The Runway to Love: The Love Story of Tinika and Ronnel
"Today’s Sappy Love Story is a little different, and we’re super excited about it. Tinika and Ronnel’s 'happily ever after' was written by Kristen Rocco of Love Notery," The Big Fake Wedding, Atlanta.
Tinika Hampton timidly joined the others in the audition waiting room. There were 100-plus other insanely good looking models from every nook and cranny of America waiting to hear their fate. They all had auditioned for a slot in the Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual traveling fashion event that lit up the runway in the 180 cities it visited over a nine-month period. Ronnel Blackmon was also anxiously awaiting to hear who made the list for the 2002-2003 season. Tinika and Ronnel briefly chatted on that hot July day in Chicago, but their nerves were almost too much to bear.
The casting director called the models into the audition room one by one. Weak in the knees with great anticipation, Tinika was lingering on her every breath. The casting director’s lips were moving, but Tinika couldn’t interpret a word. The only phrase she heard loud and clear was, “You made it!”
Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tinika had an artistic side to her. She was a majorette in high school and a member of the dance team at Bethune-Cookman University until her passion for fashion took over and she left school to pursue a professional modeling career. She moved to Atlanta in 1998 to sign with a modeling agency and then bought a one-way ticket to New York City with the goal of taking her career to the next level.
Ronnel’s path was different. He hadn’t planned on becoming a model. Like Tinika, he was the oldest of three siblings, but instead of chasing a modeling career during college, he attended The Ohio State University to follow his dreams of playing college football and planned to eventually play professionally in the NFL. But an opportunity to travel the country with beautiful women and be featured in multiple magazines left him taking an opportunity to go to Chicago and try out for the Ebony Fashion Fair.
Bright-eyed and full of ambition, Tinika and Ronnel were the first two models to arrive at their Chicago hotel to begin three weeks of rehearsals before hitting the road. They spent that day sight-seeing and sharing their hopes for the next nine months.
That was the beginning of a whirlwind travel year. Runway shows six days of the week in a new city almost nightly. Being in close proximity 24/7 on and off of buses, planes and backstage, soon Tinika and Ronnel became best friends. At the end of the tour that year, Ronnel went back to Ohio while Tinika returned to Atlanta, but they couldn’t get each other off their minds. “It was like separation anxiety,” Ronnel said.
But when August came back around in 2003, Tinika and Ronnel were right back to where they began, rehearsing for the new show year and catching up after a summer away. Their friendship gained even more strength, and a romantic spark started to ignite as well.
“There was a swimsuit scene where Ronnel and the other male model had to kiss me on my cheek,” Tinika said. “Before we went out for that scene, Ronnel started saying, ‘Oh my gosh, those red lips…!’ It was funny at first, but then one night I noticed I really liked it.”
The flirting continued for a while, but neither of them still had expressed any change in their intentions although Ronnel’s close friends and family began nudging him about this Tinika girl. “They questioned my having a girl best friend. They’d say, ‘that sounds like a wife!’” Their comments made me start thinking a lot about our relationship,” he said.
Soon summertime came again, but this time, Ronnel invited Tinika to visit him at his home in Ohio. Tinika, being a gracious guest, offered to make dinner one night. On the menu was baked chicken and rice. “It was the juiciest chicken I’ve ever had,” Ronnel said. His cousin chimed in, “If you aren’t going to marry her, I will!”
It still took some careful consideration on the part of both Tinika and Ronnel to overcome their hesitation about turning their friendship into a romantic relationship. After all, they were around each other day in and day out and wondered if they’d ruin what they had.
Finally, they made it official in the Fall of 2003 after an “adult conversation.” Their dating experience was different than most. They were already doing everything together, but the other members of the tour were always around so unlike before, they put some ground rules into play: no flirting with anyone else. It really wasn’t until the third year on tour that they would take some quality time just for each other.
While Ronnel needed some reminding of their first official date, Tinika dug deep into her memory to recall their first date in Fort Worth, Texas. Since they had already visited every city twice now that they were in their third year of the fashion show, they remembered a nice movie complex with a huge, upscale sports bar nearby. That’s the first time they managed to escape for the night alone.
But their first kiss didn’t happen until a night in Biloxi, Mississippi after a show. Like other performances, this one had a reception, providing a chance for the models to mingle with show-goers. Ronnel left early, but Tinika was enjoying herself so she stayed a while longer. When the night ended, Tinika found herself knocking on Ronnel’s hotel room door and before he got a chance to let her inside, she planted a big kiss on his lips.
They modeled in the Ebony Fashion Fair for six years together. Their romance flourished over that time and they became almost inseparable. Ronnel knew Tinika was the one well before they had said “I love you” for the first time. He was young though and at 22, he still had some things to figure out.
“For me, the feeling was immediate,” Tinika said. “I knew Ronnel wasn’t ready to settle down when we were first dating. But I remember telling him, ‘I know it’s you.’” She continued on, “When you envision your future and that person is right there beside you, it’s pretty clear.”
Ronnel couldn’t shake the feeling of living without Tinika by his side. Those summers apart were hard and a time of reflection for him. In the Fall of 2005, he remembers being jolted by a Musiq Soulchild video called “As Long As Your Love Don’t Change.” He thought about a few of his family members whose lives had ended earlier than they should have and he thought to himself, “I would hate to be dating for five years and only married for one if something catastrophic happened. I’d have no way of learning about marriage.” During that time, he spoke with his “grammy” who reinforced his family’s love for Tinika.
After knowing with 100% certainty that Tinika was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, he asked his granny to help him ring shop. She was one of the only people he told about his engagement plan set for Christmastime.
Christmas Day finally arrived. He carefully slipped the ring box into a pair of warm winter boots which would serve as the gift wrap for the engagement ring and placed it under the tree. Tinika reached for it and opened the packaging to find a nice pair of Timberland boots. With all her family and most of his watching on, she acted more excited than she actually was. Ronnel nudged her to try them on to which she responded, “What size are they?” They were her exact size of course and she rejected the need to try them on in front of everyone. Ronnel continued pushing and she finally gave in. She slipped it on her foot, but couldn’t get past the stuffing in her way. Then she saw a ring box and looked at Ronnel.
Down on one knee, he began to propose, “Hey babe, we’ve been dating and I love you and you love me and I think we should make it official!”
Eight months later on August 12, 2006, at a church ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia, Ronnel and Tinika married in the presence of 150 of their friends and family. It was the most memorable day of their lives. To Ronnel, seeing the doors open to Tinika wearing her white, flowing wedding dress and walking down the aisle to meet him at the altar was the moment he’ll never forget. For Tinika, she’ll always remember the look in Ronnel’s eyes when those church doors swung open. “It was priceless,” she said.
Ronnel was blown away by his sister’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” It brought tears to his eyes. Tinika was humbled by their friends and family who had traveled from across the United States to see them marry. At the young ages of 24, they knew how important their support would be.
As the officiant got ready to say those famous words, “You may kiss the bride,” Ronnel leaned back to his best man, who then turned to the next groomsman and so on until the message had reached the very last one. Always a jokester, soon Ronnel was popping a breath mint into his mouth and said, “Ok, now I’m ready.”