DALLAS — After walking down the aisle 29 times as a bridesmaid, it wasn't until Julie Caldwell was moments away from the church that it sank in that she was finally the bride.
"I didn't get nervous till the ride to the church. It was like, 'Whoa, this is me,'" said Caldwell, 39.
A delayed reaction at her December wedding could be forgiven for the woman much more versed in playing the supportive role in the wedding party. Caldwell did "27 Dresses" a couple better, and her story ended up on the WE television reality show "Girl Meets Gown."
The Dallas pharmacist who lives in nearby Ennis calls being a bridemaid "my other career."
Most women end up being a bridesmaid about five times, said Rebecca Dolgin, executive editor of TheKnot.com, who adds that women in the South tend to do a few more stints since wedding parties there are usually bigger.
Caldwell said her vast experience as a bridesmaid led her to be sure to not be too demanding as a bride with her three bridesmaids — no requests for matching shoes and jewelry.
"When somebody is a bridesmaid many times — four or five or six times — it really does affect their decisions when they're a bride," Dolgin said.
After being in that many weddings, she also didn't shy away from creating the exact dress she wanted.
"I don't know which is stronger, the fact that they've seen that many wedding gowns, or seen mistakes," said Jenny Cline, co-owner of Plano's Stardust Celebrations, where Caldwell bought her gown.
It was at Cline's salon that "Girl Meets Gown" was filmed, and an episode featured Caldwell's mission to make her strapless gown more unique with beading and a flourish of feathers on the skirt.
Even brides without a record close to Caldwell's said they thought a lot about their times as bridesmaids when they planned their own weddings.
When Lisa Pratt, a seven-times bridesmaid from Westminster, Md., got married in the fall, the 39-year-old business analyst's thoughts went to the money she'd spent on travel and hotels as a bridesmaid. So she decided to pay for her bridesmaids to stay at the wedding's venue the night before and after.
She was also inspired to get small bouquets after struggling to hold both her own large bouquet and the bride's during one ceremony.
Sara Ross, of Nashville, Tenn., said that her seven times as a bridesmaid led her to first think of the bridesmaid dresses for her own wedding, choosing strapless knee-length dresses in purple for her six girls even before figuring out her own gown for her upcoming wedding. First on the priority list for bridesmaids dresses: Eliminate anything shiny.
After figuring out that the cost of being in two weddings and attending a third constituted a down payment on a car, she's also vowed to let her bridesmaids know that she won't be upset if they can't travel to every pre-wedding event. To that end, she'll probably have a bachelorette party and shower on the same weekend in a town close for a majority of the girls.
"I'm not going to make anyone do something they can't afford," said Ross, 28, who works for a graphics company.
Many women can relate to Caldwell's many-times-a-bridesmaid story, though "maybe not to that extreme," says Annabelle McDonald, executive producer at WE.
Caldwell's entry into the world of weddings had an inauspicious start when she learned at the age of about 3 that she wouldn't be in her aunt's wedding.
"The day before, they broke it to me and I was just destroyed — that was the last time that there was a wedding that I wasn't in," she said.
As a young girl she went on to perform various wedding roles. Then, she said, came the "waves" of bridesmaid stints — high school friends, college friends, then those she met as she pursued her career. As a redhead, she said, the worst was when she was asked to wear clashing pink.
She has never added up the cost of being a bridesmaid 29 times, and said that while the role can be demanding, she enjoyed each time.
Hilary LiDestri, Caldwell's friend for 15 years, said she wasn't shocked that Caldwell ended up in so many weddings. LiDestri chose her as her only bridemaid.
"I tell her all the time that's a measure of how good a friend she is," LiDestri said.
Caldwell said there came a point after being in wedding after wedding that she began to wonder when she would meet the right man. It didn't help when people started commenting on her string of bridesmaid stints.
"I always had to hear the adage over and over again, 'always a bridesmaid,'" Caldwell said.
When she did begin her courtship with her future husband, it all came together quickly: They dated for four weeks before getting engaged the last week of June last year.
Caldwell ended up dressing LiDestri, her matron of honor, in burnt orange and her other two bridesmaids in chocolate brown.
"I wanted them to have a dress they'd wear again," Caldwell said, quickly adding, "All brides say that."
And as Caldwell knows well, it rarely happens.
"I've never, never put them on again," she said.