Most people don’t step onto a nightclub dance floor expecting to meet real-life Prince Charming, but that’s exactly what happened to Ariana Austin. In December 2005, she first laid eyes on Joel Makonnen at a club in Washington, D.C., her hometown. She had no idea that the man before her, dressed in normal club attire, was a prince: Joel is the great-grandson of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He's known as Prince Joel. They married this September, which makes her Princess Arianna.
Their story is akin to Coming to America, where Eddie Murphy plays the prince of a fictitious African nation who visits the U.S. to escape an arranged marriage and find his princess. While Ethiopian Prince Joel may not have set out to “sow his royal oats” like Prince Akeem in the movie, he found his princess in an unexpected place, albeit more promising than the film’s fictional McDowell's fast-food joint.
Not unlike the on-screen princess-to-be, though, Ariana comes from her own kind of dynasty: She is of African-American and Guyanese descent, and her maternal grandfather was a lord mayor of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Still, Ariana was in awe of Prince Joel’s lineage, which reportedly connects all the way back to biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
“It’s unbeatable heritage and history,” she said of her new family’s roots. “It combines sheer black power and ancient Christian tradition.”
Power, tradition, and royalty aside, Prince Joel and Ariana just knew they were meant to be when they met—even though it would be 12 years before they walked down the aisle.
“I think we both had this feeling that this was our destiny,” Ariana said. “But I felt like I had things that I had to do.”
Those “things” included degrees and jobs, but they also spent over a decade pursuing each other. In that nightclub—Pearl Lounge, near D.C.’s Gallery Place—Prince Joel was in bachelor mode, and Ariana was in the midst of what she calls “the summer that never ended.” Prince Joel’s first words to her have been repeated over and over among family and friends.
“I said, ‘You guys look like an ad for Bombay Sapphire,’ or whatever the gin was,” Prince Joel recalled saying to Ariana and her friend (and bridesmaid) Jami Ramberan. "Not even five minutes later, I said, ‘You’re going to be my girlfriend.’”
And he was right, but their courtship would be long and, at times, long-distance. Prince Joel graduated from American University the following year, and he left for a six-month internship in France. Then it was Ariana’s turn to travel to France. By 2008, Prince Joel’s time there was over, but he was headed to Ethiopia to work with his uncle on a new project; together they created Alchemy World, in an effort to increase business and educational opportunities for young people there.
Halfway across the world, Ariana started an arts education graduate program at Harvard in 2012, but the pair was ready to shrink the distance between them. Two years later, Prince Joel and Ariana were back in the same zip code. He decided to propose on Valentine’s Day 2014.
Things didn’t go exactly as he’d planned, though. Prince Joel was in the final stretch of his law-school education at Howard University, not far from where Ariana grew up. Nervous, he knocked a bit too loudly on the front door of Ariana’s parents’ house. As he stood on her porch waiting with balloons and a princess-cut diamond, Ariana was inside, home alone, calling her parents because she thought someone was trying to break in.
“It was just the poor guy trying to propose to her,” her father, Bobby Austin, recalls.
Ariana laughs at it now: “He was aggressively knocking, so I didn’t answer. He came back, and then I opened the door.”
Finally, nearly a decade after they first met, they were in the same place at the same time.
“I think I said, ‘Let’s take this journey together,’ ” Prince Joel said. “When I proposed, she was like, ‘It’s about time.’ ”
Fast-forward three and a half years. The pair has settled in the D.C. area, where Prince Joel works with Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Ariana works in the legal department of Otsuka America Pharmaceutical. Ariana also created Art All Night, an overnight arts festival based in D.C.
Their wedding website says that in their relationship, “old world aristocracy met new world charm.” Their wedding did the same. Ariana converted to the Ethiopian Orthodox religion, and much of their ceremony followed those traditions, but she successfully pushed for her father to walk her down the aisle, even though it is not customary in a ceremony like theirs.
The couple’s wedding website also writes, “We’ve always believed that when it came to our love, it was written, and we’re thrilled to experience the next chapter unfold.” Their friends and family echoed this.
“Ever since I have seen them together they always have been connected to each other,” Sushama Austin-Connor, Ariana’s older sister, said after the ceremony. “They have a deep-rooted friendship beyond anything else.”
Yaphet Kifle, one of Prince Joel’s groomsmen, said the merging of their families has been smooth as well. “You can tell they both value the same things: deep respect for families and their elders, and the value of marriage,” he said.
Ariana’s mom, Joy Austin, agreed: “It was a happy melding, I think,” she said. “We, as the 'new world,' felt that the 'old world' was very receptive of us, and we were of them.”
For planning on their big day, Ariana and Prince Joel enlisted the help of Favored by Yodit. Their wedding was held on September 9, to coincide with Enkutatash, the Ethiopian New Year, a time that is traditionally “marked by dancing and singing across the green countryside, budding with spring flowers,” as described on their website. Having converted to the religion shortly before the wedding, Ariana was able to participate fully in the traditional ceremony, which took place that morning at Debre Genet Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Maryland. The reception started much later, at 6 p.m., in Virginia.
Beneath her traditional attire, Ariana wore an ivory Lazaro gown with an illusion neckline, beaded bodice, and layered full skirt. Prince Joel wore a striking blue tux and a black bow tie, with a boutonniere that matched the delicate white and pale-pink flowers Ariana carried in her bouquet. Bridesmaids wore mismatched floor-length dresses in shades of champagne and blush, with groomsmen in classic black tuxedos.
What do guests bring to a royal Ethiopian wedding? The pair registered at Macy’s, Anthropologie, and Amazon for kitchen essentials like a slow cooker and a toaster oven, stunning home items like geode coasters and a handwoven table runner, and games like Taboo and Cards Against Humanity. Royals: They’re just like us.
The couple and their guests danced the night away to music that included well-known artists from Bruno Mars to Bob Marley to Marvin Gaye. As of the wedding day, Ariana lived with a roommate in D.C. and Prince Joel lived in Virginia, with plans to make their union official by moving in together.