“Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture and save it from the funny tricks of time,” a wistful Donna Sheridan sings as her daughter Sophie prepares to walk down the aisle in Act 2 of Mamma Mia!. In a way, Donna got her wish. The joyful bride has become an enduring emblem of the jukebox musical, harnessing its exuberant energy for over 25 years.
The woman ranks among the white mask of The Phantom of the Opera, the mysterious yellow eyes of Cats, and Wicked’s tight-lipped green girl as one of the most recognizable Broadway logos, but she has a special distinction: She’s not the creation of a graphic designer; she’s an actual woman whose unbridled laugh was captured on film.
A tweet that went viral earlier this year spread the unaltered photograph, which had been recently unearthed and shared in an ABBA fan group on Facebook. Several theatre enthusiasts—from performers to industry players to Mamma Mia! superfans—fueled the discourse, expressing their shock over the discovery, but the question remained: Who is she?
So just as Sophie devised her own plan in pursuit of paternity-related answers, we set out to find her story.
Here’s what we learned.
FIRST: Why the Bride?
Before we explore who the bride is, we must first understand her very existence.
The original key art could have focused on Donna (she is the lead, after all) and the Dynamos. It could have emphasized the show’s recognizable draw: ABBA. It could have made the enchantment of the Greek islands the focal point. Nevertheless, Sophie was always the crux of the show’s positioning.
“Highlighting the bride was a given from the start. The show was called Mamma Mia!, [Italian for] My Mother. The story was Sophie’s,” explains Lewis Macleod, founder of the studio Tangerine, which served as art director for the show’s marketing—before there was even a show to market: “This process began before there was even a script in place.”
Macleod and marketing director Richard McCabe did consider a few other shots, such as Sophie on a bike or scooter with her groom, or running through a waterfall. Wherever she was, the conveyance of joy and lightness was key. “Most West End shows were dark and solid color, trying to evoke the success of Cats and Miss Saigon,” explains Macleod, “so we wanted to step outside that.”
Ultimately, they landed on the now instantly recognizable shot of Sophie throwing her head back in unrestrained joy. But let’s get to it: Where’d they find her?
THEORY A: It’s the Original Sophie!
The theory makes sense. Logos often pull from the show's talent—think Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Laura Bell Bundy in Legally Blonde, or (most of) Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in Spring Awakening. Rarely does this art remain the same once the performer is no longer with the show, but it's not unheard of.
So is it Lisa Stokke, who played Sophie when Mamma Mia! premiered in London's West End in 1999?
“I always say it's me, obviously," she says. "For the longest time, my niece walked around telling everyone, ‘That's my Aunt Lisa.’ But I just let her say that.”
They do share a likeness, but alas, Stokke is not our mystery bride. Still, the image has special meaning for the Norwegian performer, as it reminds her of her own happy times in the costume.
“I got ready behind the stage while Siobhan McCarthy was singing ‘The Winner Takes It All,’” she says. "That's when I got my wedding dress on. I heard that song every evening, and that was one of my favorite moments. We just had a great time, and it was such a positive show to be a part of.”
THEORY B: It’s Jenn Gambatese!
More than one person chimed in alleging that the mystery bride is none other than Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese. This makes less sense than Theory A, considering the art was circulating before a New York engagement was even in the cards. However, with her name continuously popping up, we decided to ask.
“No, it is not me.”
Oh, OK then. But why do people think it's the School of Rock and Tarzan star? The story starts with the final auditions for the Broadway production. “I was in callbacks. I had gotten down to the final three to be [Sophie]," she says. “I was bummed I didn't get it, but I was in Reefer Madness.”
She didn't book Mamma Mia!, but that didn't stop her from telling Reefer Madness audiences she booked the Mamma Mia! logo in her Playbill bio. Given the tone of the show, the cast considered doing joke blurbs, but after some wire-crossing, Gambatese was one of only two or three to follow through.
“I remember it saying something like, ‘After posing for the poster for Mamma Mia!, Jennifer was really grateful Reefer Madness came a-calling. She done Fame, she done Footloose, she done need a new agent.’ [Footloose director] Walter Bobbie came to see the show and didn't know that I was joking and I think he was offended. I ended up sending him an email.”
She has since removed the false claim to fame from her bio. Phew.
THEORY C: It’s Rose DeWitt-Bukater!A woman's heart is a deep Aegean Sea of secrets. But now you know there was a girl named Sophie Sheridan, and that she saved me—in every way that a person can be saved.
THE TRUTH: It’s Emma!
As many hypothesized, the mystery bride is indeed from a stock photo (not, as it turns out, a Stokke photo). “I came across the photograph in a magazine,” Macleod says. Knowing the shot he found was already a perfect depiction of what he envisioned and that he wouldn't be able to recreate it, he tracked down the owner.
Enter Jean-Paul Nacivet.
The French photographer worked with as many as 30 stock agencies in the ‘90s, sending pictures he shot, often on his own accord (and dime), to companies around the world. “I used to gather models in Paris and go to the Maldives, the Caribbean, Bora Bora, et cetera,” he says.
The shot in question was from a 1992 session on one of Nacivet’s properties in Vincelottes, a small village roughly 100 miles south of Paris. His staff coordinated dresses and suits from fashion labels, and as he would with any shoot, he made sure to foster a sense of fun and joy on location (think “champagne and lobsters and so on”). Happy models make happy photos.
Thanks to extensive and intricate archiving, Nacivet has all the records. He knows the shoot occurred April 23; he knows the dress came from Cymbeline Paris; he knows he shot on Fuji Velvia film; he knows the art director and two assistants who were on hand. And, he knows the name of the model.
Our mystery bride is a French model named Emma. Joining her in the shot is Karl-Pascal, who ultimately did not make his way into the Mamma Mia! logo. We’ll keep their surnames anonymous.
The shoot, as Nacivet recalls, seems to have been as nonchalant and easygoing as the photographer, who spoke from his studio in Bali, Indonesia. For the aerial effect, he climbed a tree, chopping branches himself until he got a clear vantage point. “Every time a film roll was finished,” he says, “I just threw it down to my assistant from the tree. The roll was flying, and my assistant was just catching it.”
Nacivet sold the photo to Telegraph Colour Library (now part of Getty Images), leading to Macleod coming across the photo in a Telegraph magazine. After acquiring the rights, he commissioned a painting based on Emma from artist George Smith, now the chief creative officer of the U.K. clothing line Childrensalon.
Finishing touches were added to the photo digitally. Macleod recalls a photorealistic first draft, which was scaled back to add a wistful, almost “slipping through my fingers” air. The limited technology and inevitable graininess at the time helped.
Nacivet did not work with Emma after the 1992 shoot, nor does he know where she is now. No Emmas (or variations of Emma) of interest whom we were able to reach—including one who is now, aptly, a wedding photographer—claim to be the mystery bride.
Macleod doesn’t know her identity either (and never did), though he does offer some insight into her allure: “She reminded me of Courtney Cox, which was a plus, as Friends was a popular feel-good series. So that association was a good subliminal addition during that era.”
But I Won’t Feel Blue...
Nacivet maintains ownership of the photo, which, as per the agreement, can be used for anything but another musical comedy. The shot has been used on various non-Mamma Mia! merchandise, including a line of wedding stationary at WHSmith.
Despite Nacivet selling the photo on a four-year term with Telegraph, Mamma Mia! has the photo contracted for 100 years, a discrepancy he ponders but doesn’t dwell on. “Maybe they could have sent a fax or letter asking, ‘Jean-Paul, do you agree for this picture to be contracted for 100 years?’ I would have said yes and signed. I was looking ahead, entering my life, going out shooting around the world. I did not bother much about whatever was going on there.”
A Sheridan mentality if there ever was one.
“I saw it on the streets of Paris. I've talked to people who've seen in it in Manila and Tokyo, even Jakarta,” he says of his work continuing to travel the world in an unexpected capacity. “It's a kind of satisfaction of, ‘Here she is!’”
However, there remains a blonde elephant in the room. As mentioned, the art was created before a script was in place. “I am surprised they didn’t change her hair going forward,” says Macleod. “Sophie sings [in ‘Thank You for the Music’] the line ‘I am the girl with the golden hair.’ [That] always annoyed me as a missed trick after.”
So maybe we don't know what exactly Emma's up to today, but Sophie's hunt didn't end with a definitive answer either. Whether she’s blonde or brunette, and whether or not she even knows it today, Emma continues to usher audiences worldwide into a two-hour reprieve from outside woes, trading sorrow for “Super Trouper,” worry for “Waterloo.”
“We just brought joy to so many people in a time that was very difficult,” Stokke says. The London engagement had just opened when a bombing killed three people at the London gay bar Admiral Duncan, just two blocks from the theatre. The show was also the newest musical arrival on Broadway following the September 11 attacks. “It’s easy to dismiss the show as some flippant, cutesy, pointless kind of thing, but the show brought joy and hope to so many people. In many ways, it became important to be such a happy show.”
Surely Emma has faced her own hardships since donning that wedding dress. But because of that one laugh in that Vincelottes field, she’ll for years to come play a part in making us dance, jive, and having the time of our lives.