In the new Bravo show To Rome for Love, author and love expert Diann Valentine brings a group of five single black women to Italy’s capital city — where she says eligible bachelors celebrate and adore women of color.
It’s something Valentine has been doing for years now with her matchmaking company The Venus Affect, which designs bespoke private experiences for women interested in dating European men.
“This is a chance for black women to try something different,” Valentine tells PEOPLE of the service. “The men my clients meet there aren’t the same as American black men. They’re dating someone who is incredibly affectionate, who welcomes PDAs all the time; who has a strong sense of family and community. They’re men who don’t have the baggage of racism and being a minority in a place where you’re trying to figure out where you belong and how you fit in.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re better, just different,” Valentine adds. “I’m not anti-anything. But if you even look at the sheer numbers of single black men in the U.S. verses single black women in the U.S., there’s a disparity there. The available options for black women are diminishing for a multitude of reasons. There’s a lot of things that are not in our favor.”
Valentine has a long history of visiting Italy herself. She first traveled there about 25 years ago when she was in her early 20s and has been going back religiously since. She and husband Damon Haley even got married there five years ago, in a 15th Century castle at Lake Cuomo.
“I just fell in love with the country,” she gushes. “Being a woman of color, there aren’t a lot of places where I go where I feel culturally comfortable — where there are other people of color and food and music and fashion and cultural things that make me feel welcome. Italy was that place for me. My love for that country runs very deep.”
“But what stood out the most was the way Italian men reacted to me when I was there,” she said. “Honey, I just felt like I was a star. And then I would come back to L.A. and I would feel completely invisible.”
She wasn’t the only one. Girlfriends of hers has the same experience when they travel with Valentine. And being an acclaimed celebrity wedding planner with a client list that includes Usher, Martin Lawrence, Toni Braxton, Kelis and Nas (among others), Valentine was already in the business of love. The Venus Affect was a natural next step.
It’s been successful ever since, and To Rome for Love will give viewers the chance to see for themselves, through the eyes of bachelorettes Shay Atkins, Nakita McGraw, Ashley Russell, Mercedes Young, and Down Home with the Neelys star Gina Neely.
Not all are immediately open to the process — as seen in a clip PEOPLE can premiere exclusively above. Young, for example, isn’t as experienced in relationships at just 25 years old, and comes to the show being raised by a father who told her “85 percent of men are dogs.” That baggage makes it hard for her to trust Valentine immediately.
Neely, 52, has her own baggage, coming from her divorce from her childhood sweetheart Pat. The former couple split three years ago, after being married more than half her life. “It’s very difficult to transition out of that,” Valentine says. “She struggled to find out who she is without her husband and without her career.”
Viewers will have to watch to see how both handle it. But Valentine stresses the importance of women looking to date – either in America or elsewhere — letting down their guards.
“We get so stuck in our ways,” Valentine says. “The No. 1 issue is really being open. Look at the way you’ve been handling [dating]. If it hasn’t been working, maybe it’s time to get out of your comfort zone and try something that is foreign to you. You just might discover it would be the greatest love affair of your life.”
Self-reflection is key too, as Valentine outlines in her book, Going the Distance for Love. “I believe in addressing the whole person,” Valentine reveals. “No matter what age we are, we all come with our life experiences that have shaped who we are. And no matter who we are, it clouds our judgement. You have to deal with heartache and being honest with yourself, acknowledge the mistakes, and push yourself to get better.”
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One thing is for sure: If women are interested in heading to Italy for love, prepare for there to be some things that get lost in translation. “Most Italians speak English, but with English as a second language, some things get lost in translation,” Valentine says. “Remember, you’ve come to Italy looking for him. I suggest you buy yourself a translation book and a Rosetta Stone and get with the program.”
To Rome for Love premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.