were absolutely wrong for him," says Fletcher, now an aspiring film producer in L.A. So in June 1997, Fletcher half-jokingly suggested that David let his pals help him find a bride. Amazingly, David agreed. "Your friends," he says, "aren't blinded by hormones and emotions."
A Web site and local TV ads attracted both media attention and a few useful freebies. A wedding chapel in the Mall of America volunteered to host the nuptials, and Bloomingdale's chipped in with the wedding dress. Most important, though, a newspaper story about David attracted Elizabeth, raised outside Minneapolis by Annette, 57, an accountant, and Paul Runze, 58, a collectibles shop owner. (They divorced when Elizabeth was 14.)
Elizabeth says she was touched by the apparent sincerity of David's quest, which reminded her of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance in Sleepless in Seattle. "I felt that it was my destiny," she says. Five days before the contest, she picked up an application from the groom-to-be, who was handing them out in a city square—and he was so impressed by her that he did an impromptu flip.
On the fateful Saturday, friends and family quizzed the prospective brides on everything from their favorite books to their mental health, finally presenting David, who was mingling with the candidates and crowd, with four nominees. David interviewed all four in private and, after a quick chat with Elizabeth, got down on one knee and popped the question. "His charisma, his attitude just exuded from him," she says. "My gut was-telling me to do this."
Unlike the made-for-TV marriage of Conger and Rockwell—which David calls "incredibly chauvinistic," since it "perpetuates the notion that women marry for money"—this marriage, he maintains, is grounded in the belief that "it's commitment that makes a relationship work, not rapture." Elizabeth agrees: "We're about commitment, a lifetime together and being friends."
Also unlike Rockwell and Conger, the Weinlicks consummated their marriage within a day or two—and were trading "I love yous" by week's end. "They are made for each other," marvels Elizabeth's brother Dan, 34. "It took my wife and I five years to get to a point they arrived at in four days." Not that everyone approves: "This reflects a superficial, cavalier attitude toward the institution of marriage," says Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. David's minister father wasn't thrilled at first, either, but now says he is "very positively impressed."
These days the Weinlicks are thinking positively too, calling each other "sweetie" and planning to have a child in two years. After all, says Elizabeth, "When you're with a stranger—and he's your husband—you have no choice but to view every quality of that person in the best possible light. Because you're stuck with him."
Grant Pick in Minneapolis