Denée Benton and Carl Lundstedt were in the same graduating class at Carnegie Mellon University, where they both studied acting. “It was a very small program, so you get to know each other very quickly and well,” Carl says. Since then, Denée has been nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Natasha in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, appeared in the Lifetime series Unreal, and played Eliza Hamilton on Broadway; Carl was in Joker and the TV shows Cloak & Dagger and Manifest.
They had been dating for five-and-a-half years when, on a very regular Friday, Carl proposed. Denée, coming home from a voice lesson, was focused on getting home to chill out before performing later that night. “I was getting over a serious cold and a little hangry at the moment, looking extra busted, might I add,” she jokes. “I get a phone call from Carl saying that he ‘lost his wallet’ on a run, and he tricked me into meeting him at the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park to help him look for it.”
After she arrived to help, Carl told her “security had found it at the Cloisters,” so under the guise of taking them to the lost and found, a curator escorted them on a tour through the museum. “At this point, I’m a little confused as to why we’re getting such special treatment just to look for a lost wallet,” Denée says. “We arrived at this gorgeous light-filled room and the curator left to ‘get the wallet,’ and as I turned to find a seat, I hear ‘Denée, you’re the love of my life,’ and I see Carl getting down on one knee. I thought he was joking, so I kept walking to my seat and then was struck by the reality that this was real and turned to him shocked saying, ‘Wait, now…? This is happening now?’ and all I’m thinking is, ‘My hands are ashy and I have on a headwrap!’ and then I heard, ‘Will you marry me?’ and then I short-circuited because I’m a control freak and wasn’t expecting it. Eventually, I woke up and said yes immediately and started crying once I caught my breath and realized the dream was coming true. The joke’s on me because my one requirement for our proposal was that he surprise me—even though I’m a controlling Capricorn and don’t really love surprises. He succeeded, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so happy we’re married, because spontaneity comes so naturally to him that our balance makes it beautiful.”
That night, Denée called out of her show. Carl had booked a room at The Beekman, a charming hotel in downtown Manhattan, so they could celebrate. “We had the best night reminiscing about how six years earlier, a little drunk in the streets of Pittsburgh before we were even dating, I scream blurted ‘I’m gonna marry you someday’ at him,” Denée remembers. “And the rest is history!”
Denée grew up in a big family in Central Florida, and it was very important to her that her elderly family members be able to attend the wedding. Getting married outside was also a top priority. “We wanted to find a beautiful outdoor venue, but because Florida is the South, we wanted to make sure that the venue had never been the location of a slave plantation, which was harder to find than we thought. Bella Collina ended up being the perfect venue for so many reasons, not only because of its beautiful outdoor Tuscan aesthetic and its ability to easily accommodate our 250 guests, but my parents grew up in the Jim Crow south of Central Florida and spent time as kids working and picking oranges on the land surrounding Bella Collina to help support their hardworking families,” Denée explains. “So for Carl and I as an interracial couple, it was so profound to have our parents be able to throw us the wedding of our dreams on the land as a very powerful full-circle ancestral moment for all of us.”
They worked with Amy Shack Egan, the founder of Modern Rebel, to plan everything. “I truly could not say enough praise for her and her incredible company,” Denée says. “They are so much more than wedding planners in an industry that can feel so shallow and obsessed with the binary. It was important for us to find a planner that led with similar values as Carl and I do. Inclusivity, individuality, and diversity are so much more than hashtags for their company; it is how they approached every conversation, vendor, and detail with us—to how we even wanted to arrange our ceremony chairs. It all came back to our original intentions of community, unity, and color and twinkly lights. They executed a love party that was beyond our wildest dreams.”
For her own look, Denée’s goal was to feel 100% like herself. “I didn’t want this caked-on, contoured different version of me that I’d never seen before,” she says. “So that feeling of natural, ethereal beauty led all of my choices. I love low-back dresses that highlight the great butt my mom gave me, and my maids of honor picked out the perfect Pronovias gown on our dress shopping day from Calvet Couture Bridal Boutique in my hometown in Florida. I think it was the first one they pulled off the rack!” Denée remembers. “The simple formfitting silhouette was exactly what I was looking for, and then detailed, luminescent beading of leaves on the neck and on the stunning back of the dress lent a little magic.” Because of the ornate beading on the dress, Denée went with simple stud earrings that she got in the Bahamas. Angelica Chrysler did her makeup, creating a natural glow. Tom Ford’s Naked Bronze cream and powder eye color and Fenty Beauty’s Fenty Glow gloss bomb were the anchor products for the bride’s makeup palette.
“I really wanted my natural hair texture to show, and I was very picky, so I ended up doing my own hair, which turned out great,” Denée says. She accented the style with a handmade beaded headband from Calvet Couture Bridal, and a veil that she found on Etsy. “Dancing the night away was a top priority for me, so I wore flats down the aisle, and it was the best decision of the day other than marrying my amazing partner!” she says.
Carl wore a tailored dark blue velvet tuxedo with paisley detailing from Robbie & Co. in New York City. “I don’t get to wear tuxes very often so I wanted to have a little fun with it and go for something with a little more flair and personality,” he explains. Meanwhile, the bridesmaids picked their own dresses in a sunset color palette. “They all have such gorgeously diverse body types, and I wanted everyone to feel confident in what they wore,” Denée says. “I had nine bridesmaids and one junior bridesmaid, and I didn’t love the idea of all of them in one color, so I decided to get a little creative with it, and it turned out beautifully.”
The groomsmen rented the Huxley Outfit from The Black Tux. “They had their sizes shipped to wherever they lived to try them on,” Carl says. “If they didn’t fit, they just shipped it back and got a new one in no time. Super easy.”
First and foremost, Denée and Carl wanted their wedding day to feel communal, so they got married in the round, surrounded by all of their friends and loved ones, under a canopy of twinkling lights. The chairs were formed in a layered circle around the couple and their officiant, and they were also surrounded by an altar of their favorite flowers and colors. Carl and the wedding party walked down the aisle to Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song, and the bride made her grand entrance as John Legend and Cynthia Erivo’s cover of “God Only Knows” started playing. “We were both brought up in religious families, so we included a few traditional aspects of our faiths, like a gospel-singing rendition of the the Lord’s Prayer and readings from the Bible,” Denée says. But they also included some nontraditional elements, like a ring warming ceremony, in which all of the bridal party and the couple’s immediate families passed around their rings and took a moment to give them a private blessing. Carl’s grandmother, who unfortunately wasn’t able to travel from Chicago to Florida for the wedding, sent along an Irish blessing that was read by his two sisters.
The couple wrote their own vows. “This left zero eyes dry in the whole congregation, especially our own,” Denée says. “We both full on ugly cried like babies the entire time, and it was perfect. The most magical part was how present we felt with each other as a couple. It felt like all of the hard work and details that can make weddings feel so overwhelming were completely distilled to our love for each other in that moment. It made it all worth it.”
“I was and am incredibly close to my grandmothers, and they were supposed to be my flower girls, but my mother’s mom, ‘Nanny,’ passed away one month before the wedding. She was so excited about the day, absolutely loved Carl, and spent all of our last conversations saying that she was going to hold on for me and my entire family. My ‘Mema,’ my father’s mother, ended up representing both of them beautifully as the flower girls and wore a photo of Nanny as a pin on her lapel. We also had a chair during the ceremony that held her favorite church hat and was reserved for her to honor her. I was so scared that I wouldn’t feel her presence, but Nanny blessed us with a perfect day, and we felt her love so strongly,” Denée says. “It was miraculous.”
After the ceremony, a Junkanoo Band called Island Groove Entertainment kicked off the reception. “Junkanoo is a Bahamian tradition, which is where my late maternal grandfather was from, so we wanted to do something to honor him and my family’s culture there,” Denée says. “One of the things that these bands do is ‘rush’ parties in incredibly brightly colored headdresses and costumes. They rushed our cocktail hour with a band made up of a lead dancer, trombones, tubas, steel drums, cowbells, and an amazing cacophonous percussion while the two of us followed behind the band dancing to the incredible music. We made a line dance of sorts through the entire cocktail hour, picking up guests to the line as we went and led everyone down the stairs to the reception dance floor, where we started the reception with a hands-on-the-knees, sweating, grooving Afro-Caribbean dance party. It was awesome!”
The entire reception was outside under a canopy of lights and the perfect crescent moon, in 75-degree weather. “Being interracial, we didn’t want the seating to look racially segregated, so we had long communal dinner tables where we combined groups of our guests from different sides of our community, and it looked like a snapshot of the world we would dream of living in,” Denée says. “My favorite design detail was the tiny vases of gorgeous tiny colorful flowers from the Orlando Flower Market lining the middle of the tables—yellow tulips, pink peonies, red poppy flowers—it was my personal heaven.” There was also a huge green leaf Champagne wall, a neon “Drunk in Love” sign above the bar to honor Denée’s love of Beyoncé, and a baggo set as a tribute to Carl’s Midwestern roots. The Bay Kings Band was electrifying and kept the dance floor packed all night. After the last song, the newlyweds retired to their honeymoon suite for burgers, fries, and beers with their best friends—it doesn’t get any better than that.
Video by Mae B Films