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Winners after all: Couple didn't win 'Conan" Valentine's contest, but won at love

Phil Tobias of Los Angeles met Minnesota State University Moorhead student MacKenzie Hill online when he was looking for a partner in his attempt to win a date on the Conan O’Brien show in 2011. They hit it off and ended up getting engaged. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

By Lane Zyvolski, Forum News Service

MOORHEAD — Phil Tobias and MacKenzie Hill were the “perfect couple — just not in a perfect situation.”

That was their pitch to Conan O’Brien when they entered the TV talk show host’s 2011 Valentine’s Day contest offering one lucky couple tickets to a taping of O’Brien’s show and a night in a Los Angeles hotel.

But they weren’t a perfect couple yet. Tobias, of Los Angeles, had never met Hill, then a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Tobias posted a comment on — a website for O’Brien’s show — seeking someone to enter the contest with him. More than a thousand miles away in Moorhead, Hill saw the post.

She said Tobias sounded like a jerk, and she teased him to “stroke his ego.”

Though they didn’t even know what each other looked like, they went on a pretend date via video. Tobias wrote a script and the two filmed separately, pretending to sit across from each other at a table. Hill sent Tobias her video, and he edited them together so it looked like they were sitting at the same table.

“The first time I saw him was when I saw the video for the first time. It surprised me. I didn’t expect him to look so handsome,” Hill said.

She found Tobias on Twitter and started teasing him there. They began chatting over email, too.

Clicking from the start

Just before Valentine’s Day, Tobias and Hill found out they earned an honorable mention, but didn’t win a date through the show.

“She had worked so hard on the video,” Tobias said of Hill, “not knowing who I was really.”

So he contacted some of Hill’s friends to get her address in the dorms and sent her a box of Godiva chocolates for Valentine’s Day. They began to send letters and talk on the phone and Skype a couple times a week until 2 or 3 in the morning.

“Every time I got mail from her, my heart was like always skipping a beat,” Tobias said. “We really hit it off. She quickly became my best friend, and I hadn’t even met her yet.”

Hill agreed conversation came easily with Tobias. “We just clicked,” she said.

Right before summer 2011, Tobias invited Hill to visit him in Los Angeles so they could meet in person.

Hill says her family and friends were nervous he might be a killer, but she felt at peace with her decision and had her mind set: She was going.

A real date

Hill says she was nervous but excited to meet Tobias.

“In your head you play out all these romantic movie scenes,” Hill said. “Like when we meet we’re going to hug and kiss and it’s going to be awesome. But I didn’t know for sure if he felt that way about me ’cause we had never talked about it before.”

But when her plane landed, she said the airport was so packed and busy that Tobias patted her on the back, grabbed her bags and they were off.

“No hugging or kissing of any kind — hardly a handshake,” she says.

For their first real date, they went to The Griffith Observatory, where they walked around and held hands.

Tobias says it felt natural, and Hill was “better than I thought she’d be.”

The two spent a lot of time in airports over the next year and a half. They traveled between Minnesota and California to visit each other during holidays and went on trips together.

In March 2013, the couple went back to the observatory, which overlooks the city. That’s where Tobias proposed.

“I’ve just never been happier in my whole life,” Hill said.

Looking forward

After getting engaged, the couple went to a screening of O’Brien’s show and sat in the front row with a sign that read: “2011: We met on This weekend: We got engaged!”

They hoped to thank O’Brien for helping them meet, but he didn’t see them. “Andy Richter waved at us, though,” Hill said. “I was so excited!”

Hill graduated in December, and they now live — together — in Minneapolis, where she’s a paraprofessional at a school and he’s a software architect.

The wedding is set for September.

And as it turns out, they are glad they didn’t win the contest that brought them together. If they had, they think it would have been uncomfortable since they barely knew each other.

“I feel like I won anyway,” Hill says. “Way more than what we would have won.”