Matty J: ‘It’s weird how much things change’
This time last year, a single Laura Byrne was eating breakfast with a girlfriend in Sydney's Palm Beach when her mobile phone rang.
It was a casting consultant from The Bachelor: they loved her application and were keen to get her on the show.
"I said 'no'," Byrne tells BW Magazine.
She politely explained she had filled out the application as "a bit of a joke" with her girlfriends after a few too many glasses of wine and didn't expect anything to come of it.
She also felt very uneasy about leaving her jewellery business, ToniMay, to compete on the show.
So, The Bachelor went into production with 21 other hopefuls - and no Laura Byrne.
Then, one day after the contestants had arrived at a secret hotel in inner Sydney to ready themselves for their first meeting with Bachelor Matthew 'Matty J' Johnson, one persistent producer couldn't get Byrne out of her mind, so she gave it one last shot and called her.
She told the jewellery designer it wasn't too late, and if there was any chance at all she changed her mind, she could meet them at the hotel at 11am the next morning and still get a spot in the mansion.
Byrne assured her that wouldn't be happening.
But at 4am the next morning, Byrne woke from her sleep, struck by a moment of clarity.
"It was just like, 'holy sh*t, I'm going to go into the Bachelor house,'" she says.
She phoned her sister, who doubles as her business partner at ToniMay, and requested a lift to the hotel.
"The whole way there she kept saying, 'you've had months! Why would you decide to do this now!'" recalls Byrne, 31.
Although much to the chagrin of her sister, who was left to run ToniMay single-handedly, those who believe in destiny could consider Byrne's sudden decision a moment of fateful intervention - the Sliding Doors moment that aligned her with meeting the man of her dreams.
It's been seven months since Johnson stood on the beach in Thailand and told Byrne he'd fallen for her, and the couple are still very much in love.
They've recently returned from their first holiday together to Bali and are looking forward to their first Christmas as a couple.
They'll be spending it with Byrne's family in the picturesque town of Berry on NSW South Coast and Johnson will be flying his mum down from Brisbane to join the Byrne celebrations.
"I'm really excited about our families meeting," he says.
"It's weird how much things can change in 12 months' time but I'd say it's probably been my best year.
"I wanted to go on the show to meet someone who I thought I could spend the rest of my life with and I've found that, so it's just nice to be able to enjoy what we've got," he says.
Before Johnson, 30, became the Bachelor, the marketing executive had his heart obliterated on The Bachelorette, memorably doubling over in pain when Georgia Love told him she'd chosen Lee Elliot.
But after a few months listening to sad love songs, Johnson was ready to find love again and gave the reality TV franchise one last shot.
Throughout the show, he appeared to foster a genuine connection with the final three contestants, Byrne, Tara Pavlovic and Elyse Stacy.
However, according to several contestants in the Bachelor mansion, the connection between Johnson and Byrne was apparent from the beginning.
Viewers also picked Byrne as the winner but that didn't stop the pretty jewellery designer from spending months feeling desperately insecure.
"Matt gave me no indication it was me," she says.
"Even when I was like, 'so, I'm in love with you,' he just said, 'thanks'.
"Normally, in real life, if you're pouring your heart out to someone they will give you an indication as to whether it's mutual. I didn't know whether I was wasting my time, whether I was making things up in my own head, reading into things too much - I had no reassurance at all."
Byrne admits the process was incredibly testing and she "struggled" sharing the Bachelor house with so many women.
"I'm 31 years old and I haven't been in a share-house with 14 girls in the one bedroom, ever. You don't get any personal space, you're always with each other, and the conversation is always about the same thing and it does get draining," she says.
In the outside world, Byrne relies on exercise as a way of clearing her mind but her usual walks with her three-legged dog Buster and gym classes weren't part of the Bachelor house experience.
"You can run on the treadmill, in the garage, but you don't have freedom. The house is amazing, you're so well taken care of but you can't go for a walk on the beach. It's an unusual experience because you give up a lot of freedoms for the process," she says.
And if you're lucky enough to find love on The Bachelor, those restrictions continue long after the show has wrapped production.
Byrne and Johnson were obliged to keep their love secret for four months between the final ceremony in Thailand and the finale going to air.
Contact was mainly restricted to phone calls and both were aware of being followed by paparazzi every time they left the house.
However, they were allowed four very discreet dates, orchestrated by the production company.
"They would take us to different places, a few hours out of Sydney, really remote and isolated and sometimes we'd have no phone reception," explains Byrne. "They had to keep us away from paps (paparazzi) and stuff, the paps make it really difficult."
Even now their relationship is public, the couple have chosen to spend the formative months of their courtship behind closed doors, away from the watchful eyes of interested onlookers.
Like any new couple, the first months have been all about getting to know each other - and each other's quirks.
Byrne has learnt that Johnson is extremely particular about the way his bed is made.
"Matt's really obsessed with having the sheets on in the correct way. The top sheet can't go on inside out or he'll have a tanty and have to undo the bed and then redo the bed again," she says, teasing him with a giant smile.
And Johnson has learnt Byrne has a big problem with chewing gum - and that he best get rid of it if he plans on kissing her.
"I have a weird phobia against it. I can't stand it. As soon as he comes in the house chewing gum I'll say, 'spit that out!'" says Byrne.
She's also discovered he snores but says it doesn't bother her.
They're also very complimentary of the other's cooking.
Johnson loves Byrne's stir-fries while Byrne has been particularly impressed with her new boyfriend's fish pie.
And, thankfully, they're both on the same page when it comes to messiness.
"We both run a bit of a floor-drobe," confesses Byrne.
Most of all though, it's their shared sense of humour which makes them get along.
"I find him funny. He enjoys that," says Byrne.
"And you laugh at my bad jokes, which is one of the most important things," adds Johnson.
But despite being a self-confessed "perfect match" when it comes to their taste in books, TV shows and movies, there is one sticking point between Byrne and Johnson.
"What's your favourite thing about Christmas?" I ask Byrne.
"The Mariah Carey Christmas album!" she exclaims.
Later, I question Johnson about his thoughts on Christmas, and if there's anything he dislikes.
"The Mariah Carey Christmas album," he says, with a smile.