’My life as a MAFS producer’
HE'S arranged 30 weddings in three years - for couples who've never met until the big day - but Peter Cunningham doesn't take marriage lightly.
After falling head over heels at age 18 then being heartbroken when his partner wanted to be just friends, the Married At First Sight reality-TV show producer had to wait 11 long years for his first love to become his forever love.
In May last year, Brisbane-raised Cunningham tied the knot with Gold Coast choreographer Anthony Ikin in a glamorous ceremony on New Zealand's stunning Waiheke Island.
"Our wedding took just over 12 months to pull together and we'd been close for so long, so I have a lot of empathy for people who allow themselves to be vulnerable by marrying a stranger in front of millions of viewers," he says of the 20 MAFS singles chosen from about 10,000 applicants. "They open themselves to endless judgments."
Cunningham, 30, has overcome hurdles of his own - and there are more to come, with an ambitious move to Los Angeles later this year. Graduating from St Joseph's College (Gregory Terrace) in 2005, he completed a Bachelor of Film and Screen Media Production at Griffith University and worked as a concierge for the Emporium Hotel, Fortitude Valley.
"There were few opportunities in my field in Brisbane but then a friend of a friend called in 2010 and said there was a job for one week on Channel Ten's The Renovators. It was as a runner, which means you make coffee and empty the bins - whatever needs to be done - but I fell in love straightaway with the whole process of a reality-TV show where it's fast-paced and you're dealing with real people."
On the last of those seven hectic days, in which the contestants were repairing Queensland homes devastated by the 2010-11 floods, Cunningham, then 21, was asked to continue full-time with the show in Sydney.
"I drove down the next week and was promoted not long after because if you work hard and keep a smile on your face you're quickly recognised by the producers as someone willing to get in there," he says.
Three seasons of Ten's The Biggest Loser followed - by which time he had become an assistant producer - and he also worked on Nine Network's Celebrity Apprentice, The Voice and Ten's Big Brother (on which he also voiced Big Brother)
It was on The Voice that Cunningham had two very different experiences of fame.
One female judge refused to move her feet off the table in her dressing room, motioning for him to crawl under her legs to put down her cup of tea, while actress Nicole Kidman, who was backstage watching her husband, Keith Urban, opened a door for Cunningham so he could pass first.
"Being a celebrity can't buy class but Nicole is so lovely," he says.
Then, in 2014, with his own star rising, Cunningham moved to London.
"I knew I needed international experience but didn't have a clue how hard it would be," he says. "I didn't have a job and was calling home in tears quite a few times. It seemed like a big dream that turned into a slap in the face."
After five months of networking and "hustling", Cunningham was hired by Lime Pictures to work on the popular UK "dramality" The Only Way Is Essex.
"I had to look after all the cast members, who were the new kind of celebrity and thought they were big deals, so it was a huge learning curve for a slightly naive young me," he says.
After the success of the show and despite looming opportunities, a homesick Cunningham decided to return to Australia at the end of 2015.
LESSONS IN LIFE
The third of four children to lawyer dad Gary, 61, and accountant mum Lorilie, 60, Cunningham was born on December 8, 1988, but moved to Nashville, Tennessee, eight years later when his parents established a physiotherapy clinic business in the US.
He didn't know it at the time, of course, but the challenge of relocating stood him in good stead for his future.
"I'd attended St Ignatius [Catholic primary school] in Toowong [in Brisbane's west], so going to public elementary school in Nashville was completely different - there were so many levels of advantage and disadvantage, and it opened my eyes to the bubble I'd been living in. The risk Mum and Dad took to move with three young kids instilled a strong work ethic and willingness to back ourselves."
Sister Stephanie, 34, is part-owner of fashion label Bonita Kaftans. Brother Mitchell, 31, is a Cathay Pacific Airways pilot, and younger sibling Xavier, 18, is studying law at the University of Queensland.
"We had to move around a bit in Nashville," says Cunningham, "and I had three schools in four years so it taught me how to connect with new people - and I loved Nashville, it is the heart of country music, which is deeply personal music and all about storytelling."
Moving back to Australia in 2000, with his parents commuting regularly to the States, Cunningham attended Nudgee Junior (now Ambrose Treacy College, in westside Indooroopilly), where he felt ostracised.
"It was Year 7 [then the final year of primary] and all the boys had formed their friendships and I wasn't welcomed, plus I had a Nashville accent and was probably a bit camp as well … shock of the century!" he laughs. "There was a lot of bullying and teasing. I would try to sit down for lunch with kids and they'd get up and walk away.
"Dad told me I'd be sitting by myself when he'd pick me up from school, and it broke his heart, but I don't remember it so much because I've always been a pretty positive person and I did know I was a bit different."
Cunningham started high school at Gregory Terrace the following year. "I love that school; it's the way they embrace everybody - Mitch and I were a year apart and so different, he played in the firsts for rugby and I was in the Fs, but it didn't matter."
Following a trip to Europe after graduating, Cunningham returned with some news.
"I'd had my first kiss with a boy over there and Mum and Dad were in Nashville and not due home until just before Dad's 50th birthday a week later, so every night I'd prep myself on how to tell them, and then the night before the big party I said something like, 'I'm gay, I hope you guys are OK with that', and Mum burst into tears and clapped and said how proud she was.
"Dad, who is quieter, hugged and kissed me and said he'd always love me. My sexuality has never been an issue and I understand that a lot of people don't have that same acceptance and I'm incredibly grateful."
The tight-knit Cunningham family welcomed Ikin with the same openness, having kept in close contact with him over the years and secretly hoping the two men would once again become more than friends.
IN STEP WITH EACH OTHER
Anthony Ikin is no stranger to the spotlight or to reality TV, having been a soloist in Paris's Moulin Rouge, a former world aerobics champion, a contestant on Ten's So You Think You Can Dance and a lead choreographer for the 2018 Commonwealth Games ceremonies.
Ikin, brother of rugby league icon and Fox Sports presenter Ben, recently sold his Ikin Dance studio on the Gold Coast and, after winning the US green card lottery, will take his Global Dance Pro course to Los Angeles in August, teaming up with Zac Brazenas, who dances for Britney Spears.
"When I met Pete in 2007 there was an instant connection and I definitely knew that we had something special, but I also knew he had some growing up to do and some life experience to have before he would settle into the man I knew he was going to be," says Ikin, 37.
"Rather than listen to my heart, I made an educated decision [to break up but remain friends] and I'm so glad I did because Pete went on to do the most amazing things and it is so important to follow your own passion. By the time we got back together [in early 2016], he'd decided what he wanted to do and I complemented that, and we came together as one."
"The timing turned out to be perfect, and I can't wait to embark on our next exciting chapter. LA is the land of opportunity for people in our industry and, although we don't know what our future holds, it's going to be great because we've got each other." ■
Married at First Sight - Season 6, Mondays at 7.30pm on Nine HD and 9Now