Never mind the ring bearer; at the May 9 island nuptials of stealth couple Renée Zellweger and Kenny Chesney, it was the tissue bearer who took centerstage. “Somebody was passing out Kleenex to everyone before Renée arrived,” says a guest. “They knew we were all going to cry. We were all laughing through our tears. It was that kind of wedding.”
It was also the kind of wedding that few people saw coming. After all, it was only recently that the Oscar-winning actress, 36, and the country-music heartthrob, 37, even hinted at romance, with Zellweger popping onstage to deliver a margarita and a kiss at an April 29 Chesney concert in Jacksonville, Fla. Flash-forward nine days to the pair exchanging simple vows in a sunset ceremony on St. John in the Virgin Islands before just 35 close family and friends—not a single paparazzo or celebrity attendee in sight. “It was a very spare service,” says the guest, a close friend of the couple’s. “It wasn’t about big parties. It wasn’t about grand gestures or massive $40,000 displays of flowers. It was about two very happy people finding each other.”
So happy that they wasted no time between new couple and newlywed. To paraphrase Zellweger’s famous Jerry Maguire line—which, in a bit of showbiz karma, inspired a 1999 Chesney hit—they had each other at hello, when the pair met in January at NBC’s tsunami relief telethon. “In talking with her, she’s been a lot like Kenny,” says wedding guest Dale Morris, Chesney’s longtime friend and manager. “She said she’s been waiting for all these years for the right person to come into her life. When she met Kenny, she knew. She said she didn’t want to wait to find out if it was right. She knew right now.” Her groom feels the same way. “I may well be the luckiest man alive,” Chesney said in a statement. “To be so in love with someone who is so perfect for me—it’s just hard to imagine that I’m not going to wake up.”
The wedding itself was a dreamy affair, with Chesney’s mountainside retreat providing a romantic backdrop. In the low-key bride’s only nod to A-list glamor, she donned a gown created for her by Carolina Herrera (her longtime favorite designer). After her father Emil, 68, walked her down the aisle, she and Chesney—whose tour manager David Farmer served as best man—exchanged silver wedding bands and traditional vows in a 15-min. service officiated by a minister. “The remarks were very moving,” says a friend. Next came a reception at Chesney’s Spanish-style home, during which the giddy couple mingled with guests and dined on a cold buffet of roast beef, lobster, sushi and—in a nod to the couple’s southern heritage—potato salad. Says Morris: “There was a whole lot of love to go around.”
And so it has been since the two first met at the Jan. 15 Concert of Hope tsunami telethon, during which Chesney performed and Zellweger—whose 1½-year relationship with White Stripes rocker Jack White had ended the previous September—answered phones. Hoping to meet Chesney, “she was going to pass him a note,” says a friend. But in a bit of high school meets Hollywood, the couple’s respective publicists chatted backstage and told Chesney of Zellweger’s interest. “When the broadcast wrapped, he went over and said, ‘I hear you are trying to pass me a note—don’t let the principal find out,’ ” says the friend. “She told Kenny, ‘My girlfriends back home would be so jealous,'” adds the friend, noting that the Texas-bred Zellweger “knows her country music.”
With phone numbers and e-mail addresses exchanged, the couple began corresponding long distance: She’s based in L.A. and recently purchased a $1.3 million estate in Pomfret, Conn.; he splits his time between his homes in Nashville and the Virgin Islands. “I think they had a nice rapport,” says the friend. “I think it started as a friendship and went from there.”
Next stop: head over heels. “From the second she met him, it was love at first sight,” says a friend of the couple’s. “She never talked about anyone the way she talked about him.” And no see-and-be-seen photo ops for these two: With both stars hoping to keep the budding romance out of the limelight, they made sure to rendezvous quietly in places like San Diego and Nashville. “They had all these secret meetings,” says a friend.
And yet if the Oscar-meets-Opry romance caught many by surprise, there were clues that the two never-married stars—both of whom have endured failed long-term romances—might be well suited. Beyond their small-town backgrounds and ambitious career tracks (see box), both stars share a laid-back streak that finds them spending more time at home or in the gym than prowling the club scene. And until now, both have been passionately committed to their work, with Zellweger jumping from film to film and Chesney touring almost nonstop since 1995. Like Zellweger, “[Chesney] is totally loyal to the people he loves and hard-working,” says Morris.
Another common thread between them: the not-so-secret crush Chesney harbored for his future wife well before they first met. Asked to name his “three sexiest people” in 2002, he chose Charlize Theron, Janet Jackson and…Renée Zellweger. “Here’s a country girl who’s still down to earth,” he told The Tennessean. “You never see her coming”, then—wham!—there she is. And that makes her really, really sexy. Plus she seems like the kind of girl who could fit in and be at home anywhere.” She’s also the type who can inspire a No. 1 hit ballad—”You Had Me from Hello,” which Chesney penned after watching Jerry Maguire on his tour bus. As he told PEOPLE in 2000: “When Renée Zellweger said that line, I thought, ‘That could be a great song.'”
Like Chesney, who told PEOPLE in January, “I do feel now that I’m probably more prepared as a person for a serious relationship”—Zellweger has recently expressed an interest in settling down. “I realize I have to put the breaks on this nonstop merry-go-round,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in their June issue. “I have to look and say, ‘You’re not a girl anymore—so now what is it?'” She also squelched rumors that she and Irish singer Damien Rice were an item and set the record straight about her well-guarded romance with ex-boyfriend Jack White: “People said it was this on-again, off-again relationship, but I’ve never had one of those. We were just good about protecting our privacy.”
Judging from the surprise nuptials, it’s an art Zellweger and her new husband have perfected. Which means that with Chesney up for five Academy of Country Music Awards on May 17, his wife—whose Cinderella Man opens June 3—may stay away from the red-carpet flashbulbs. And don’t expect marriage to slow Chesney’s grinding tour schedule, which continues through late summer. Now, though, he’s likely to have his No. 1 fan bopping” backstage to his music, as she did at a recent Sunrise, Fla., gig. “We knew it was going to take a really, really special woman to be [Kenny’s] true soulmate,” says a friend of the couple’s. “Once you saw them together, it was just so simple: There she is.”
By Michelle Tauber. Andrea Billups, Linda Trischitta and Jon Warech in Miami and Liza Hamm, Courtney Hazlett and Sabrina McFarland in New York