Inside a cozy office on Wilshire Boulevard, the lights are low and the mood is hushed. Beneath a framed print of Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" sits Karen, a leggy, 37-year-old blond who is looking for love ... or just some decent prospects. She has just moved here and, unwilling to face the singles scene, has submitted to a polite but very personal grilling by Julie Ferman, a professional matchmaker.
Ms. Ferman, one of the best in her business – affairs of the heart – is at her computer, scrolling through Karen's application essay. "We need something about your goals in a relationship," she says. "Do you want kids? Marriage?"
Karen leans forward to look at the screen: "Maybe on kids, but I'm also open to adoption."
Ferman types quickly, asking, "What about religion?"
Karen hesitates. "I'm spiritual but not really religious."
Julie nods. "What about race? Are you open to races other than Caucasian?"
Karen giggles. "Well ... sure," she says softly. "I'm open to that."
It's not easy to bare your dating soul to someone you hardly know, but Ferman is a pro, and Karen would rather lay it on the line here than in a singles bar or in the world of online setups.
Karen, a life coach who asked not to use her real name in this article, believes Ferman's service makes dating safer and more productive: "L.A. is so huge, and I'm so busy with work and building my business. I wouldn't know where to start. And Julie prescreens everyone. It's exclusive and it's very private."
It's also not cheap – it will cost Karen $4,800 for six months of help.
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Being good at making realistic love matches takes honesty (Women generally don't want to date men 30 years their senior); sensitivity (It can feel lonely and scary to try to sell yourself); social savvy (Better to list your dress size than your weight); and intuition (You said you don't like bald men, but this one you'll like).
And Ferman has a proven track record. In eight years, her business – Cupid's Coach – has paired 100 couples who married or are still together.
Ferman is a natural matchmaker, she says, noting that she started looking for her husband in preschool and by kindergarten was in trouble for kissing boys. She studied psychology and human sexuality in college. In her 20s, she and her friends came up with creative ways to meet men, like the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" party where each person drew names from a hat and invited the perfect date for that person. "At every party," she says, "connections would be made, but never the people you intended to get together."
Ferman met her own husband 18 years ago. "He was off-type for me," says Ferman, noting that he was 14 years older, had a scruffy beard, and he was Jewish (she's Catholic). "So I always encourage clients to consider dating a little outside their type."
Decades of matchmaking have given Ferman insight into human nature – she's seen just about every type. There are the predictable: the young woman determined to marry, the recently divorced, or the commitment-phobic man looking to date as much as he can. But Ferman has been surprised, for instance, by older women determined to date young men, and older men who don't understand why much younger women won't say yes to a date. Often, she explains, "We don't see ourselves as aging, we only see others as aging."
Frequently her job is to get a client to let go of preconceptions about what's attractive and what's not – easier with women than men. Money, power, or respect in the community ("romantic market value," Ferman calls it) helps women overlook bald spots and pot bellies. But, she observes, "guys can rarely fall in love with a woman they aren't initially attracted to."
That ability broadens, though, as men mature and realize the importance of a good companion, and Ferman is usually able to nudge skeptical clients beyond a profile photo to consider other, more important characteristics, like a good sense of humor or interests such as music and art.
The toughest clients aren't fat or bald. They're the unhappy ones looking for a relationship to make them happy. "They think that's all that is lacking from their lives – the right person," says Ferman. They're impossible to please because they're looking for a panacea, not a person.
"You have to come to this party as a satisfied, loving person, able to see what's right in human beings instead of what's wrong. That's where success is," she says. "It's much more about being a loving, happy person than about finding a loving, happy person."
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"The thought of dating again was really intimidating," says Melanie Bentley, a training manager at a healthcare company who came to Ferman a year after her marriage ended. She says that she didn't know how to meet men anymore.
"But Julie made the whole process exciting and fun, rather than frightening," she says of Ferman's enthusiasm for the men in her database and the whole idea of dating again. It was like having a good girlfriend as a guide, says Ms. Bentley. "Sometimes I'd call up just to talk to Julie or her staff about the date. It really helped to have another person's opinion."
After three referrals, the fourth was the charm: Daniel Simon, a 45-year-old real estate appraiser. The couple is getting married May 10.
Success stories like Bentley's have helped make professional matchmaking a growth industry, says Lisa Clampitt, founder of the Matchmaking Institute, a certifying organization that aims to lend credibility to an unregulated profession. She says there are 1,500 independent matchmakers in the US, with sales of $250 million in 2006. "People are burned out from online dating: the lack of privacy, the time management issues, old photos on websites, people lying about their age and marital status," she says. "There's a lot of wasted time and disappointment."
And it's scary: A 2006 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found 66 percent of Internet users believe online dating is dangerous.
Matchmakers like Ferman, a board member of the Matchmaking Institute with an A rating from the Better Business Bureau, provide a human touch in the increasingly webcentric dating world. Of course matchmakers aren't new, they've been around for centuries in various forms, whether it's parents in Bombay arranging marriages or Yente in "Fiddler on the Roof."
"There have always been external influences in dating, both formal and informal, from traditional matchmakers to parents saying 'I don't really like your boyfriend,' " says Michelle Janning, a sociologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., who teaches about mate selection.
Online dating, she says, can be isolating and impersonal: "It would almost be strange to me not to have this thirst for human touch. Communities have always functioned this way."
Yet seeking the services of a matchmaker – even a high-end one like Ferman, who gets $25,000 for top-of-the-line packages – feels somewhat illicit, which may be why Karen asked not to use her real name. But Ferman says it's that clients are concerned about privacy, about being "out there" on the Internet, she says, "where friends, colleagues, clients, family members, ex-spouses, and ex-lovers can all see that they're looking for love."
Karen admits to having dated online.
Ferman smiles conspiratorially, saying the trouble with online dating is that "the same 12 girls get picked all the time. People ask me, 'Why does a beautiful girl come to a matchmaker?' Because I specialize in people who are highly desirable, but selective. That's why."
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"Now we'll dive in and look at men!" says Ferman, after the paperwork is done. The computer comes alive with color photos and résumés of male clients – older and distinguished, tall and dark, athletic next to a surfboard, intellectual with rimless glasses. The bulk of Ferman's clients are between the ages of late 30s and early 60s.
"Oh, he's cute" Karen says about one photo.
"He's not a paying client, just a registered member," says Ferman. "I'd rather show you my higher paying clients first." After all, this is a business. Ferman has about 12,000 registered members in her database – potential matches for clients who she has prescreened, but who don't pay for her matchmaking services ... at least not yet.
At the end of their meeting, Ferman says Karen will be an easy client, and not just because she's skinny and smart – but because she's happy.