In late March 2023, over 12 million people tuned in to a pair of CBS college basketball games, respectively, making them the highest-rated programs on network television that week. Young Sheldon, a spin-off of The Big Bang Theory, scored just over 7 million viewers.
Some 20 years prior, over 35 million people watched a construction worker named Evan Marriott confess his deception—he was pretending to be wealthy in order to mislead a gaggle of women—on the finale of Fox’s unlikely smash hit Joe Millionaire. It was the largest audience on any network for a non-sports program that year. Two decades later, it remains one of reality television’s biggest success stories.
The problem? The premise was only good for about eight episodes.
Compared to the decades of programming aired by rivals CBS, NBC, and ABC, Fox was a relative upstart. Launched in 1986, the network found a niche as an irreverent alternative destination, with controversial programming like Married…With Children and The Simpsons. By the 2000s, they had seized upon the reality television genre by stripping it of whatever dignity it had. While CBS aired the gritty competition series Survivor, Fox aired Man vs. Beast, which featured a foot race between a sprinter and a giraffe.
Much of Fox’s unscripted output was courtesy of Mike Darnell, a former child actor who ushered in a seismic sub-genre of talent competition shows by championing American Idol, a singing contest that had originated in the UK. Darnell had also worked in local television news and correctly assumed viewers would want super-sized versions of the police chases and animal encounters that bumped up ratings. Shows like When Good Pets Go Bad and the Glutton Bowl were inexpensive to produce but performed well in primetime.
Along the way was a major stumble: 2000’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, a disconcerting reality television special in which 50 women competed to marry a bachelor named Rick Rockwell while he remained obscured and out of view. The winner, Darva Conger, married Rockwell at the end of the two-hour program, and then promptly filed for an annulment after the honeymoon.
Despite the unhappy ending, Darnell believed there was still considerable mileage left in the relationship reality series sub-genre. Thinking of ways to spin out a premise similar to ABC’s hit The Bachelor, Darnell first thought of a show in which the suitor would be rich but claim he was poor. His colleague, Sabrina Bonet IsHak, wondered if perhaps the suitor could simply lie about being rich instead. It would provide dramatic irony: The audience would be in on a secret unknown to the contestants.
Darnell loved the idea. In addition to being salacious, it could work as a meta-commentary on the concept of marriage as a financial arrangement rather than an emotional coupling. Their bachelor would boast of inheriting a $50 million fortune. Like a reverse My Fair Lady, he’d be a blue-collar worker who would be tutored in the ways of finer living and which utensils to use at dinner. Darnell would house the bachelor and contestants in a French chateau, and audiences would watch with their hands clasped over their faces as the “millionaire” moved toward revealing his working-class roots.
Picking the Joe was relatively easy. Producers interviewed a parade of good-looking contenders before settling on 28-year-old Virginia native Evan Marriott, a tall and swarthy figure who bore a passing resemblance to Gaston of Beauty and the Beast fame. Despite his name, he was not any kind of heir to a hotel fortune. Fox claimed he earned $19,000 annually in construction, with a little extra money by way of underwear modeling. He also had no real issue misleading the contestants about his income. It was a tale as old as time.
Joe Millionaire premiered on January 6, 2003. Under the name “Evan Wallace,” Marriott, complete with a fake butler, wined and dined 20 women at the chateau. In B-roll footage, Marriott was shown operating heavy equipment, with the narrator informing viewers his duties in life normally included “moving dirt.” Producers introduced him to the women by having him gallop in on horseback.
Silly as it may have been, America was immediately taken by the premise. Over 18 million viewers tuned in for the series premiere. The second episode dipped in the ratings a bit but still managed to come in first in its time slot.
Marriott, who had also considered getting into professional wrestling, later told Vulture he spent several nights during the taping on the phone with an ex-girlfriend. “I had this beautiful view, and I would sit there every night with a beer in my hand and the phone in my ear,” he said in 2015. “I was talking to a girl named Amy, who I broke up with before I went to do the show, because I was trying to get back together with her.”
There was also scrutiny over Marriott’s wages. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated the average earnings of a construction worker to be $42,000 annually. One laborer told Entertainment Weekly that $19,000 was scarcely believable unless Marriott was “really bad with his hands.”
Was Marriott that broke, or even all that eligible? It made little difference to viewers, who were enraptured with the premise. For the sixth and penultimate episode, Fox aired ads teasing Marriott was about to make his choice between the pining contestants. When that proved misleading—there was one more episode to go—viewers grumbled. “Absolutely disgraceful the level of deception,” wrote one embittered viewer. “Wasted an hour.”
Fox had drawn it out as long as they could. On February 17, the network aired a special two-hour Joe Millionaire block. In the last hour, Marriott settled in for a confessional opposite the two finalists: substitute teacher Zora Andrich and mortgage broker assistant Sarah Kozer.
As the big moment loomed, audience numbers kept ticking up. Ultimately, 43 million people were watching in the final half hour as Marriott made his admission.
“I did not inherit $50 million,” Marriott told Kozer. “I’m a heavy equipment operator for a construction company.” Kozer appeared to take the news in stride. Marriott then added. “I haven’t chosen you.”
“I feel that Sarah was into Joe Millionaire, not Evan Marriott,” Marriott told cameras.
Marriott also revealed the truth to his preferred partner, Andrich.
“I don’t have $50 million,” Marriott admitted. “I don’t have $50,000.” Both Marriott and audiences waited to see if Andrich would forgive the ruse in the final meet-up.
She did. Andrich didn’t appear to care about Marriott’s bank statements. She declared she was, in fact, “really turned off by the fact that you had inherited all that money” and agreed to continue seeing Marriott. With that, Darnell revealed his last twist: He presented the couple with a check for $1 million. Split two ways and after taxes, it still didn’t make Marriott a millionaire, but it was a considerable bump from his (alleged) construction pay.
While it made for good television, Marriott and Andrich weren’t meant for each other. According to Andrich, they stopped seeing each other after a promotional tour for the show. The relationship between Marriott and Fox ended, too. Marriott claimed they revoked his pass to get on the studio lot just two weeks after the finale.
The series added to the Darnell legacy of inexpensive-yet-strangely-compelling reality shows. But unlike American Idol, Joe Millionaire’s premise had one fatal flaw: It was difficult, perhaps even impossible, to replicate the ruse. A second season later that year, The Next Joe Millionaire, filmed in Europe in the hopes that word of the first season was slow to reach other countries. It didn’t match the original in ratings. (A UK version, Joe Millionaire UK, also debuted in late 2003 and featured a bouncer perpetuating a similar scheme.) Fox delayed another follow-up until 2022, when Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer debuted. This time, two bachelors, one wealthy and one not, went through the reality dating conventions. Neither show captured the zeitgeist quite the way the original had.
After the show, Marriott largely disappeared from the public eye, save for an appearance in a special commemorating Fox’s 25th anniversary in 2012. He moved away from Hollywood and tended to a burgeoning construction equipment rental business. Reflecting on the show in 2015, he noted how it was a swerve inside of a swerve. Contestants were fooled into thinking he was rich; viewers were fooled into thinking he cared about the contest.
“I should have won an Emmy for that dance and kiss with Zora at the end of that show, because all I wanted to do was get back to Amy,” he said.