Five years ago, when Heather Fontana attended her high school prom, her date was her best friend, a guy she’d known for years — not exactly a Cinderella story.
This outing would be different, the 23-year-old told herself as she gazed in a mirror. She glanced at the curlers in her hair that were almost ready to unspool. She carefully curled her eyelashes, accentuating her brown eyes, as her boyfriend, Ramon Perez, looked on. Her dress and gloves were laid out on the bed; a hoop skirt was nearby.
“This,” she said, “is what I wish prom was like.”
Fontana was prepping for “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience” in San Francisco, a ticketed party where guests are encouraged to don formal attire — mimicking clothing styles from Britain’s Regency era — and be on their best behavior to impress Queen Charlotte, a character based on the wife of George III.
The summer event was designed to re-create the ecosphere of the wildly popular Netflix show that chronicles the social life of a wealthy British family in the early 19th century and the romances that consume each of the many eligible siblings.
The sets and the costumes in the scripted show are opulent (Season 1 required 7,500 bespoke costumes, and the actor who portrayed socialite Daphne Bridgerton went through 104 dress changes over the course of the eight episodes). Amid the pageantry of a social season, the pursuit of an eligible partner — and, in some instances, love — is a mash-up of genteel historical romance and steamy 21st century fiction.
If you’ve somehow missed out on the “Bridgerton” phenomenon, it can be summed up in one (hyphenated) word: swoon-worthy.
Season 1 ranks as Netflix’s sixth most popular show on its platform, with viewers watching more than 625 million hours in the first 28 days. Netflix and its partners have sponsored more than 800 “balls” since March in such cities as Atlanta, Montreal, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which — by the way — have resulted in 38 marriage proposals and at least four groups arriving by horse and carriage. More than 150,000 people have attended, with more balls planned in Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto.
On the show, balls are the venue where ingenues are wooed by well-off suitors and compete to be selected as the “Diamond,” the woman Queen Charlotte believes is the most charming and beautiful of them all. But at the Queen’s Ball in San Francisco, anyone — regardless of gender identity, marital status or financial class — could win the title.
When Fontana paused for a photo, her face lighted up. She had a good feeling about how the night might unfold.
A HOT ROMANCE
The first season of “Bridgerton” was released in December 2020, when the world was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when streaming skyrocketed. The smoldering love story between Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings was captured in memes, tweets and even inspired a musical.
The “Bridgerton” balls have garnered a large social media following as well, with an estimated 580 million social impressions across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Google.
As a viewer, Fontana said, “You feel like you’re immersed in there with them.”
The character she admires most is Penelope Featherington, who will take center stage in Season 3. Penelope isn’t thin and sleek like so many of her peers who seem to look through her, and she channels her disgust for British high society by writing a gossip sheet under the pseudonym Lady Whistledown — a pamphlet that is consumed by the very people she is writing about. She also pines for one of her closest friends, Colin Bridgerton, who seems oblivious to her affections.
“I can understand how it is to feel like a wallflower when it comes to your crushes,” Fontana says.
Recalling her childhood, Fontana says she was a “little chunky kid.” When she got to Vacaville High School, she participated in outside sports like swimming and cheerleading, but the boys ignored her, preferring her skinnier female best friend.
She graduated in 2017, and she said, “I realized I didn’t have that best friend anymore and I [wasn’t] a kid anymore. I [wasn’t] going to let what… boys think affect me.”
Leaving high school suited her, and she did things for herself, losing weight and feeling more confident in her body. In 2019, she started to date Perez.
“He really taught me to feel special about myself,” Fontana said in her typical glass-half-full manner. “It’s probably partly growing up. You realize everybody looks different and everybody has stuff going on and nobody’s just gonna hyper-focus on your flaws.”
But she struggled with illness. In December 2020, Fontana said she had an ulcerative colitis flare-up, with pain so acute that she couldn’t leave the house for more than 30 minutes at a time. Her treatment included medical infusions and prednisone, which contributed to an 80-pound weight gain, Fontana said. Her fear of needles caused her anxiety to spike, sometimes leading to panic attacks.
“It was hard,” she said. “It was totally out of my control.”
She eventually switched doctors and medication, which takes less of a toll on her body, and started a new job as a property manager in August.
Going to the ball in San Francisco, Fontana said, was a chance to celebrate how far she’d come over the last two years.
“I’ve gone through a lot of health and personal issues the past few years and it will just be like, ‘Wow, I certainly feel like things are going my way.’”
‘WE HAVE TO GO’
Fontana had started thinking about the event months earlier. She’d seen TikTok videos from another ball, and one day saw a Facebook ad for the San Francisco Queen’s Ball. She immediately called Yoanna Arenas, her best friend and fellow “Bridgerton” fan.
“We’re like, ‘Oh, we have to go,’ … and then we’re like, ‘We’ve also got to get our boyfriends to go,’ ” Fontana said. “We got the tickets as soon as they dropped. I set an alarm and put notifications on my email and everything.”
(Netflix says that more than 80% of ticket buyers are female and that more than 90% of the 250 to 350 guests attending each ball dress up.)
She scoured the Internet for dresses that suggested the Regency era, spending about $200 on a bright blue ballgown reminiscent of Cinderella’s in the Disney animated movie and a hoop skirt. It didn’t really fit her budget, but she wanted to dress to impress.
She spent more than $50 on accessories: a white feather fan, a tiara, earrings and long white gloves that she adjusted by poking holes in the fingertips so she could use her phone to take photos during the ball. The tickets were $45 apiece — before taxes.
Getting ready and getting there — a 57-mile trip one way — wasn’t easy. But Arenas, who works at a Vacaville hotel, was able to secure an empty room their group could use to get dressed.
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The two couples noshed on Hawaiian food before donning their dress clothes and then piled into Perez’s Honda Accord. Leaving Vacaville, they drove for two hours, past hills and big box stores in suburbia and crossing two bridges on their way to San Francisco. At one point, they stopped at a Trader Joe’s to use the bathroom, and Fontana gathered her blue skirts so she wouldn’t trip as she strolled to the back of the store.
To save money on parking, they pulled into a garage a few blocks away from the venue and paid $17. As they walked past a couple tents where people were living, a curious onlooker asked them, “Why are you so dressed up?”
They were headed toward SVN West, a former concert hall where artists like Aretha Franklin and the Grateful Dead once performed. Fontana smiled as she approached and announced, “I will definitely be Princess Heather today.”
BELLES OF THE BALL
The princess-in-waiting and her entourage walked into the venue — the indoor spaces had been transformed with Regency England in mind — about 6:30 p.m. Music from a string quartet filled the massive room, as the group explored a replica of the storefront where the Bridgertons and other wealthy women went for their dresses. A nearby stall was selling tiaras for $25 and a “Bridgerton” tote bag for $20. In a garden featuring themed drinks, Arenas selected a $16 Whistledown & Dirty — a cocktail of vodka, lemon and mint — while Fontana opted for a $5 can of water.
They were part of a diverse crowd — people parading in tiaras, top hats and costumes with sequins and tulle. Many ballgoers complimented Fontana on her dress.
“You have a good chance of being the Diamond,” Arenas said.
“No, no, no, no,” Fontana said, shaking her head. “The guy with the cape is going to get it,” she said, referring to a man wrapped in a dramatic floor-length mantle.
A woman introduced as Lady Heartell, a “protegée of Lady Whistledown,” offered live commentary on the San Francisco proceedings.
“As anyone hoping to rise above their station will tell you, courage is the most important of any of the virtues,” Lady Heartell told the crowd. “So gather your wits and courage as you scurry forward to present your best bow or curtsy to her majesty.”
After a grand entrance, the queen plopped down on a red velvet couch with gold trim to await a parade of 300 guests who appeared to take that advice seriously.
First up? A man in a top hat who bowed to the queen.
“Bravo. Very brave going first,” Lady Heartell said on the loudspeaker.
Then it was Fontana’s turn. She fanned herself as she walked down the red carpet toward the queen, and when she stopped, she twirled in a circle, the skirt of her sparkly dress swirling, before bowing in front of the royal.
“A most dizzying display from the guest in blue,” Lady Heartell said.
As Fontana exited, one of the queen’s attendants held out a card on a silver platter. “You have pleased your Queen,” it said. “You may shine bright enough to be chosen as Diamond of the evening.”
The fervor over “Bridgerton” inspired Netflix and production company Shondaland to think about how it might extend fan interaction through live events.
“It’s an opportunity for fans to particularly engage with this show, in the bridge between seasons, at a time where fans want more,” said Greg Lombardo, Netflix’s head of live experiences. “It’s a way to have a dialogue with our fans and allow them that moment to not only remember what they love about the show but hopefully remember what they love about Netflix.”
“The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience” is one of several interactive live events Netflix has hosted, including “Stranger Things: The Experience,” which rolls out in Montebello this month. This fall, fans could try their hand at challenges featured in the streamer’s most watched series, “Squid Game,” in an immersive gaming experience using 3-D motion tracking visors.
“You don’t stop thinking about the show after an episode airs, so we’re always thinking of ways we can expand the story into people’s lives,” said Sandie Bailey, Shondaland’s chief design and digital media officer.
The balls, done in collaboration with live events company Fever,
also serve as marketing tools to attract new fans. Erika Coyne, a musical theater actor in the Bay Area who attended a ball in September, was aware of the buzz surrounding “Bridgerton” but didn’t actually watch it until she saw TikTok videos from attendees.
“Once I saw the ‘Bridgerton’ ball clips, that’s when I said, ‘OK, there’s clearly something very interesting going on here,’ Coyne said. “ ‘Everybody wants to go to these balls. It has something to do with “Bridgerton.” Let’s try and watch it, see if I get hooked by the same thing.’ And, of course, I did.”
The balls are part of Netflix’s multiprong effort to deal with competition from such rivals as HBO Max and Disney+. Netflix, which is the dominant subscription video streaming platform, lost customers in the first half of the year. The company laid off 450 employees in the second quarter and eliminated contractors as it cut back on expenses.
Things turned around in the third quarter, however, with Netflix adding 2.4 million subscribers. The streamer’s efforts to boost its subscriber base include a cheaper, ad-supported plan and other types of content, including mobile games.
Live events like the queen’s ball could help Netflix remain top of mind among consumers.
“Revenue is not our immediate goal, but we do think it can grow to be substantial over time if we continue to focus on fans first,” Lombardo said. “I think that’s really what drives it, creating that excitement, pulling people into the world, creating more affinity and another great memory about that title.”
A SPARKLING ‘DIAMOND’
After about 90 minutes of shopping for “Bridgerton” merchandise, bowing, curtsying and dancing, guests at the San Francisco event were ushered into the main ballroom. The queen was ready to announce her decision on the Diamond of the evening. A man she referred to as Wilfred (another paid performer) scoured the crowd in search of the guest who would be celebrated by all.
“Esteemed guests, tonight love has triumphed above all else,” a voice over the loudspeaker said. “… It appears the time has finally arrived for the queen to find her Diamond of the evening.”
Fontana watched in suspense, fanning herself as Wilfred walked toward her — and then walked past her, pointing to a woman dressed in white, her hair topped with a tiara.
The crowd cheered as the new Diamond walked to the center of the room and twirled. Glitter dropped from the ceiling. Fontana and Perez regrouped at the back of the room. He held her, kissing her on the forehead and, as Fontana recalls it, called her his “Diamond.”
She seemed to retain a sense of buoyancy despite the disappointment. She was still surrounded by her close friends and the man she loves. The music shifted to nonclassical tunes as the group danced to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” as colorful lights swept the room.
After the ball, Fontana and her friends were tired and hungry. They returned to Vacaville — Fontana and Arenas still dressed in their finery — and stopped at a Denny’s, where Fontana ordered pancakes. It wasn’t the venison, sugar pastries and tea consumed in the fantasy world of “Bridgerton,” but it was comfort food.
At one point, Fontana noticed that other restaurant customers were staring at her. At first, she wondered if something was wrong, but then she remembered that she was still dressed as a princess, a tiara sparkling atop her head.