The wedding was watched on television by 2.5 million people. The marriage played out under the media microscope. And now, almost five years later, Romania is again riveted as the nation's most famous couple divorces.
It's a Cinderella tale with a materialistic twist. The beautiful, doe-eyed beauty from a poor, dysfunctional family in the country's northeast gets a doting, well-connected, wealthy and lonely husband. But then succumbs to the trappings of a modern lifestyle.
"The divorce of the year" has given Romanians a new distraction in the dying days of winter and respite from economic hardships and ongoing corruption scandals.
News channels switch from a daily digest of political feuds to the unfolding separation — with a live feed from the family home. Meanwhile, another camera films a court decision on the temporary custody of the couple's four-year-old daughter.
The nation gasped on Wednesday night, when Monica Columbeanu, 23, was evicted from a Bucharest apartment owned by her husband, Irinel Columbeanu, 53. And in recent days, fortune tellers, a shoe designer, and even politicians have gone on air to offer opinions on child custody, all apportioning blame for the split.
"The divorce is like a football match for us — The poor vs rich, the tall vs the short, men vs. women, traditional vs. modern families," said university graduate Alina Matis, 36, while shopping in the Transylvania city of Cluj.
The couple are discussed on the bus, in offices and in people's kitchens. Public sympathy favors Irinel — seen to have been duped by gold-grabbing Monica. Matis said she is embarrassed to admit she too is intrigued by the story.
It's a far cry from July 2006, when 19-year-old high school graduate Monica Gabor — significantly taller, prettier and poorer then her husband to be — met the 49-year-old gentle, millionaire bachelor son of a former high-ranking communist trade official who made his fortune in telephone communications after communism ended in 1989.
Media attention reached a crescendo in July when Monica accomplished a post-communist dream with Irinel's offer of his hand in marriage, money and notoriety — and a relationship acted out on television. The nuptials, broadcast live, culminated in Monica displaying a pregnancy testing kit that showed positive.
A TV reality show continued to document the unlikely yet strangely compelling couple. Every shopping trip, cooking lesson, and row were now pored over by a doting public.
Marital bliss, however, soon turned to boredom. Monica moved out of the sumptuous villa she shared with her husband three years ago, saying it was too far from the capital. There were reports of infidelities on both sides, culminating in an embarrassing amorous escapade involving Columbeanu and two silicon-enhanced, nubile bottle blondes known for stripping in public. The bubbly beauties had, naturally, filmed their own special episode in the saga and ran all the way to the press.
Monica left Romania in 2010 to try to repeat her media success in the United States, only to file for divorce and custody of her four-year-old daughter, Irina, last week.
Irinel, however, was granted temporary custody on the grounds that Monica now resides in the U.S. He declined to speak to The Associated Press Thursday, citing the ongoing divorce case and mass media coverage.
Romanians say the divorce was inevitable.
"The divorce was predictable even when they got married. This madness is perfect for Romanians, (a country) where looking through the keyhole is a national sport," said Matis.
Letting the cameras is something Irinel now says he regrets. "I wish I had been more firm about how much media coverage I allowed Monica to have," he said in televised comments. "The media poisoned our relationship."
European Parliament member for Romamnia Gigi Becali, however, disagreed.
"It's not the press that affected them, but the height difference — 185cm (6 feet 2 inches) and 160 centimeter (5 feet 3 inches), and their ages, 53 and 23," he said Wednesday.