How They Met

Photography by B Fresh Photography

There's never been a better time to fall in love in Minnesota. With the rousing defeat of the anti-gay marriage amendment, we stood up for the belief that loving commitment should be open to everyone. To celebrate our state's conjugal bliss, we asked a diverse array of local couples the cocktail party question that eventually confronts every attached-at-the-hip pair: How did you meet?

Ophelia & David

Burlesque performer Ophelia Flame is the fire behind Lili's Burlesque Revue, the Playful Peacock Showgirl Academy, the Minneapolis Burlesque Festival, and others. Her husband David Holmdahl is a former Navy SEAL and MCAD graduate who now works as an award-winning video editor at a local ad agency. The couple fell in love on a wild road trip to the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 1999, but they first met a decade prior. At the time, both thought the other wasn't for them.

David: I was still in college and she and a friend came over with my friend one night. We actually had a long conversation, and I was shooting some video.

Ophelia: Uh-oh. I kind of remember it now that you're saying that. You've always been an easy person to talk to, but the few times we hung out was in a group and I thought you were nice and cute but just not my type. At the time my type was tattooed boys with drug problems. It was like, "Dave, you have a car?" I was not interested. He was far too together.

D: I thought she was beautiful, but maybe not running in the same circles as me.

O: I got tired of tattooed boys with drug problems. Then in 1999 my girlfriend and I had a couple shots of tequila and decided to enter this Miss Exotic World contest. It was this crazy whim. I thought maybe we should ask our friend David to come with us. And there's something about driving in a convertible...

D: Something about being on the road and going to this carnival-type thing, it opened us up to each other.

O: Having this shared weird experience was really uniting ... I actually took a runner-up title, and we were driving back through the desert with this trophy to Las Vegas and we partied all night.

D: We were taking [the trophy] to all the bars.

O: Once we got back from that road trip it was pretty fast and furious. We were living together by fall of that year, and for Dave's golden birthday I got him the weekend off, packed some bags, blindfolded him, and took him to the airport.

D: As I remember you kept me blindfolded all the way to the actual gate.

O: No, but you wanted to know where we were going. We stayed with friends who live in Cottonwood, Arizona, near Sedona, and the next morning was his birthday.

D: She woke me up and as we climbed this hill without coffee —

O: I proposed at sunrise. I had a ring made. Later Dave returned the favor and proposed in Mexico. Now we have a seven-year-old wild child, and even after nearly 15 years we still love each other madly and live to give each other shit. 

Jasha & Carrie

Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston have both been staples in the local bar and restaurant scene for well over a decade. Carrie graduated from culinary school and landed an internship working under Alex Roberts, first at Restaurant Alma and later as the head baker at Brasa. Jasha is a familiar face to regulars at Mortimer's where he's worked the bar for more than 15 years. The pair now own and operate Nightingale, the small plates-focused late-night restaurant in Whittier, where the couple also live with their two sons. But before the dinner parties and walking dates along the West Bank, the two were students at Augsburg College.

Jasha: There's kind of an ongoing debate about who chased who.

Carrie: It's not a debate. You chased me. Completely.

J: Well, she was the first one to really initiate the first interaction between us. She asked me to do homework with her in the park over lunch.

C: We became good friends very quickly.

J: I guess there was one time we spoke before that, and it was one of the more odd things I have ever done in my life, but I saw her at the school mailboxes and I just walked right up to her and I flat-out told her she was going to have my children.

C: And I was 17 years old at the time! I thought he was a total creep. But that must have been the first time we ever actually talked.


J: It was so weird. I never said anything like that to another person before and I never have since. Something just came over me.

C: And then I became the mother of his children.

J: It's funny because usually she's the one who knows what's going to happen before it happens. It's impossible to keep a secret from her. To this day she always knows everything I'm going to do before I do it. 

Sohail & John

John Sand and Sohail Justin Akhavein knew of each other while attending the University of Minnesota, where John (now a store manager at LEN) majored in genetics and cultural studies and Sohail (now a copy writer and yoga teacher) studied journalism, sociology, and fine art. But their first impromptu date wasn't until the Snowpocalypse blizzard of 2010, when they found themselves snowed in together the night after a mutual friend's party.

Sohail: It was pretty bad, and everyone was kind of locked in their houses and traffic was at a standstill. We were snowed in, and we spent the day walking around Franklin Avenue and surrounding blocks helping people that were trapped in their cars and whatnot.

John: A lot of couples end up seeing each other maybe on a weekly basis for a while, and then a little bit more frequently. But our [relationship] kind of just happened because of the snow. We were just stuck together essentially for, I think, almost three days before we were able to get back to my house. So for a while we walked around and helped dig peoples' cars our of the snow —

S: Like gay superheroes.

J: — and for a while after that we just watched things on Netflix. For like three days.

S: So now we don't really have an anniversary. We just usually say, whenever there's the first huge snowfall, that was the start of our romance. 

Xu & Dan

For Dan Reuter and Xu Yue, it was love at first sickness. After graduating from Hamline University, Dan moved to Hangzhou, China, to teach English, where he met Xu at Zhejiang University in 2006. Four years and a marriage later, the couple moved back to St. Paul.

Dan: I organized a dinner at my apartment for students who passed an English proficiency test as a congratulatory thing, and Xu came. I cooked food ... luckily nobody besides me ate it, because it was so bad I got food poisoning.

Xu: Since I was there, I felt obligated to take him to the hospital!

D: We developed a friendship and would text each other quite a bit. About nine months later, I sent her a text asking her if she wanted to go on a date.

X: Actually, you asked me if I wanted to be your girlfriend. I thought, are you seriously texting me? Grow some balls and ask me in person!

D: It took a few days, but she eventually said she'd date me and the rest is history. It was right about the 2006 World Cup, and we'd stay out all night and watch the games together. It's been quite the international love affair. 

Christian & Janey

If you go to local rock shows, you're probably familiar with Christian Erickson and Janey Winterbauer. When they aren't out watching their friends' bands play, the couple are taking the stage themselves — Erickson fronting the band Blue Sky Blackout, and Winterbauer as a singer in the house band for American Public Media's Wits series. They've been married for 12 years and have two kids. Erickson is a co-owner of design and marketing agency Zeus Jones (which was behind the orange Vote No rings last fall), while many locals know Winterbauer for her Twitter handle, @WinnerBowzer.

Inevitably, though, the story of how they met revolves around the music scene.

Janey: The first time I met Christian I was standing outside of a rock club on Lake Street. I was dating a guy that was in his roommates' band and he had invited me to the show. They wouldn't let me in because I wasn't 21; I was only 17. And I'd spent my last three dollars getting there on the bus, so I had to stand there outside and wait for them for four hours.

Christian: I remember seeing you standing outside, and the first thing was like, "Who is that poor girl?" The second thing I remember was you were kind of rocking a raver outfit —

J: This was 1994. I was a total raver for a full six months.

C: You had big old bell bottoms and I don't even remember what else. Then the second time was, there was this band called Nectar, and its singer had quit. My roommate, who was mutual friends of all of ours, said, "Oh, Janey is now the singer in this band." I think I was there for the first show you sang with Nectar, at the Entry.


J: Yeah.

C: That's when it was obvious that, you know, you were super cute and could really sing, and that was really, really cool. But we still didn't quote-unquote "hit it off," right?

J: No, because I thought you were one of those really old, cool people that wouldn't talk to anybody that was young and green. I didn't even think it was worth trying to talk to you. But then you came up to me and asked me to sing in your project [Astronaut Wife].

C: That was the third one, right? We were at the Fine Line.

J: Yes, it was the Fine Line. That was 1998, and I was super flattered, and I thought it was super awesome; nobody had ever asked me to do anything like that before. Then we started talking and I was dating this guy that I wasn't really getting along with very well. It was kind of cool because I finally broke up with him and I went to band practice and I [told] Christian. And he laughed! I was like, "Why are you laughing?" I realized later he was laughing because he was glad, because he liked me.

C: For the record, I did not ask you to be in the band with me as an excuse to start dating you.

J: I know that! 

Abby & Orin

Abby and Orin Rutchick decided to turn their domestic partnership into a professional one four years ago, when they co-founded the Mpls Photo Center, a combination gallery, studio, and school.

Abby: I first saw Orie at a party. It was the '70s and it seemed like there was a party every weekend. He had long brown hair down to his shoulders — I love long hair — and he had and still has really big blue eyes. I was smitten right away. Are you remembering any of this?

Orin: I'm liking that first part. Just you bringing this up it's like falling in love all over again. I saw Abby right away on the other side of the room, this dark-haired, dark-complected girl in this suede miniskirt. After that we were inseparable.

A: Not exactly. We were introduced by a friend and we talked briefly, and then it wasn't until the second time we met, at a party at Orie's house, that the conversation went further. The third time, he invited me to go bike riding. He knew that I liked to ride my bike around the lakes.

O: We saw each other and did something together probably every day for two years. But actually, when we met I was going through the process of a divorce from a woman I was married to for about a year and a half, who I had married very young and it wasn't working out.

A: What he's trying to say is that he told me after two years that he didn't want to see me anymore.

O: Well, I realized I was making a commitment and wasn't ready, and got in hindsight really rude and pushy and finally it just ended.

A: I was ready but he was totally all of a sudden not wanting to be in that kind of relationship. I left him alone then. I was like, I don't need this.

O: But I had her stereo at my place and she came to pick it up, and she had this blue and white seersucker shirt dress on. I saw her and immediately realized that she was the one. That's when she moved in and we decided to get married. It was the suede miniskirt and the seersucker shirt dress.

A: It continued and it's been 35 years. We have two children and three grandchildren, and we're in our fourth year of working together, so now we meshed our lives again around what we do.

O: Abby, I love you.

A: I love you too. 

Rico & Sarah

Sarah White and Rico Simon Mendez met over a decade ago at a club where he was spinning records. He didn't like Sarah's "limp handshake," and she thought he looked like a priss. Fast-forward three years to a brisk evening in January at the Lounge. Says Sarah, who peeped Rico and his business partner meeting about record label business while she was was serving up cocktails: "Yeah, he first approached me about his label, saying that he wanted to work with me as a singer, and we..."


Rico: No, I first said, "You smell good."

Sarah: Well, yeah, that's right. We met at the Lounge, and he was not my type. But he said I smelled really, really good. At that point in time, I thought I was kinda a local hip-hop star, so I couldn't believe that he had the nerve to talk to me that way. So, of course, I fell in love with his whole vibe. He was very forward, so he approached me about doing music with his label, and we ended up performing together at the King and I shortly after, which was our first time hanging out.

R: I was playing percussion and DJing at the Lounge, so I would see her all the time. I asked her out on a date about a week after that first performance at the King and I .... But before that, I was drawn to her because she was unique. At first, I didn't know she was a musician, but when I found out she was a singer, I was trying to holler at her, I mean, I was actually being for real with her about wanting to work with her ...

S: Mmmm-hmmm ...

R: I really was, and um, her character and style just attracted me, so I thought that I had to ask her out.

S: My first impression was that he was really pretty. I had never really dated a pretty guy before. He had such a worldly vibe, and you could tell he had been traveling. His music was so diverse, and he was very direct. And passionate with the things he did, like playing the drums until his fingers bled. I loved that passion and his energy. It was undeniable to me that I had to get to know him more. 

Betsy & Gary

For Minneapolis City Council member and mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges, arranging a first date with the man who turned out to be the love of her life may have depended on her friend's new shoes. Needing Band-Aids, her pal was late to former NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center CEO Gary Cunningham's leaving-for-another-job party at the Monte Carlo back in 2007. It was love at first sight, and two years later, Hodges and Cunningham tied the knot.

Betsy: I was sitting there for about an hour [before my friend arrived]. Gary is toasting everyone in the room, everyone is toasting Gary. I felt like a jackass until he asked me out.

Gary: I was actually not looking to be in a relationship per se — I was single and just enjoying that. But there she was, this beautiful, smart, talented, young woman, and I started talking with her. I basically said, "I don't necessarily go out with politicians but I'd like to go out with you." And she said yes, and after that I just knew I was going to be with her.

B: We've actually never lived together. He's on the Met Council, I'm on the City Council, and our districts don't overlap. We're used to it. It's not an ideal situation, but we're both very dedicated public servants. 

Shannon & Tea

Together, Shannon Blowtorch and Tea Simpson make a bad-ass couple. On show night, you will find both of them about their business: Shannon is spinning records, or engineering sound for a show — running from the DJ booth and back to the stage, not idling for more than a few seconds. When she isn't on stage strutting her dynamic vocals, Tea is more low-key, sipping a cocktail with a close friend at the bar.

Tea: I was going to college in Mankato, and we met at the second or third official Pride. I was the MC, and Shannon was in All the Pretty Horses, and they were performing. I ended up being the sober driver for the band that night. I thought she was a bitch when I first met her. I didn't like her at all, so I'd be like, "Oh yeah, that band's great, but that chick's a total bitch." I ended up taking them back to the hotel, and she invited me up. She had a magazine with Poison Ivy of the Cramps in it, who is one of my idols, so we started bonding and talking about music. We were both probably really nervous, so I can't recall exactly...

Shannon: Yeah, we talked mostly about music.

T: Yeah, it was probably all music, and then she walked me to my car. And I figured if she had good taste in music, she couldn't be such a bitch if she liked me.


S: I remember that she was hot, and fun. She was kinda dancing everywhere and was the life of the party. I like that ... Tea is a fuckin' sweetheart. She would do anything for anybody, she has good ethics, the whole team player mentality, and that's what I look for in everyone ...

T: So, what I thought was a bitch at first ... [giggles]

S: I was a kind of a bitch.

T: Yeah, ya know .... But I like it. I think it's a good quality to be a tough lady.

S: And I embrace it. We are a good balance. It works.

Nikki & Darrell

Darrell Paulsen and Nikki Villavicencio-Tollison have both dedicated their lives to fighting for disability rights, at times through civil disobedience. The couple was once thrown out of the Minnesota Senate chambers for chanting, "I'd rather go to jail than die in a nursing home!" during a hearing on cuts to the Health and Human Services Budget. Today they are engaged with a baby, but it was their shared passion that brought them together four years ago at a rally in St. Paul.

Says Darrell, who also runs a nonprofit for disability advocacy and sensitivity training: "I convinced my people to put together a documentary about the work that I had been doing over the years. So I was waiting for one of my camera guys to get up there, and as I was walking around waiting to see how that was gonna go, I came across this young lady, who I actually thought was a girl. I thought she was very young. And I was very confused by it just because she was all bundled up — "

Nikki: It was a cold March day.

Darrell: But I looked down and realized that her feet were exposed. I didn't really say anything. I just introduced myself and told her what kind of stuff I did. And she said, "Well, I kinda do the same stuff." And I looked at her, and as I walked away, I said, "I'll see you later!"

N: After the rally was over, me and a few other folks with disabilities were waiting for our ride, because I was at the time taking Metro Mobility. And he came by again and kind of asked me for my number.

D: I asked her if I could wait there with her and talk to her, and she said, "Sure."

N: I gave him my phone number.

D: I called that lady for three weeks. I called her every day, multiple times a day, and she wouldn't answer, she wouldn't return my phone calls. And actually I was sitting outside the Science Museum ... and all of a sudden the phone rings. And it was her! And I was so excited, I told her I'd just call her right back. And I was so excited I must have sounded like I was crying or something, because I immediately called my mom and told my mom, "She called me! She called me!"

N: So we met downtown and had a few drinks, and it was pretty much history from then. There's been a lot in between, but now we have a 10-month-old baby. 

AJ & Elly

Last August, Elly Lachman and AJ Peterson were driving back from New Orleans when they hit a deer and flipped off the road at about 75 miles per hour. Elly was only bruised, but AJ had to be lifted through the windshield and rushed to a hospital. Over the following months, Elly nursed him through a collapsed lung, a punctured spleen, a shattered shoulder, and broken ribs. In October, their friends threw AJ a get-well benefit at Hell's Kitchen, and onstage, in front of 300 of their closest friends and family, he proposed.

"When you have a near-death experience," AJ explains, "you just decide that you don't want to waste any more time."

Elly: It was December 2010, I was living in Chicago, and a friend of mine mentioned that she was performing in a burlesque show.

AJ: I happened to come down from Minneapolis and was working the show.

E: I had never seen a burlesque show. They introduced AJ onstage and I just ... I don't really know how to explain it but I had the feeling that I already knew this person. I didn't see any of the show because I was watching AJ the whole time. I was trying very, very hard to be cool, and I don't go up to people but I had the overwhelming feeling that if I didn't introduce myself to this person I would regret it.


A: I didn't see Elly, because when you're onstage the lights are in your face, and I was DJing the after party so I was setting up. But she came up to me, and she has the most gorgeous smile and I was just sucked in by how beautiful she was.

E: In my efforts that evening to appear cool I dressed really intensely lesbian: I wore really loose pants and combat boots and a button-down, and I remember kind of stumbling up to AJ with my baggy clothes and a Corona in my hand. It couldn't have been further from who I actually am.

A: Quite honestly she looked like she was just getting back from a fishing trip. I told her she looked adorable.

E: I remember babbling incoherently and sticking my hand out, buying AJ a drink and writing my number on the napkin.

A: She thinks she was really awkward but I'm telling you she was so smooth. At the end of the night, I realized the busser had taken the napkin and thrown it out, and I was like, "Nooo!" But we had a mutual friend, and I asked that girl for Elly's info. We ended up connecting on Facebook, and she came up to Minneapolis about a month later. It was the first time we hung out, and I know it sounds clichéd, but I knew she was the person I was meant to be with. And I guess I was right, because now we're engaged to be married. 

Sarah & Rob

Rob Miller and Sarah Bonvallet are the co-owners of the Dangerous Man Brewing Company in northeast Minneapolis. Rob is more directly involved with the beer side of the business and Sarah serves as the company's creative director. The pair met at college but had some initial trepidation about getting together.

Rob: Eventually a mutual friend sort of set us up.

Sarah: I didn't really go for it at first but our friends convinced me by telling me he was a good cook and would make me stir fry and smoothies.

R: I remember thinking even in those group get-togethers that she was really fun. She was easy to talk to.

S: So I called him up knowing that he had been led into the whole situation by our friends like I was, but he kind of shrugged me off.

R: Yeah, I told her I was studying and needed to take a rain check, but I totally wasn't studying.

S: Then a couple weeks later I was at this concert and I was dancing and having a good time and I felt this little tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was him, and he was smiling his cute little humble Rob smile and I was like, "Nice rain check, buddy!" I had never really been stood up before, and, I hate to say it, but the fact that he made me wait it out made me more interested in him.

R: It wasn't like I had this whole other host of options. I just think I knew that if I started seeing her, it would get really serious really fast.

S: I don't really believe in the whole love-at-first-sight thing, but I knew like three weeks into dating him that I was done. I wasn't ever going to look for anyone else. 

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