Jeff Nelson
April 19, 2018 10:00 AM

 

This “Independent Woman” is off the market: Michelle Williams is engaged to pastor Chad Johnson!

After a year together, Johnson recently proposed to the Destiny’s Child singer — and the pair can’t wait to walk down the aisle. Nearly one month into their secret engagement, the couple opened up to PEOPLE exclusively about their love story.

“We could not contain this any longer!” Williams says of finally sharing the happy news.

The Pastor and the Pop Star

Williams met her husband-to-be in March of 2017, when she attended a spiritual retreat in Arizona run by Johnson, a pastor and life coach who has also worked as a chaplain for pro sports teams including the Pittsburgh Steelers and L.A. Dodgers.

“I was in a horrible, dark place,” says Williams, 37, who had recently ended a relationship and opened up about a cheating ex on The Real. “I just needed to go somewhere where I could get a message of hope and restoration, rejuvenation — get connected to God.”

Johnson, 40, could relate.

“When we met, both of us were in very similar places on a personal level,” says Johnson, who at the time had all but given up dating. “Michelle was coming off the heels of a really bad relationship, and I was just in a place of despair as well.”

Austin and Nicole Barkis / Barkis and Co.

Though Williams and Johnson hit it off immediately, both remained focused on the purpose of the Elevate International retreat. “I mean, he was cute,” the singer admits, “but I did not go to flirt with the pastor!” When they parted ways, they kept in touch, and a friend of Johnson encouraged him to pursue Williams.

“I tried to roll in with some mac daddy game — and I tried to flirt a little bit and said something like, ‘How about you and I connect sometime?’ And right away, she texted right back with one word and six question marks behind it: ‘Connect??????'” recalls Johnson. “I thought she had dissed me. So I was embarrassed, and I didn’t reach back out to her because I thought I’d ruined the friendship.”

RELATED: Destiny’s Child Star Michelle Williams Is Engaged: Who Is Her Fiancé Chad Johnson?

Alas, that text exchange was just the beginning of their modern romance. About a week later, Johnson was on vacation with his 15- and 16-year-old nephews, whom he’s helped raise, and Williams slid into his DMs, responding to Johnson’s Instagram Story.

“The rest is history,” adds Johnson, who says their conversations soon moved from social media to text messages and frequent late-night FaceTime calls. “We spent almost three months without even seeing each other, just building a strong foundation on the phone and through FaceTime; it was really built on friendship and communication.”

In July — while on their first actual date at a wedding in the Dominican Republic — the pair shared their first kiss and took their relationship to the next level. “I told her, ‘I’ve been looking. I don’t want to look anymore. I’m done. My search is over,'” Johnson recalls of the moment they decided to date officially.

Why It Works

Early on, Williams — who recently entered the home and lifestyle space with her Believe by Michelle Williams collection — knew what she had with Johnson was special.

“I didn’t even tell any people I was talking to Chad. I wanted to treat this relationship differently because obviously all my past relationships have failed. I didn’t want to talk about another relationship that possibly wasn’t gonna go anywhere,” says the singer, who didn’t start to introduce her new beau to friends — including fellow former Destiny’s Child members Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland — until July.

Much of their courtship happened long distance, as Johnson was traveling with the Steelers for work. But both felt they had found a potential life partner.

“What kept drawing me and drawing me at first was I felt like I could be myself,” says Williams, who notes her fiancé calls her by her birth name. “My first name is Tenitra; my middle name is Michelle. I felt like I could be Tenitra: just ratchet, I didn’t have to have on any makeup, if I had to have on my hair bonnet — he just made me feel very safe in being myself.”

Indeed, while Williams was part of one of the biggest girl groups of all time, Johnson saw beyond the pop stardom.

“Here’s this Destiny’s Child girl — but when I got to personally interact with her, I saw her around others and her humility stood out in ways that I can’t even articulate,” says Johnson. “When you see someone operate behind the scenes, with no camera, with no mic, no makeup on? She does not carry herself above anybody. Humility’s not something that you can fake.”

Quips Williams: “That’s when you fell in love with me! I told you you fell in love with me the first day you met me!”

The Perfect Proposal

When Johnson knew he wanted to propose, he planned an elaborate ploy to involve Williams’s family in popping the question. Last month, he secretly traveled to her native Rockford, Illinois, to ask for her clan’s blessing — and videotaped the entire trip!

Then on March 21 — exactly one year after Johnson flirted with Williams and he accused her of dissing him — Johnson returned to the Pebble Beach, California, hotel where he began their texting banter.

“We were replaying the whole text message, recreating the moment,” Johnson says. “I was like, ‘Hey, what about if you and me connected?’ She sent me back a text saying, ‘I’ll check my availability.’ And I signaled over to the waiter, and she brought out the iPad and played the video of me being on the proposal tour.”

Chad Johnson and Michelle Williams
Austin and Nicole Barkis / Barkis and Co.

“I started weeping and wailing when I see all these special people,” says Williams of Johnson’s video with her family. “Towards the end of the video, something in my head said, ‘Pull yourself together! He’s about to propose! Stop all this crying!'”

Sure enough, Johnson got down on one knee and proffered a 5-carat engagement ring from L.A. jeweler Denis Mahgerefteh.

“I was just losing it!” adds Williams.

Chad Johnson and Michelle Williams
Austin and Nicole Barkis / Barkis and Co.

Ready to Wed!

Johnson popped the question less than a month ago, but the couple will have a short engagement — and plan to get married this summer.

“We do wanna get married very, very soon,” says Williams, who has already chosen a dress. “We’ve been moving very quickly and planning. Why wait? I want to get married now, but he wants a wedding!”

Indeed, Johnson says he’s “involved” and “invested” in the matrimonial strategizing.

RELATED: Michelle Williams’ Fiancé Saved Up 11 Years for Her Engagement Ring – See the 5-Carat Stunner!

“The day after we got engaged, Chad was like, ‘Okay, we gotta pick the wedding date! We gotta do all this stuff!'” says Williams.

Adds Johnson: “She was like, ‘Can we just revel in the moment, relish the feeling? ‘And I’m like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ It’s gonna be … think James Bond-meets-Midsummer Night’s Dream — with a little hood in it [laughs]. It’s gonna be very traditional. We’re doing black-tie. We want it to be small and intimate and very private.”

Destiny's Child
Raven Varona

Fans can likely expect another Destiny’s Child reunion, hot off Beyoncé’s historic, headline-fueling Coachella set. “We’re wanting all of our friends and family to be there. So it’s looking good!” Williams says of sharing her wedding day with her band mates.

And the singer and Johnson hope their love story inspires others.

“I’m white, she’s black,” says Johnson. “What a special time for our relationship to be on display in that respect with the tension in the world and in our country.”

And the pair want the world to take away a message of patience from their relationship, too.

“Don’t lose hope in love,” says Williams. “I do think you should not focus so much that if you’re not in love that you get depressed about it. I was in a place where I was like, I’m just going to focus on my career and my family and just keep it moving.  I started taking myself out; I started traveling by myself, to the point where I loved being by myself.”

Adds the star: “Just don’t lose hope. But definitely be doing what you can do to make yourself a better person for the person that possibly is on the way for the way for you.”

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