Friends for years, the couple reveal how things turned romantic
Credit: Robert Voets/Warner Bros. Television

Adrienne Bailon and Israel Houghton were friends for years before they ever contemplated dating.

“When he got officially divorced and started dating again, I immediately started to set him up with my friends,” Bailon, 32, tells PEOPLE of her singer-songwriter fiancé. “He didn’t think they’d want to go out with him but I told him, ‘Don’t be silly. You have a great smile, you’re successful, you’re kind, super witty, funny and smart. Of course they’ll go out with you.’ ”

But not all the dates went well.

“After one of the dates, I asked my friend, ‘What do you think?’ And she was, like, ‘He’s just not my type,’ ” she recalls. “I was so offended. I was like, ‘What do you mean he’s not your type? He’s got dimples! He’s got the best smile, brows of a god, his skin basically glows and he plays mad instruments. It doesn’t get any better than that!’ Her response was, ‘Why don’t you date him?!’ ”

Still, the co-host of The Real – who appeared on her syndicated talk show alongside her fiancé Monday – didn’t see romance in their future.

“A while later, we were sitting in the corner together at a party and a friend of ours came up and said, ‘You guys have old love,’ ” she says.

“We both heard that, and it had impact on us. That was such a special choice of words, and I felt it was correct,” adds Houghton. “I felt a connection to her that I still can’t define.”

“My friend told me, ‘You have to kiss him. You can just be friends, but you’ll know if it’s meant to be more the moment you kiss him,’ ” says Bailon. “And now we’re getting married, so you can see how that kiss went.”

But before things turned romantic, the couple made sure their priorities were in order.

“He’s my favorite person ever, so I knew I always wanted him in my life forever,” says Bailon. “I told him, ‘We can give this a shot, but only if we promise we’ll still be friends no matter what.’ ”

But it wasn’t a completely smooth transition from friendship to dating.

While on their first vacation as a couple in March, the couple found themselves in the center of a media whirlwind.

“We were in Mexico and she got the call that the paparazzi had photos of us together,” says Houghton. “It turned into a day and a half of us deleting comments and blocking people on Instagram. There were multiple times I turned to her and said, ‘You can walk away if this isn’t worth it to you.’ ”

“It was a troubling 24 hours,” Bailon adds of headlines saying Houghton was still married. “There was so much misunderstanding. But I never questioned my feelings for him.”

Now the newly engaged couple is focused on planning an “intimate and romantic” wedding.

“I was married before and I didn’t do the best job. I was a workaholic and gone all the time, so this time I want to get it right,” Houghton says. “This is her first wedding so it’s her dream being realized. There’s a pressure to that, but I welcome it. I want it to be everything she wants it to be and more.”

The couple plans to wed later this year, but they already seem to be living in newlywed bliss.

“She makes me laugh,” Houghton says of what attracts him most about his wife-to-be. “I was in a season in my life that laughter really spoke to me. She’s my everything.”

“He’s my best friend,” adds Bailon. “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with him.”