For the last five Decembers, Sayé Yabandeh has participated in the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship, a charity event in Aspen, Colo. It’s a magical affair held in a magical location, and exactly the sort of place you want to share with someone.
Except on this wintry night in 2018, Ms. Yabandeh, an Iranian-born actress, filmmaker and philanthropist, was alone. So was Dr. Jeffrey Neal, an otolaryngologist from Abingdon, Va. Dr. Neal, 45, was sitting by the fire with a group of strangers, recovering from a day on the slopes, when Ms. Yabandeh joined them.
Six words sprang into his mind: “She’s going to be my wife.”
“It was a vibe,” said Dr. Neal, who goes by “Dr. J” and runs the same medical practice his father started in 1975, “an energy I’d never felt that before.”
Ms. Yabandeh, 39, liked him, too. Earlier in the year she decided it was time to meet her mate. She wrote out a list of traits she wanted, and read it aloud to herself every day. (Yes, she read it aloud every day.) Among the attributes, she wanted “someone who appreciates and is involved with humanitarian work,” she said. Tall and good looking would also be nice.
Dr. Neal fit that bill: He has been volunteering with Operation Smile since college, and now performs cleft lip and plate operations in Kenya. Ms. Yabandeh, founded her own charitable organization, Saye.org, and is also an ambassador for the Global Citizen Foundation.
Both were intrigued by space travel, closely following Virgin Galactic, the company co-founded by Richard Branson. Neither Ms. Yabandeh nor Dr. Neal had married, choosing instead to focusing on their careers and philanthropic work. The following day they watched the polo final together. Toward the end of the night, they began an impromptu slow dance. “I thought, ‘Here’s my guy. He’s right here,’” she said. “Something about touching, the energy exchange at that level, there was no doubt.”
At dinner three days later, he said, “I’m not ready for you to leave.”
“I’m not ready to go,” she replied.
So they extended their vacations another two days, before he returned to Virginia and she to California. She was supposed to fly to New Zealand, but he invited her to spend New Year’s Eve with him at his place. She accepted. By February, she had picked up and moved into his home.
It was an adjustment. Ms. Yabandeh favors designer brands; she sports Christian Louboutins the way others wear Crocs.
“He said, ‘don’t worry about bringing a lot of clothes, people don’t really care about getting dressed up here,’” she said. “I was like, what does that mean? I arrived at the airport and asked a woman who worked there where’s the lounge? She said, ‘What lounge? There are only two gates here.’ That’s when it started to sink in that it was going to be a big change.”
“I knew it would be a challenge, but I was in love, so everything was easy,” she continued.
He proposed almost one year to the day they met, en route to Aspen. They planned to marry in June 2020 on a yacht in the French Riviera, but Covid-19 ended that idea. Instead, they decided to elope in the British Virgin Islands, just the two of them.
But the bride had something up her sleeve. And that’s where Richard Branson comes back into play. Dr. Neal had long admired Mr. Branson, especially his “entrepreneurial prowess and adventurous spirit.”
So Ms. Yabandeh decided to see if Mr. Branson would be available to unofficially officiate. He can’t legally marry couples, but he has been known to perform ceremonies, most notably for Larry Page, a Google founder, and the actor Kate Winslet, who married Mr. Branson’s nephew, Edward Abel Smith.
On Dec. 8, they flew to Necker Island, Mr. Branson’s private Island in the Caribbean. Dr. Neal had no idea why a man who looked vaguely like Richard Branson was waiting for them.
“I was floored,” Dr. Neal said when he finally realized it really was Richard Branson. “I couldn’t believe it. But at the same time I could, because Sayé is a woman that makes the impossible completely possible.”
After spending a few nights on Necker, the couple flew to Tortola on Dec. 14 and were legally wed there by Patricia Nadim, who signed their marriage certificate at the Registrar General Office. They will both use the surname Neal-Yabandeh.
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