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Leo Espinosa
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updated 12/17/2008 4:54:32 PM ET 2008-12-17T21:54:32

Natalie Abreu, 26, was excited about the helicopter tour her boyfriend, Justin Firestone, 28, had planned as the grand finale of their trip to Maui. But the flight over the black sands of Hono Manu ended up giving her the shock of her life — "Will You Marry Me Natalie" was spelled out on the beach in giant letters made from hundreds of coconuts painted white. Stunned at the sight, Natalie took five minutes — and a second pass over the beach — to find her voice and say "Yes!"

"We were checking tide charts and scouting locations for weeks," confides Shermaine Rodrigues, the concierge at the Four Seasons Maui and Justin’s key accomplice. Over the last couple of years, she has gotten used to coordinating proposal concepts that take months of planning, teams of assistants, and split-second timing.

For the modern would-be groom, whose viewing habits undoubtedly include reality TV and Monday Night Football, asking a girl for her hand has become a competitive event. Think Prince Charming meets Jackass’s Bam Margera: Today’s wedding proposal is part romantic gesture, part clever stunt.

Male competitiveness is undoubtedly at play here, notes Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and relationship expert at utango.com, a lifestyle site. It’s all part of the social climate these days. "There’s an overall pattern of showiness in our celebrations now, from fancy bar mitzvahs to lavish weddings," she says. "It was only a matter of time before it trickled down to the proposal."

Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the trend by setting up businesses that offer assistance with intricate proposals. The mission of Go Get It!, in New York, is "to create one-of-a-kind proposals that make your loved one feel like the most important person in the world," according to its Web site. Samantha von Sperling, of Polished Social Image Consultants, also in New York, helps well-heeled clients orchestrate proposals that involve flights to Paris, rooms at the Ritz, and rings from Cartier (her services include providing the proposer with breath strips and special lotion to de-sweat palms). But she doesn’t feel the price tag tells the whole story. No matter what the cost, she says, "the proposal is the only area, from the first date to the wedding, where the man is in total control — it’s his moment."

But it’s not just professionals of the human variety lending a hand — even marine mammals are getting into the act. At Discovery Cove, a theme park in Orlando, Florida, 231 proposals were delivered by dolphins last year. Each personalized message was lettered on a souvenir buoy that the animal pushed up to the designated girl.

This whole concept may seem showy, but the mega-proposal resonates with grooms. Ubie Sullivan, 27, who pulled off an elaborate proposal in the air says, "I wanted to prove to Tasha that I was willing to do extraordinary things for our relationship."

According to Ubie and other grandstanders, the effort put into each proposal reflects the seriousness with which they approach marriage itself. "I’ve had friends who’ve gotten engaged over a pizza," he says, clearly unimpressed.

Jeff Tolonen, 27, dolefully recalls a guy who proposed to his girlfriend "as they were vacuuming." By contrast, Jeff’s scheme took a year to plan. He bought a handheld global positioning system (GPS) for his girlfriend, Candice Dodd, 27, and got her started on the hobby of "geocaching," in which players hide small treasures — usually stashed in film canisters — and post the coordinates on a Web site for other players to follow.

For a trip to Florida, Candice downloaded the coordinates of a cache; what she didn’t know was that Jeff had hidden the treasure and posted the clues. So when she found the standard film canister, she thought it was all part of the game. The note inside it, asking for her hand in marriage, convinced her it was not. He did it, in part, he admits, "because I wanted her to have a story to tell."

Aside from the bragging rights, there may be another reason to go extreme: "The woman never says no," says Shermaine Rodrigues, the Four Seasons concierge.

For a real can’t-say-no situation, consider the celebrity-assisted and televised proposals that are becoming increasingly common. One woman was proposed to by her boyfriend from the stage at a Mariah Carey concert. Another was asked the big question when she thought she was in a look-alike contest on Rachael Ray. Then there was a proposal on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Laura O’Donnell, 32, walked through the lobby of her office building and saw a throng of people hiding behind bouquets of flowers. As they slowly lowered their bouquets, revealing themselves to be her friends and relatives, Joe Uva, 36, came out of the crowd and proposed. With such an audience, how could she say anything but yes?

Fortunately, according to Pepper Schwartz, it’s not the crazy, over-the-top proposal that creates the positive response. Chances are, he knows the answer long before he goes shopping for the ring. "A guy has to be nearly one hundred percent sure of what the woman wants in order to put on a performance like this," she says. In other words, the guys with the amazing scenarios that they’ve been sweating over night after sleepless night, making sure they shock and awe their girlfriends with a proposal that nobody has ever concocted before, are doing exactly what we women want.

Here are some more real proposal stories:

  • Chris Cool’s boyfriend, John Grossman, 34, woke her up at 2:45 one morning, telling her to grab her toiletries and dress comfy. Next thing she knew, the two of them were on a plane headed for Venice. But the big surprise came the next day, when John proposed and, just as Chris, 34, was saying yes, all the church bells in the city began to chime simultaneously.

  • It took many people and a baby stroller to hold down the wind-whipped letters in "Will You Marry Me?" on sheets large enough to be seen from the top of the Washington Monument. That’s where David Claster, 26, had taken Sabine Knauf, also 26, to enjoy the view. When she saw the message, she said, "Isn’t that cute — someone’s proposing." "Yeah," David said, "It’s me."

  • Jeff Joughton, 27, arranged a special showing of an edited version of the movie "Say Anything" for his girlfriend, Michelle Seifert, 23, at the Moxie Theater in Springfield, Mo. He replaced John Cusack with an image of himself in a key scene, with a frame that read, "Marry Me, Michelle." "You could hear that girl screaming a mile away," remembers Moxie owner Dan Chilton.

  • Tasha Craft was returning from Africa when, during the last leg of her 28-hour flight home, she heard the flight attendant calling her name. Then her boyfriend’s voice came over the intercom. "Ubie asked if I would do him the honor of being his wife, and if I accepted, to meet him in the aisle," says Tasha. The whole plane cheered as she leapt up from her seat.

This content originally appeared in Brides magazine. For more wedding tips, visit Brides.com.

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