He Admired Her ‘Grit and Grace.’ She Was Struck by His Kindness. (2023)



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Bri Scalesse, model and disability advocate, knew Sheldon Nguyen was different right away. “We knew we could spend forever together,” she said, after quarantining together during the pandemic.

He Admired Her ‘Grit and Grace.’ She Was Struck by His Kindness. (1)

By Valeriya Safronova

When Bri Sophia Scalesse decided to use the Hinge app to start dating in Manhattan in January 2019, she kept the settings she’d had while living in Norwich, Conn., years earlier, with the “maximum distance” of potential matches set to roughly 35 miles.

Within a few weeks, the app connected Ms. Scalesse with Sheldon Thien Nguyen, 31, a pharmacist living in New Brunswick, N.J., which was at least an hour’s drive from where she lived.

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“Bri didn’t realize that Manhattan was something like two or three miles wide, so she had her radius set really huge,” Mr. Nguyen said.

And good thing she had.

“It’s the reason we met,” Ms. Scalesse said.

Their first date was at a Totto Ramen in Midtown Manhattan on the morning of Feb. 17, 2019; Ms. Scalesse fretted about what to wear. “We had talked about being in fashion, so we both wanted to show up with the coolest fits,” said Ms. Scalesse, 28, a model and a disability advocate.

On the day of their first date, the temperature hovered around 20 degrees outside — not exactly the ideal weather for a chic look.

“I wanted to wear as many layers as I could while still looking hot,” she said. She settled on a black corset dress with a see-through turtleneck and black tights underneath. Mr. Nguyen wore a thick-knit turtleneck with a black denim jacket, black pants and black Chelsea boots.


After the ramen restaurant, they decided to continue their date, and went on a hunt for coffee. Eventually, they ended up at a small corner grocery store, where they huddled outside next to a trash can.

“I got a cup of coffee to warm my hands, and he wrapped his hands around mine,” Ms. Scalesse said. She felt the spark immediately. “I had been going on many dates at the time, like three or four a week,” she said. A lot of them were mediocre, she added, but this one felt different. She knew there was something special between them.

Ms. Scalesse, who grew up in Norwich, was 6 when she was in a car accident that killed her mother. She suffered a spinal cord injury that made her a paraplegic. Ms. Scalesse, who has used a wheelchair since the accident, was raised by her grandmother, Frances Kornacki, whom she described as a “strong, fierce woman.”

Ms. Scalesse began her modeling career in 2019 working for a wheelchair accessory brand called FFORA. In 2020, after appearing in the “Project Runway” finale during New York Fashion Week, she signed with We Speak Model Management and began modeling full time. She has since appeared in advertisements for companies like Nike, Google, Skims, and Ugg. This fall, she will be part of a Victoria’s Secret campaign. Ms. Scalesse has a bachelor’s degree in English from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a master’s of fine arts in nonfiction from Columbia.

Mr. Nguyen, 31, who was raised in Freehold, N.J., has a doctor of pharmacy from Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University. He also models part time for brands like Target and Sephora, and signed with We Speak Model Management in 2021 after appearing on Ms. Scalesse’s social media channels (she has 468,000 followers on TikTok and 36,000 on Instagram).


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A week and a half after their first date, Ms. Scalesse texted Mr. Nguyen that she had a crush on him. When he responded that they should “keep things organic,” Ms. Scalesse felt mortified.

“I’m a hopeless romantic,” she said. “He’s more logical, practical. He doesn’t let his emotions carry him away.”

But not long after, in early March, the two went on a weekend trip to Boston and their bond solidified. They planned the trip together to visit friends who live there; Mr. Nguyen drove them.

“At the beginning of a relationship, how disability plays a role and how this person handles it has always been the biggest thing for me,” Ms. Scalesse said.

“Boston has a lot of inaccessibility that New York doesn’t have,” Ms. Scalesse said. She said that Mr. Nguyen was so adamant in helping her in whichever way she needed that the only special plan they made to accommodate her disability was booking an accessible hotel. “He was just so effortless about it.” One evening, she said, Mr. Nguyen carried her up the stairs to a second-story hot-pot restaurant in Boston.

The trip was eye-opening for Mr. Nguyen. “When you’re together for 72 hours straight, you see a lot more about each other, but especially when disability is involved.” He realized how much “grit and grace” Ms. Scalesse carries herself with.

“She’s been a fighter her entire life, through physical and emotional hardships,” he said. “And she does it all with charisma and warmth.”

Binge more Vows columns here and read all our wedding, relationship and divorce coverage here.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, Mr. Nguyen was living in Secaucus, N.J. Ms. Scalesse moved in with him temporarily so they could quarantine together. After that experience, Ms. Scalesse said, “we knew we could spend forever together. We were making TikToks, cooking new recipes. We bonded so much during that time.” They decided to move into a new apartment in Manhattan together in May 2020.


In late December 2021, during the holidays, Mr. Nguyen secretly asked Ms. Kornacki for permission to propose to her granddaughter. He recorded the conversation.

Five months later, Ms. Scalesse’s agent told her she had been booked for a test shoot with a photographer, Sophie Kietzmann, who is also a friend of Ms. Scalesse and Mr. Nguyen. During the shoot, the music in the studio switched to a recording of Mr. Nguyen singing Ms. Scalesse’s favorite song, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, spliced with sound bites from his conversation with her grandmother.

As the audio played, the door to the studio opened and Mr. Nguyen approached Ms. Scalesse, lowered himself to one knee, presented her with a diamond engagement ring and asked her to marry him. Five of the couple’s friends, as well as her half sister and his brother, entered the studio and gathered to watch.

“It was so beautiful and the fact that the people we love were around us made it really special, too,” Ms. Scalesse said.

After she said yes, the couple celebrated with sparkling apple cider — neither Ms. Scalesse nor Mr. Nguyen drinks alcohol — and had Mx. Kietzmann take professional photos of them with their family and friends.

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Ms. Scalesse and Mr. Nguyen were married June 2 at Rule of Thirds, a Japanese restaurant and event space in Brooklyn, in front of 181 guests. Daniela VillaRamos of Once Upon a Vow, who is ordained through American Marriage Ministries, officiated.

Eight of their guests were in wheelchairs, so the couple worked with their wedding planner, Amy Lynn Parmar, on a smart layout for the ceremony. “Making sure it was accessible for wheelchair users and anyone who’s disabled was really important to us,” Ms. Scalesse said. They decided on a semicircle of guests on one side, and the traditional seated rows on the other side.

With that configuration, “we felt so surrounded by loved ones in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” Ms. Scalesse said.

Rather than serving alcoholic cocktails, the couple opted for mocktails, one made with rooibos tea, miso honey and yuzu, and the other with melonade and shiso tea. “Because we didn’t have to pay for alcohol, all of that money went toward food,” Mr. Nguyen said. Their mocktail hour included a ramen bar as a nod to their first date. The dinner — featuring dishes like grilled maitake mushrooms, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and tonkatsu (a deep-fried pork cutlet) — was served family style. Sesame-flavored soft serve ice cream ended the meal.


After dinner, Ms. Scalesse, Jess Mocci, Ms. Scalesse’s half sister, and two of her cousins performed a dance to “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé. In college, Ms. Scalesse was a member of a hip-hop dance team called Elemental Movement, and of the Rollettes, a nationwide wheelchair dance team.

Mr. Nguyen and his mother, Huong Nguyen, also prepared a dance, to “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. “My mom got more compliments at the wedding than I did,” Mr. Nguyen said.

Mr. Nguyen’s parents arrived in the United States from Vietnam as refugees when they were both young (Ms. Nguyen was 10 and his father, Tien Nguyen, was 19). They met in 1984 while attending the University of Minnesota.

“His parents are huge role models for us,” Ms. Scalesse said. “Their marriage is so beautiful. They’ve stuck through so much together.”

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For Mr. Nguyen and Ms. Scalesse, one of the most touching moments of the wedding was hearing the vows the other person had written.

“Bri’s vows meant the world to me,” Mr. Nguyen said. “She’s an incredible storyteller.”

“Sheldon wrote a letter to my childhood self, my present self, and my future self,” Ms. Scalesse said. “I could cry every time I think about them. If I ever need to cry on command, I’ll think about that.”

On This Day

When June 2, 2023

Where Rule of Thirds, Brooklyn

Accessories For All One of Mr. Nguyen’s favorite accessory items — pearls — was the theme of the evening. “We bought lots of different pearl accessories, put them all in a box and had guests choose a piece to wear at the wedding when they came in,” Mr. Nguyen said.

That Can Only Mean One Thing As the wedding party came down the aisle, some guests noticed that the music accompanying them was an instrumental version of “Hotline Bling” by Drake, one of the couple’s favorite songs. “Very few people caught on, but the few who did were like, ‘Is this actually happening? Am I really hearing this?’” Ms. Scalesse said.

Flowers and Metal Kelsey Ledezma-Rebollo, a florist based in Southern California who is a wheelchair user, designed an arrangement of flowers to be woven into the spokes of Ms. Scalesse’s wheelchair. The wedding’s florist, A Lily Among Thorns, executed the design according to Ms. Ledezma-Rebollo’s instructions. “It was very important to me that she was the one who designed it,” Ms. Scalesse said.

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