What a difference an internet makes: in only a few years, dating services – once reserved for people lacking social skills – have become the preferred way for frantic financiers and time-poor property developers to benefit from an updated version of the arranged marriage.
Victoria Coren marvels at the modern matchmakers playing the oldest game around.
A few years back, we all fell in love with dating. It can probably be traced (like many things) to Sex and The City. What fun it looked: dressing up in gorgeous dresses with shoes so expensive that no man could ever appreciate them, to flit between gallery openings and fashionable restaurants with a series of sexy writers, politicians and jazz musicians who would never make husband material, but might provide hot nights out. Dating became a hobby; we forgot about the long-term goal, and embraced the short-term entertainment.
But Sex and The City is over, and something in the air has changed. What on earth have we been doing for the past five years? Hanging around in £600 heels, conversing over squid-ink pasta, with men we aren’t going to marry? Enough already. Time for the new phase.
The new phase is about Taking It Seriously. It’s about choosing men more discriminately, talking more deeply, thinking further ahead. And thinking further ahead in romance – just as in finance – sometimes involves consulting a professional expert.
We are entering the age of the Personal Dating Agent. We are bored of smooching in taxis and working out the details later. We’re ready to try it the other way round; starting with compatibility and getting to the sex bit afterwards. Speed dating and internet dating have torn the stigma away from ‘being fixed up’ and have put matchmaking back on the public agenda. But, even with these methods, you’re stuck with trusting your own judgement and taking your chances alone. The people who are really Taking It Seriously are paying top dollar to put the whole business in the hands of an experienced and canny caretaker.
They are turning to matchmakers. The new clients are not ‘losers’; quite the reverse, these are men and women with such high-powered careers that it would be inappropriate to date colleagues at work, and who have too little free time to waste hanging around in bars.
The surge in sign-ups for this and other ‘introduction services’ is new, but the practice is as old as time. Our great-grandmothers would have been amazed by the idea of settling down with some guy you just bumped into and fancied at a party. The history of British marriage is founded in property deals and the careful introduction of social equals. The canny lady matchmaker (whether a dowager aunt or a well-connected family friend) has been with us for centuries. Just think of Jane Austen and all those grand Regency chaperones, stirring their creamy social pots, matching eligible women with chaps of appropriate status and wealth. We often talk of arranged marriage in Chinese or Indian cultures, as though it weren’t a perfectly noble English tradition as well. The English, too, worked on the assumption that long-term happiness and stability would spring from similar life-styles, backgrounds and aspirations. Or, in the more cynical cases, the hope that romance would flower in the bed of convenience.
Since matchmaking fell out of fashion, leaving us in a haphazard world of romantic guesswork, millions of people have divorced and thousands more are unhappily single. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, we’d give our great-grandparents’ methods one more spin.
The matchmakers all agree on one thing: you have to be honest about what you want and need, and this is something they can help you to be.
International matchmaking is not new, either: in the 1920s and 1930s, with a drop in eligible men following the Great War, marriage bureaux sprang up all over the country to pair single British girls with appropriate ex-pats
A good matchmaker is never off-duty. But hold on a minute, because modern dating gets more tailor-made, even than this. Let me introduce you to Tamara Heber-Percy, a tall, elegant girl with her hair slicked back into an efficient ponytail. Tamara is a romantic headhunter. Like a fine-tuned business spy, she will go out into the world and seek your perfect match.
‘I come from a marketing background,’ she explains. ‘I had a career with a giant pan-European company and I was poised for executive roles, but I started to burn out. My last job was in Zurich. For six months, I was flying out at 6am, every Monday, and back on the 9pm flight, every Friday. I was living in an airport Novotel, and I hated it. So I joined my mother’s dating agency. I was just going to work on the business side, but I ended up going to see one client and we became really good friends. Getting to know her was great and going out to meet people with her in mind was just lovely. So….I ended up a headhunter.’
A headhunter is somebody who, instead of simply introducing you to other people on the dating-agency books, will actually go out and find you a partner. When Tamara has got to know you (which she does, over a whole day), she will place discreet advertisements in appropriate press outlets, recommending you as her romantic client. Anyone who likes the sound of you can get in touch with Tamara and she will meet them to assess their viability. You’re a bit like a movie star with a tough agent: if the prospective suitor can impress Tamara, she might let him meet you. The diplomatic process doesn’t end there: honest feedback on both sides can be filtered through Tamara, who is even prepared to do the embarrassing bit of telling the guy you don’t want to see him again.
The County Register (the agency set up by Tamara’s mother, Heather Heber-Percy) has plenty of single people on its books. You can, of course, flick through these options before being ‘advertised’ and entering the head-hunting process: if you join this agency (£8,400 for 18 months), you can meet pretty much anyone you want. The men on the books are generally well-off and live in the countryside; the agency was originally set up to cater for farmers, who work long hours in isolated places and don’t have much chance to meet women. But the client base is broader now: bankers, businessmen, army officers, all of whom seem to love dogs, muddy walks and country sports.
Funnily enough, I was offered a chance to meet them. That’s what happens when you tell a matchmaker you’re single. Tamara had barely got into my living room before she’d whipped out her laptop and shown me Chris (a sporty antiques dealer), Henry (a well-travelled City trader) and James (a businessman with a house in Surrey). Later, she emailed me my profile, which she had written after our meeting. It made me sound so great, I practically wanted to marry myself.
And, of course, I was tempted to give her boys a whirl. All these lady matchmakers had been tremendously convincing on the theme of ‘personal introductions’ being the answer to singleton life. Tamara Heber-Percy was even match-made herself, thought not quite so formally. Her fiancé, who runs various businesses (including Spy Publishing, which publishes the sexy Mr & Mrs Smith) was recommended to her by a mutual friend. Mobile numbers were exchanged, a deep breath was taken, and love blossomed.
‘In my mother’s day, your parents would introduce you to friends’ children,’ says Tamara. ‘Now, people are far more independent, and the old dancehalls have turned into nightclubs, where you can’t actually talk to anybody. That’s why this agency can change people’s lives.’
I haven’t actually met any of Tamara’s County Register men yet – but do you know why? Because I have been too busy meeting men from the other agencies. So far, I have had lunch with a music producer (courtesy of Karen Mooney), who was rather sexy and very entertaining; plus a company director and a film-maker (thanks to Kate Kennedy), both of whom were clever and funny. Unfortunately, the day before our meeting, the film director lost a snooker bet and shaved his head, so I didn’t fancy him at all. (It’s not so much the shaved scalp, as the lost bet; I hate a failed gambler.) But you can’t win them all and, in many ways, all three men were extremely well-chosen for me, and we had lots to talk about. All three impressed me with their eligibility, and made me think: ‘Decent, single men really are on agency books! This is ridiculous – you never bloody meet them at parties!’
I didn’t really fancy any of them enough, but I would certainly be friends with them all. If I actually joined any of these agencies, I’m sure I would meet a lot more great guys. But my problem is not that I don’t meet enough men; it’s that I’m too picky. Oh yes, and I’m still in love with my ex-boyfriend.
So I’m probably not perfect agency material. Nevertheless, it seems to be working for a lot of my peers. The County Register claims a 75% success rate – with the proviso that it only accepts a small number of clients a year, and it can take a while. ‘I have a client who ended up with the first person we introduced her to,’ says Tamara, ‘and another client who’s been round with us three times, which is an investment of £24,000.’
The Heber-Percys are particularly choosy about the clients they take on – they like to maintain a small client list and give it undivided attention – but all the matchmakers told me that they issue refusals sometimes. There are people who can’t be helped – people whose stories don’t stand up, whose desires don’t chime with their need. Tamara once refused a wealthy fifty-something, who only wanted to meet women 20 years his junior. ‘He was only interested in arm-candy,’ she says.
All the agents are prepared to offer client advice. If you go on a series of dates with men who don’t call back, these ladies are here to help. Tamara Heber-Percy has advised on everything from smiling more to wearing fewer shoulder-pads.
Nevertheless, sometimes a potential client is simply ruled out as unmatchable. The 21st century question is not ‘Are the lonely-hearts good enough for me?’, but ‘Am I good enough for them?’ I half wonder whether the reason I agreed to go on dates myself was just because I was so relieved to be ruled in.
Then again, I have always been a hopeful romantic. Tonight, I’m having drinks with a novelist. His emails are great, and we’re both going to carry The Evening Standard. What the hell? You never know. It may be old-fashioned – but even corsets are cool again.