Journalist Benita Alexander is swept off her feet by a dashing Italian doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, while filming a documentary about his miraculous surgeries. They become engaged and plan a lavish dream wedding, to be attended by celebrities and officiated by none other than Pope Francis himself. But before the wedding can happen, Benita makes a discovery that may prove the doctor is not all he claims to be.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] He was incredibly generous, you know, and so romantic and just so wonderful. If I had a checklist, he, he was everything I would want in a partner, everything you would want in a man. He says to me, "I want to take over the wedding planning and I want to surprise you with everything. I don't want you to do anything except find your dresses and just, all you have to do is show up and look beautiful. Maybe help me, help with the invitations 'cause I don't want to deal with that. But everything else, I'm planning everything, and you can't ask me any questions."
[00:00:34] Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Benita Alexander has everything going for her. She's a star producer for NBC News in New York, working alongside Meredith Viera creating primetime TV specials. She works in Rockefeller Center and flies all around the world, and on one of these trip, she meets the man of her dreams. The famous surgeon, a miracle worker who gives hope to hopeless patients, who's rewriting the rules of medicine. And the two go on a magic carpet ride together. Along the way he promises her a fairy tale wedding to be officiated by the Pope. But this magic carpet ride takes so many twists and turns that well, you just have to hear them for yourself.
[00:01:28] Benita: I grew up in Australia, and I had an uncle, my mother's brother, who worked for Radio Free Europe. And he came to visit us in Australia, and I was just, I was only 8, but I was ab--, absolutely infatuated with what he was doing and asked him all these questions. And after he left, I said to my parents, that's what I'm going to do when I grow up. And they kind of laughed. I mean most 8-year-olds will change their minds, you know, many times, but I never changed.
[00:01:54] Bob: Benita didn't start her career working for a larger network in New York.
[00:01:59] Benita: I had worked my way up from working in, from tiny little newspapers in Detroit, Michigan, which is where I went to college and where I'd, my family had moved after Australia. And then in radio, producing a radio talk show, and then in local television.
[00:02:15] Bob: Still a young journalist, she found her way to the top of her profession very quickly. In fact, we both worked for NBC in New York at the same time, but we didn't know each other then.
[00:02:26] Bob: I remember walking into 30 Rock thinking it was the equivalent of walking into Yankee Stadium or something.
[00:02:31] Benita: Yeah, right! Yeah. And it's a beautiful building, and it just has this feeling about it, you know, as you, it's a very special feeling too. I still remember my first day walking in there too, especially with, with all the art, the art deco and everything. It's, it's a very um, it has a lot of stature, that building and a lot of meaning. And it's, I was proud to work there. Yeah.
[00:02:54] Bob: Benita focused on emotional stories, many involving children in tragic circumstances.
[00:03:01] Benita: Yeah, one of the ones um, there was a father in New Jersey, whose wife had abducted their son to Brazil, parental abduction, which is when one parent takes the child, against the other parent's will to another country. And he had been fighting with her in the courts in Brazil over this, and then she passed away, unfortunately. And so now his son, who I think was about 8 or 9 at the time, was in Brazil with her family, and he was engaged in this very difficult and complicated fight to try and get his son back, and such a loving father. And we got involved and started doing the story, and it got very intense. And Hillary Clinton got involved, different people in Congress got involved, but ultimately, after many trips back and forth to Brazil and a lot of emotion, he got his son home. He actually brought him home on Christmas Day, and he and I are still in touch. I really felt that we made a difference, you know, we, our story played a huge role, I think, in paving the way for him to finally bring his son home, and those are the kind of things that really mean a lot, at least to me in journalism. You know, part of it is you meet so many different people that you would never meet otherwise, but when you can tell a story that actually makes a difference in someone's life, that, to me, that's one of the most beautiful things about journalism.
[00:04:22] Bob: And you had a happy ending. That's pretty unusual too.
[00:04:24] Benita: Right, yeah, and they're not always happy endings, and you do, you, unfortunately, you know, you report on a lot of very, very difficult things in news.
[00:04:33] Bob: But it also sounds like you get pretty, your stories are very emotional, and you get pretty involved in your subjects, right.
[00:04:39] Benita: I think one of the things that can make you a good journalist if, is if you're able to put yourself in the other person's shoes, and if you're able to sympathize with them and empathize them and really try to understand what it is they're going through. If you want to tell somebody's story well, it, it helps if you can really tell it from their perspective. And I tend to be a very empathetic kind of person, and I am very sensitive, and I care a lot about people and so I've always used that in journalism to really sort of get inside somebody else's shoes or, or their story. And I, I think at least that it makes me a better writer and a better journalist. It does make it difficult sometimes, because you, some stories are so heavy and so difficult, and I would sometimes, it would take me weeks sometimes to sort of shake a story, and people would sit with me, and their stories would sit with me for a long, long time. It really affects you.
[00:05:31] Bob: Benita worked on several stories about medical miracles, and at the time, there was one kind of medical miracle that just kept coming up. Creating artificial body parts.
[00:05:44] Benita: Yeah, I mean the, we wanted to do a story about this field called regenerative medicine which added base core, the most simplistic way to define this is, it's sort of sci-fi, futuristic medicine where the, the goal is to be able to create body parts or organs in the lab, man-made. You know, the equivalent of going to a drugstore and buying whatever, you, they, the idea is ultimately we'll get to the point that, you know, you have a failing organ or you lose a body part, you just order up a new one. They make it for you in the lab, right. Which clearly would completely change the face of, of medicine and, you know, all these people that been told they have no hope or no chance, it, it would be, it would be a gamechanger, right. And so we were looking into this field, and we found this doctor. One name kept coming up over and over again, Dr. Paolo Macchiarini.
[00:06:37] Bob: Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, he's doing surgeries that most doctors could only dream about. And he's getting noticed in the medical field.
[00:06:46] Benita: And he was, as I said, called the super surgeon, and he was the pioneer in this field. He was kind of a rebel. He worked at the place that awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Stockholm, Sweden. And he was putting artificial tracheas, the windpipe, into patients. These were made in a lab out of the very same plastic that a soda bottle is made out of, and then he would bathe this in the patient's own stem cells in something called a bioreactor, and then transplant that, this plastic windpipe into people. And the stem cells were supposed to magically integrate, and he was fixing people. He was giving people who had no other hope. He, he was supposed to be their last hope. So he was very interesting and very fascinating and also because he was a pioneer, and he was pushing the envelope, you know, he was a little bit, a little bit radical, but doing, he was taking chances that nobody else would, and we actually need people like that in medicine. I mean things don't move forward if we don't have people who are willing to, you know, you know, push things a little bit and he, he was that guy, you know, and he, he was very fascinating.
[00:08:01] Bob: Benita knows she wants to do a special about Paolo's work, but she needs a story, a patient that viewers can follow from beginning to end. She finds that story in South Korea.
[00:08:14] Benita: But we, we started looking into him, and then he was about to do a transplant on this beautiful, beautiful little toddler, um, her name was Hannah, from Seoul, South Korea. Her mother was Korean, and her dad, Canadian. And she, unfortunately, was born with no windpipe. She had spent her entire little life in the hospital, never left the hospital because she had a tube down her throat just to live. She couldn't eat. She couldn't do anything that a normal child could do. She couldn't run around and play. And her parents were just distraught, you know, they wanted, they had been told she might live 6 or 7 years, and there's no cure. Nothing anybody could do for her, and then like so many of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini's patients, they did a google search and found this kind of a magician of a surgeon who said I can help your little girl. And so we, we thought, you know, this is a perfect case to focus a story around, and so we started doing Hannah's story.
[00:09:12] Bob: And so, Benita travels to Boston to meet the miracle worker for herself.
[00:09:18] Benita: Yeah, so we, we started focusing our story around Hannah and her family, and Hannah was actually, she was going to be the youngest person in the world to ever get one of his experimental transplants; the first toddler, and also the first patient to be operated on in the United States. Um, she was being brought to Illinois, the Children's Hospital of Illinois because a Korean nurse there had found Hannah in the hospital in Seoul and had sort of lobbied to bring her to the US. And so they got FDA approval for Paolo to do the surgery in Illinois, and they got him a special medical license to do the surgery in Illinois. And so it was kind of the perfect case for us to focus our story around. And we first met in early 2013. He was speaking at a conference in Boston, and we went there to interview him, sort of ahead of Hannah coming to the US, about his work and about Hannah. And that's where we met for the first time.
[00:10:16] Bob: And when they meet, well Benita is stunned by what happens.
[00:10:23] Benita: Yeah, the thing about this was, I am, and I'm, I'm very serious when I work. People often tell me that afterwards, that, you know, I'm very hyper-focused and very no-nonsense, you know, all business. I want, I just want to get the job done. And when we went to Boston to interview Dr. Macchiarini, when he came in, it was um, I was with a colleague, and he, he came into this bar where we had arranged to have a coffee with him just to say hello the night before the interview, and you know there's, he's a very charming, good-looking man. He is Italian. He was often described as a George Clooney look-alike, you know, he's, he's very elegant. He speaks 5 or 6 languages, and he works all over the world, and you know, dresses very beautifully. And he, so his reputation sort of proceeds him, but when he walked in to where we were sitting that day, he, when he walked in, he looked right at me, and our eyes met, and I've never in my life had something like this happen to me before, but I, I felt like a silly, little schoolgirl. I had butterflies or something like some, some kind of electric spark went through my body, and I, my immediate thought was, what in the heck is that? And whatever that is, let's, let's push that away, you know. And I think I was even blushing. And I just thought, okay, you've got some stupid little schoolgirl crush on this doctor, which is absurd. I, I thought it was ridiculous. But there was something, yeah, something happened between us the, the moment we met.
[00:11:55] Bob: And how old were you then?
[00:11:57] Benita: Ooh, you're going to make me do math. Um, (laugh) I was uh, in my 40s. I'm going to have to do the exact number but...
[00:12:07] Bob: And you hadn't felt that way ever, or at least not for 30 years, something like that.
[00:12:11] Benita: Not like that, you know, this was, this was one of those almost cliche movie moments where, you know, I don't even believe in love at first sight, but there was some sort of thing, something happened. I mean it was, I felt butterflies, you know. Um, maybe I felt like that at some point when I was really young and I had a, had a crush in school, I don't know, but I don't, I don't ever remember feeling like that. Not, not that kind of just instant, immediate spark.
[00:12:41] Bob: And you went forward with that weekend pushing the feeling aside, right?
[00:12:46] Benita: Oh yeah, no, I immediately just sort of shoved it down and thought whatever that was, it was, it was silly, and uh, let's forget about that. I want to focus on work.
[00:12:57] Bob: And there is another reason Benita must focus on her work at the time. In her personal life, she's also looking for a medical miracle, a miracle that, well it wasn't going to come.
[00:13:10] Benita: When I met Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, and when I was working on this story, I was at an extremely vulnerable place in my life. My then ex-husband, who I had moved to New York with and the father of our beautiful daughter, was dying of brain cancer. We had been divorced for a couple of years at that point and for three years, and he was diagnosed with glioblastoma which is a very, there's no good kind of cancer, no good kind of brain cancer, but the, you know, the outlook is not good, you know they, they kind of give someone two years at the most. It's a very aggressive form of brain cancer. And he was not doing well, and I was really struggling with the fact that I was about to become a single mother. We had, we had a very good relationship still when it came to our daughter and sharing custody and you know, both of us were very focused on our daughter. And she was Daddy's Little Girl. She was 100% Daddy's Little Girl, and he utterly adored her. And I was really wrestling with all of it. What to tell her. How to tell her, how to get her through this, and how is life going to change for her, and what does this mean for me? And ...
[00:14:24] Bob: It feels natural for Benita to share the family struggle with this world famous surgeon, a man who had spent his career cheating death, or trying anyway.
[00:14:35] Benita: The thing about Paolo is he's a very good listener, and we, after a shoot sometimes, would go out to dinner, or we would be in a group of people talking. We had a long time together on the flight from Korea to Illinois. We were sitting together on the, on the plane, and I just sort of started pouring my heart out to him, and he was a very good friend. And a very, very good listener and was giving me very wise, sage advice, you know, about all these questions; what to tell her, how to tell her, and I was sort of soaking it all up, and I was very touched by the fact that this man seemed so incredibly altruistic. He seemed that way in his work as well, but here he is talking to me and spending all this time listening to me and seemed very vested in this little girl that he had never met. And I was, I was really moved by that.
[00:15:28] Bob: As Hannah's story becomes more intense, the news on Benita's ex-husband, John, gets worse. And it's Paolo who helps Benita figure out the best way to say goodbye. The emotions of the moment overwhelm her.
[00:15:45] Benita: There was a particular moment when my ex-husband had gone into a coma, and I was in Illinois, and I was, I was um, very upset about everything and trying to figure out a way, I was talking to Paolo about trying to figure out what to do and how to say goodbye, and uh crying about the fact that I hadn't been able to say goodbye. And Paolo had said to me, "You, you need to find a way to say good-bye to him," and he said, "I'll help you." And uh I decided to, to take his favorite flowers, birds of--, bird of paradise, and I ended up going to a flower shop and getting three birds of paradise; one for me, my, one for my daughter, and one for John, and Paolo um, loved motorcycles, and we had been shooting him on a motorcycle. And so he took me on his motorcycle along the Illinois River. And he said, "Just tell me when you want to stop." And we rode for probably 30, 45 minutes until I sort of found a spot that I thought was appropriate, and I got off the bike and I went to the water. I was there for about 20 minutes, and I, I tossed these flowers into the water, and I was, you know, very emotional in saying goodbye to John. And it was, when I walked back to the motorcycle, he kind of, he just got off the motorcycle and I walked up to him, and I had tears streaming down my face, and he, he just grabbed me, you know. And, and, and embraced me and held me so hard. And one of those really, really tight embraces. And that was the moment I just thought, oh, I'm, I'm falling for this man, you know, and I just, I just sort of melted into his arms. He was, he was just there when I needed somebody.
[00:17:24] Bob: He was there when she needed somebody. And as they ride the motorcycle away from the river, the magic carpet ride takes off.
[00:17:35] Benita: Around this time that my ex-husband, John, passed away, we became romantically involved. He, he had sort of slowly moved his way into my heart and I, I think I just really needed to be wrapped in love at the time, and I, yeah, we fell in love.
[00:17:51] Bob: Their relationship blossoms quickly. Paolo showers Benita with affection. He was a flair for the dramatic and plans one romantic encounter after another.
[00:18:02] Benita: Oh, there was so many. I mean it got to the point where he loved to surprise me, everywhere we went. Every time he took me on a trip, he just delighted in these, these big, over the top, elaborate surprises. And each surprise was a bigger wow factor than the last one. You know we went on this incredibly romantic trip to Greece, and he was always videotaping me. Um, and so he had, we were coming back into the room after dinner one night, and I was kind of teasing him. I was like why, why are you videotaping me again. And I open the door, and there's a trail of rose petals leading up to the bed, and it says "I love you" in rose petals on the bed. And you know, dozens of roses and champagne and always the best champagne. And it was, it was things like this all the time. It was kind of romance on steroids. It just never stopped, to the point that I would come home from these trips, and all my friends were hanging on the edge of their seat. You know, "What did he do this time? What did he do this time?" Kind of like being in a fairy tale, you know.
[00:18:58] Bob: I love you in rose petals on the bed.
[00:19:00] Benita: Yes.
[00:19:01] Bob: It's just making it harder for every man in the world.
[00:19:03] Benita: (laugh) Yeah, yep, yeah. It was magical. I literally felt like I was floating on clouds. I was blissfully happy. I, my friends sort of joke now that, you know, I was blushing all the time, and I was just giddy. I was just giddy with happiness. I truly was for a period there, happier than I think I've ever been. He was incredibly generous, you know, and so romantic and just so wonderful. If I had a checklist, he, he was everything I would want in a partner, everything you would want in a man. My friends and my family all adored him. He was incredibly generous with them as well. And everybody was sort of envious in a, in a sweet way, you know, everybody would say to me, "I want what you have." You know, "You've, you've renewed my faith in love."
[00:19:53] Bob: While the romance is intense, it's also very secretive. Benita has to keep a secret. She was taking an incredible risk by getting involved with Paolo.
[00:20:06] Benita: We had kind of quietly gotten engaged, but we weren't telling anybody um, because I mean the complicated thing about this is that there's a sort of unwritten rule in journalism that everybody understands, that, you know, there's, there is a line you just don't cross a kind of sacred line where you don't, you can empathize with a story subject, you can sympathize, but you don't become personally involved with a story subject for, for the reason, obviously, that your objectivity could be compromised, right. It could go out the window. And so I was sort of, by becoming involved with him and by falling in love with him, I was breaking this cardinal rule in journalism that you don't get involved with a subject of your story, and even though when we did fall in love, it was, we were at the end of the production of the story, we kept it quiet because of that. I had tried, at one point I pushed him away, and we didn't see each other for about three months. I said, I just, I can't do this. I was so conflicted about it. It was killing me, and but I was also so in love with him. You know he; he was sort of like Mr. Perfect.
[00:21:08] Bob: Benita is proud of her work and happy with her husband-to-be, excited to put the finishing touches on Hannah's medical miracle story, but before the piece airs, the story takes a dark turn.
[00:21:22] Benita: Tragically, Hannah passed away, which was, um, just devastating. And it was very difficult for us um, with the story because, you know, we had all hoped for one of these happy endings, you know, this was, the hope was to do a two-hour special, and at the end of it, you know, Hannah's home in South Korea, running around the backyard with her, her big sister, and you know, being a happy toddler as, as she should have been all along, and you know, Hannah was the most vibrant little girl. There's so much she couldn't do, but she had this sparkling personality. She was just like a little ray of sunshine, and a) I was just, it was so devastating when she didn't make it. I mean, and we didn't know what to do. How to, what do we do now? How do we, how do we tell this story? You know, no, how do we take viewers through a two-hour journey of this little girl coming, you know, halfway across the world to get this radical surgery, and then she doesn't make it? It was, it was really, really difficult. And, and so we pivoted the story a bit to make it a little bit more about some of Paolo's other patients and more about, you know the field of regenerative medicine. But her death was awful. You know, it was awful for her family. Um, it hit all of us very, very hard.
[00:22:38] Bob: What Benita doesn't know at the time, she couldn't have known, is that Hannah's death also sparks the interest of the European journalist named Bo Lindquist, a Swedish filmmaker, he's already working on a documentary film about Paolo, but it isn't designed with a happy ending in mind. Bo has begun asking questions about this medical miracle worker, so had some fellow researchers. But at this point, they're just questions.
[00:23:07] Bob: The first time you met him was where?
[00:23:10] Bo Lindquist: The first time was in Stockholm at the Karolinska Institute.
[00:23:13] Bob: And then...
[00:23:14] Bo Lindquist: And then we traveled to different places.
[00:23:17] Bob: Yeah, and...
[00:23:18] Bo Lindquist: Russia, Turkey.
[00:23:20] Bob: Bo also spent many months following Paolo around the world, getting to know him, getting Paolo to open up to him. In fact, he told me that Paolo would often leave their interview to engage in some frantic texting with someone, probably a lover, probably Benita. But Bo at the time had no idea who it was. All Bo knew was that Paolo was very charming.
[00:23:44] Bo Lindquist: Paolo was very well-dressed and very careful with his looks. And he actually said his barber in uh the south of Russia, he, he managed to find this excellent, excellent barber in Kazan there where he performed his Russian experiments, brilliant guy. And I also had my beard uh, uh, cut there. It was an excellent place. Excellent place.
[00:24:07] Bob: For many months, Paolo plays his cards very close to the vest as Bo starts asking questions about the patients Paolo has worked on. And Paolo never talks about his personal life.
[00:24:20] Bo Lindquist: When we made our initial agreement to, to start filming, he said that his uh, personal life would be out of bounds, and I mean a bit odd that, that we couldn't even talk about where he went to school or, or something like that, but why should we? I mean we were there to speak about science, so I thought, okay.
[00:24:37] Bob: Paolo is a natural subject for a documentary film. His work, if controversial, is also groundbreaking.
[00:24:45] Bo Lindquist: I mean he basically said that he was going to revolutionize medicine, and, and not just invent a new kind of a trachea or a new kind of transplant, but actually revolutionize surgery. The way he used stem cells with his plastic tracheas would eventually develop into something quite extraordinary where you could use stem cells to target organs or other areas of the body where the, where there was a medical problem. You could uh, train stem cells so that, and then inject them into the body and the stem cells would do the work, the surgery, not the knife.
[00:25:22] Bob: And while Paolo loves to talk about his work, he isn't always charming.
[00:25:28] Bo Lindquist: He was definitely prone to getting angry and, and could be quite violently. I mean not, not physically, but he could be quite uh frightening actually when he got angry. He never did that with me, but I, I've, I have seen him really being quite, quite unpleasant with um, PhDs and people who were sort of subordinate.
[00:25:49] Bob: But, and this made him a fun interview, he doesn't mind debating his controversial techniques.
[00:25:56] Bob: How did he take to being questioned?
[00:25:58] Bo Lindquist: I think he liked the challenge. Uh, I think he actually appreciated being challenged to an extent. I think he was looking for challenges, and uh, things that makes life much, much more exciting.
[00:26:12] Bob: So while Bo follows Paolo around the world learning more about the miraculous procedures he is performing, Hannah's Story finally airs on NBC. And that frees up Benita to go public about their relationship. The happy couple start planning their wedding in earnest, and well, we already know Paolo likes a challenge.
[00:26:36] Benita: Paolo wanted a big, Catholic wedding. He's Catholic. And he's Italian, and he wanted this big Catholic wedding in Italy. And I said, "Well how's that going to work, because we're both divorcees," or so I thought, and I'm not Catholic. And I was raised Episcopalian, but I said, "I know, I know enough about the Catholic religion to know that no priest is going to marry two divorcees," and he, he, you know, he said, "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." And spent months, you know, this did not happen overnight. He spent months supposedly going to different churches in Italy, and he would send me pictures of these places, and all these details, and asked me if I liked them or not. And, and then he would tell me the priest won't marry us, and this went on and on and on. And I said, "Well what are we going to do?" And he said, he finally said, "Well, I'm going to go and talk to my contacts at the Vatican." Which sounds a bit absurd, however, he is an Italian surgeon. He is one of the world's leading cardio thoracic surgeons. And I had seen paperwork that he had done work at the Vatican, consulting work. So this is not really out of the realm of possibility that he would have contacts at the Vatican. So he goes to the Vatican, ostensibly, to ask for help finding someone who will marry us, and he calls me after that meeting and says to me, tells me I need to sit down, um, he has good news, but I need to sit down. And he said, you know, “I actually met with Pope Francis.” And I went, “What?” You know and he said, “And I, I have great news.” Um, “He’s, he’s going to help us um, we’re going to have somebody that will marry us, and he offered to do it himself.” You know I said, “What?” You know, and I actually kind of called BS on him because I, I said, “That’s absurd. The Pope doesn’t marry people. Come on.” I thought he was playing some kind of silly game with me. And I got so irritated with him, I actually hung the phone up on him. But then I, and this was October of 2014, and I went and googled, the first thing I did was I went to my desk and googled, literally googled, “Does the Pope marry people?” And what popped up was an article from a month earlier where the Pope had just married 20 couples in the Vatican. And these were all couples that were quote-unquote living in sin, you know, they had children out of wedlock, or whatever. And so I thought, okay, maybe it’s not as crazy as it, as it sounds. So over the next few days he tells me that there’s something he’s never told me before, and that he is actually Pope Francis’s private personal doctor. And this is something very clandestine and secretive and he can’t talk about, but he’s been doing this for many years, and he is a celebrity surgeon to a number of famous people and celebrities, but that he can’t talk about this because he’s tied to people who want a private doctor who will attend to them but, you know, they have these private doctors, because they don't want anyone to know, you know, what’s going on in their private life. So this is a lot of very heady information to take in, and he basically tells me that because he’s the Pope’s private, personal doctor, um, and because this is such a progressive Pope, who has such a forward-thinking agenda, that the Pope a) wants to thank him for all the work he’s done at the Vatican and for being his private doctor, and b) wants to use us for lack of a better term, as kind of a poster couple, so that by marrying two divorcees, you know, the Pope is going to use us to sort of open the doors of the Catholic church to allow divorcees to finally get married in a Catholic church. And it's presented to me by Paolo, it's not even about our wedding or about our love story. It basically was, we've been asked to do this, and by virtue of being my fiancé, because I'm this famous doctor, I feel that this is something we should do. You know, we should do this to help Pope Francis, we should do this to help the Catholic church, and so it was almost like an obligation.
[00:30:34] Bob: Now your wedding is a cause.
[00:30:35] Benita: Yeah, exactly.
[00:30:37] Bob: So now that she's been told the Pope is involved, Benita has another secret to keep. And so does anyone who has anything to do with the wedding.
[00:30:47] Benita: It was all very hush-hush, you know, everybody that was involved in the wedding planning, including the people that designed the wedding invitations, the people that made my wedding dresses, everybody had to just, had to sign nondisclosure agreements.
[00:31:00] Bob: One of those nondisclosure agreements is signed by Matthew Christopher.
[00:31:04] Matthew Christopher: I'm a couture wedding gown designer.
[00:31:07] Bob: But what is a couture wedding gown designer?
[00:31:09] Matthew Christopher: Um, a couture wedding gown designer is someone that actually design gowns from beginning to end, whether that's draping, whether that's sketching; couture means it's handmade. The story with making a couture gown is, you know, it goes through, gosh, a team of pattern makers, drapers, um, stitchers, sewers, hand stitchers, beading and embroiderers, lace, and all that kind of stuff.
[00:31:32] Bob: I mean that sounds like a very special process.
[00:31:35] Matthew Christopher: Yeah, it is a special process.
[00:31:37] Bob: Matthew is no stranger to dressing important people at important times.
[00:31:42] Matthew Christopher: Yeah, I do, you know, I've done tons of celebrity stuff, tons of Broadway stuff. Um, you know, they come in and I'd say, "Welcome to your closet." And it was so fun to work with, with all of them, you know, anybody that, and they have private appointments that wanted to come in.
[00:31:56] Bob: Benita sees a dress made by Christopher in a New York City store, but it isn't quite right. And there are special considerations now that the wedding is going to be at the Vatican, so she asks the store how she can get in touch with the designer? And she meets Christopher at his shop.
[00:32:14] Matthew Christopher: She actually came to my private showroom which was really cool, and um, I had my whole staff there, and we had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and I was like, what is going on here? What is happening?
[00:32:26] Bob: And so she comes in with a small team, right, and you all sit around a table, and what does she say to you?
[00:32:33] Matthew Christopher: (laugh) She said to me as I um, she said to me, "Well, Matthew, (or team)" she goes, "Well, I'm getting married by the Pope." And I literally, I was really like, what? I mean my, I mean my jaw was on the floor. I didn't even, I, I, I stopped in hesitation. I have to tell you, and I'm like, you know, I'm a very boisterous, fun guy, that's, you know, and very um, slap-happy fun, and I literally stopped in my tracks, and was like, "Huh?" I'm never viewed like that, but I was definitely like, huh? I was really taken back. So it was uh, quite, quite in--, incredible or remarkable to, for those words to come out of her mouth. I didn't know what to think.
[00:33:17] Bob: What he thinks is this is going to be an incredible challenge.
[00:33:22] Matthew Christopher: Right. And it came down to how are we going to accomplish doing all these pieces for this wedding that is going to be so high profile, so exclusive, I mean I've never heard of anything so, it was, I mean in my career I've experienced some great things; this was wow. This was, I didn't even know what to say.
[00:33:44] Bob: And you, you had outfitted Broadway stars, famous people, but even for you this was a big deal.
[00:33:49] Matthew Christopher: I mean yeah, I'm like oh, look. Megan Hilty on the Tony's, like she got best dress, or Debra Messing, or you know, Carli Lloyd, like the whole soccer team coming in, I'm dressing Carli Lloyd for all these, for the ESPYs, and, you know, all these amazing people that I've dressed over the years, even the Oscars and I'm, I mean it's going wow, I made it to where I love what I do. And I made it to this point. This is totally different. This was worldwide. This was holy cow.
[00:34:17] Bob: Well, at some point you transition from wow to okay, I've got to get to work on this, right? How does one design a wedding dress for a wedding...
[00:34:25] Matthew Christopher: With the Pope?
[00:34:26] Bob: Yeah.
[00:34:26] Matthew Christopher: You put your, I am going to make the most gorgeous dress you've ever seen. I mean I'm going to achieve this; you know what I mean? Give it to me. I love some pressure, let's go for it. (chuckle)
[00:34:35] Bob: The first step is working with Benita on ideas for the wedding dress. Well actually, dresses.
[00:34:42] Matthew Christopher: We were going to meet later, so we just discussed the idea and it started with the wedding gown itself, and then had dinner at her house, and made dinner, and it was fun, and we were discussing things and how all these pieces were going to grow. Because the, in itself, more gowns were added into the wedding. So first it was about the wedding gown itself.
[00:34:59] Bob: When you went to her house, was Paolo there?
[00:35:01] Matthew Christopher: No, no, just her friends who are so much fun. Um, made dinner, and did all this, and then we were discussing and showing fabrications and doing sketching and then like, you know, where were we going to begin? And Benita had a veil, and I brought over some dresses, and we were having some champagne, giggling and sketching, and it was so fun.
[00:35:21] Bob: It does sound like the kind, I mean we were talking about what, 10 gowns?
[00:35:25] Matthew Christopher: Um, gosh, 1-2-3 for her. Oh, and a dance gown too, that was crazy fun. And then um, (sigh) oh her sisters, the two bridesmaids, and then two flower girl dresses. I mean it was crazy. Yeah.
[00:35:38] Bob: I mean it sounds like that could cost an infinity if you wanted it to.
[00:35:41] Matthew Christopher: Yeah, and we definitely um, we made sure that through this process, we made sure we took care of her, you know what I mean. On your mark, get set, go. Quack, quack, quack. We just made sure we took care of Benita.
[00:35:53] Bob: And while the dresses are being made, while the other wedding preparations are underway, Matthew meets Paolo.
[00:36:00] Matthew Christopher: On Valentine's Day, I met him. Oh my God, um, confident.
[00:36:06] Bob: What did you think?
[00:36:07] Matthew Christopher: Confident, rico-suave, I am Paolo, ha-ha, and I'm like, okay, you know, I'm like am I nervous? I don't know if I was nervous. I don't know what I was. I was just kind of like, um, 'cause Benita's so awesome and like, you know she was totally in love with him. Of course, it's Valentine's Day, I'm like, oh my God. So I just found him very, I don't want to say intimidating, because intimidating's not the word. I found him very um, hmm, he had a presence about him. A presence. And that presence was really something, it was really something.
[00:36:44] Bob: I feel like there's some people you meet who are simultaneously uh impressive but uncomfortable.
[00:36:51] Matthew Christopher: Yeah, yes, oh my gosh. That makes me crazy.
[00:36:55] Bob: Benita, the TV producer, is very used to managing all the details of a big event. But when it comes to the wedding, Paolo takes the lead.
[00:37:05] Benita: Everything was very, very secretive, and because the Pope was doing this, um, and Paolo told me that the Vatican would not even announce it until the day of our wedding so that the news didn't leak out. But our guest list was insane because now that the Pope was marrying us, he kept inviting all these dignitaries, you know, so world leaders were coming to our wedding. And then every month there was a new surprise. You know, all these celebrities were coming. It started with Andrea Bocelli was going to be singing in the church, because Paolo told me that his mother and Bocelli’s mother were friends. They live in the same area outside Florence. And then John Legend was supposed to be playing piano in the church. Elton John was going to be performing. Paolo says to me, "I want to take over the wedding planning and I want to surprise you with everything. I don't want you to do anything except find your dresses and just, all you have to do is show up and look beautiful. Maybe help me, help with the invitations 'cause I don't want to deal with that. But everything else, I'm planning everything, and you can't ask me any questions." As a producer, for me that was next to impossible. I'm, you know, I like, I like information. I'm kind of a control, you know, right, I'm kind of a control freak. I didn't, you know, how do you, how do you not ask any questions, but all my friends convinced me, they said, "You know, Benita, you know he has amazing taste. You know he loves to surprise you. You know this man adores you. Why don't you, can you just for once sit back and let somebody else take over, just let him, let him take it over." And so I did, you know, I sat back, and even when I was tempted to ask questions, I didn't.
[00:38:37] Bob: But even without asking any questions, one thing is clear, this wedding is going to be big.
[00:38:44] Benita: I should say this wedding turns into something akin to the wedding of the century. We had 300+ people coming from all over the world. Nobody, except my closest friends and family, knew about the Pope because we weren't allowed to talk about it, but they knew that was a big VIP wedding. You know the, the invitations talked about needing a password, a secret password to get into the wedding, and you couldn't get in unless you had the invitation with you. And so there was a lot of palpable excitement about this wedding, you know, people were really eager and excited for this wedding. It was going to be this four-day event in Rome, you know, with a red carpet event the night before the wedding, and a big brunch the day after the wedding, and people bought plane tickets, they bought fancy, you know, red carpet attire for this wedding.
[00:39:32] Bob: And as the day approaches, Benita gets to try on that custom-made wedding dress.
[00:39:38] Matthew Christopher: Yeah, I mean we were going through fittings, we were going through the process of um getting things together. Just like, oh, the dance dress was crazy. That was insane.
[00:39:48] Bob: What was crazy about it?
[00:39:49] Matthew Christopher: Um, so Paolo was going to have a place where he came out, after he did something with the Pope, and he said he's going to give her this ring, and there were going to be fireworks and blah, blah, blah, but he was going to be handed off to her in this dress, right, for a reception, and the dress was going to come out with this tulle overskirt, and it was going to ripped off by Paolo, and it was going to have a dance gown underneath, like Dancing with the Stars.
[00:40:15] Bob: With that dramatic entrance comes a dramatic exit too. With the preparations nearly finished, Benita decides to take maybe the toughest step she's ever taken in her 20-year career as a journalist.
[00:40:30] Benita: Paolo lived in Barcelona, and so we had talked about what were we going to do after the wedding. And we finally decided that we would live in Barcelona. And so that meant me quitting my job at NBC and leaving New York and pulling my daughter out of her very difficult to get into private school in New York. Anyone that knows anything about private schools in New York knows how hard that is. And basically giving up everything. Um, which is just something I never thought I would do, you know. I was so career-driven, and so career-oriented, but I was madly in love. And I was ready to ride off into the sunset, into this new life in Barcelona, and but it was also a very, very difficult decision for me. I was, I was conflicted about it. I was torn up about it, and my last day at NBC was in May of 2015. So just under two months before the wedding, and it was just difficult. I mean I, I loved NBC. I loved my work at NBC. I loved my life at NBC. I loved everything about it, and to be sort of plunging into the unknown, even though I felt very secure with Paolo, happily in love. It was, it was a huge change and a huge change for my daughter. My daughter who, you know, has been through a lot. Who lost her dad. So it was scary.
[00:41:47] Bob: But not as scary as what happens next.
[00:41:50] Benita: The day after I quit my job, I got an email from a colleague and the headline just said, "The Pope." And when I looked at the email, there was an article, and it was an article about the fact that the Pope was not even going to be in Rome on July 11th, 2015, he was going to be in South America. And this trip had been planned for a very long time. And somehow, when I read that email, I guess all those little red flags that I had been ignoring, the things that were eating at my gut, I just knew. I just, I felt like somebody punched me in the stomach. Um, I almost actually passed out. I, I had just, in that moment I didn't have the information yet, but I just knew he was lying about everything.
[00:42:33] Bob: When Benita comes to her senses, she switches back into investigative reporter mode, and decides to find out the real truth behind Paolo. And right about then, across the Atlantic Ocean, Bo is about to find out the real truth about Paolo too. What do they discover? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:42:58] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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