Prince Yoel of Ethiopia—the great-grandson of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia—was finishing up his law degree at Howard University when he bought a diamond ring to propose to then-girlfriend Ariana Austin, a Harvard grad, philanthropist, and writer. He arrived at her parents’ house with a jewelry box and a bunch of balloons. Perhaps feeling overly excited, he may have knocked a little too exuberantly. Hearing what she interpreted as banging, Ariana feared there might be an intruder trying to break in and called her parents who were on their way home from a night out. Luckily, once she realized what was happening, the life-changing occasion went off much more seamlessly.
And so, after a decade of dating on and off, and each living abroad at points, the two, who now famously met in a Washington, D.C., nightclub (thanks to a New York Times article that went viral earlier this week), were engaged and ready to start planning their wedding. The couple dubbed their match as what happens when “Old World aristocracy meets New World charm.”
Prince Yoel kept his royal status a secret when he initially approached Ariana at that D.C. bar, telling she and her friend they looked like they’d stepped out of an ad for Bombay Sapphire—to this day, the bride’s family laughs about this pickup line—but she immediately recognized a worldliness in him and was impressed. The prince, who was born in Rome when his parents, Prince David Makonnen and Princess Adey Imru Makonnen, were living in exile, grew up in Switzerland and was well-traveled. His family is part of the Solomonic dynasty, whose reign ended in 1974, but his lineage stretches as far back as the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Meanwhile, Ariana is of African-American and Guyanese descent and boasts a maternal grandfather who served as the lord mayor of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
“I come from a large fun-loving mixed family,” says Ariana. “And, as my dad said, ‘There was the task of planning events for my new family, one of the world’s oldest families!’ So there was a lot to incorporate, but I think we pulled it off.” The familial melding wasn’t a hundred percent aligned from day one, though. Ariana had to ask for permission to have her father walk her down the aisle, which isn’t traditional in the Ethiopian Orthodox church. But her special request was well-received, and the ceremony was altered to honor the tradition. The couple worked with Yodit Gebreyes Endale of Favored by Yodit Events to plan every aspect of the highly personal, multicultural celebration.
“Choosing my dress was a lot of fun,” says Ariana. “I was with my mom and god-sister. We went to three shops in a day, and on the second one, I tried on the Lazaro. We all had an immediate response, but I wanted to keep looking. I went back with one of my bridesmaids the next weekend and got it!”
For beauty, Ariana booked what she calls her “dream team”: “Makki Araya did my and the bridesmaids’ makeup, and for hair, Yene Damtew—a member of Mrs. Obama’s glam squad—was my stylist. The beading on the bodice of my dress was incredible, so I wore very little jewelry—just a simple pair of diamond drop earrings.”
After going to a few places, Prince Yoel found his tuxedo at Lapel, a specialized tuxedo boutique in Old Town, Alexandria. “It had such a good selection, and the owner was great and had the exact tux I was looking for: The dark navy with black shawl collar,” he says.
The bride’s sisters, Sushama and Leah, along with her cousin Priya and two close friends, Jami and Vivian, all served as her bridesmaids. “They are beautiful, low-key girls,” says Ariana. “They wore different rose gold dresses, and on the day of the wedding, I gave each of them a twisted bangle of silver, gold, and rose gold to wear.”
On September 9, Prince Yoel and Ariana finally made things official. The wedding festivities started at 9:00 a.m. with a ceremony at the Debre Genet Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Temple Hills, Maryland. (Just days earlier, Ariana converted.)
“The ceremony was a wholly spiritual and uplifting moment,” remembers Prince Yoel. “It was carried out by the totality of the clergy at Debre Genet Medhane Alem Church, officiated with great passion, and followed our long history and tradition to the highest degree of detail, with all the sacraments, vestments, and oils—and apart from a few details, it was a true-to-form Ethiopian Orthodox wedding. Everyone felt the spirit, the holiness, and the love present . . . the energy was incredible. My heart felt so full of pride. I was carried away to my home country and into the millenary tradition of my ancestors.”
Later, the newlyweds celebrated with a formal black-tie reception at Foxchase Manor in Manassas, Virginia. Many distinguished guests were in attendance, including members of the Ethiopian royal family such as: HIH Prince Paul Makonnen, HIH Prince Phillip Makonnen, HIH Prince Beedemariam Makonnen, HIH Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, and HIH Princess Mary Asfaw Wossen. Other notable guests included Dr. Johnnetta Cole, recently retired director of the National Museum of African Art; Sharon Pratt, former mayor of Washington, D.C.; His Excellency Deep Ford, ambassador of Guyana to the United Nations organizations in Geneva; and His Excellency Riyad Insanally, Guyanese ambassador to the United States.
For food, Indian appetizers, Ethiopian delicacies, Ethiopian honey wine, and Guyanese black cake were all served—with lots of Champagne! And for music, there was a live Ethiopian band combined with the couple’s favorite DJ, Pitch One, who spun soca, hip-hop, go-go, Michael, Whitney, and more.
“After the reception, we had danced and celebrated so much, we stayed on a ‘high’ for days. The wedding events began on September 5 and carried on through the 10th, Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. The day after the reception, my mother and family had organized a melse [a traditional Ethiopian post-wedding celebration] with close family and friends at Meaza, an Ethiopian restaurant. My grandfather Ambassador Imru Zelleke offered a final toast to us: Well wishes of happiness and for a plentiful family!” Sounds like a fairy-tale ending befitting a prince and his bride.
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