Six months after setting up her profile on match.com, Leila Myers was confounded by the response she was getting. "There was a theme: balding, 50-year-old bikers. It was funny, until it wasn't," says the 30-year-old Bostonian. She was looking for men within 10 years of her age, who were into music and culture and "could complete a sentence." Instead, she got Harley riders who'd passed the half-century mark. "I tweaked my profile here and there, but the process was eating up an hour a night," says the health-insurance analyst. "I wouldn't have minded if it were getting me somewhere, but it wasn't," she says. "Besides, I stare at a computer all day. The last thing I want when I get home is to look at another one." So Myers did what any hardworking gal would do: She hired someone to do it for her.
The online dating industry is expect- ed to gross $1 billion in the U.S. next year, and many of its 40 million users have more cash than time. Faster than you can sing "I Want to Be a Billionaire," marketers are leaping to their aid, offering everything from profile critiques to top-to-bottom outsourcing. (Ghostwriters set up the account, attempt matches, engage in e-banter—do everything but show up at Starbucks in a red scarf.) A main target? Successful women who would rather spend their precious free hours with a great guy than with their MacBook.
"Our clients' main weak point is time," says Scott Valdez, CEO of Atlanta-based Virtual Dating Assistants (ViDA), who has seen his female subscribership leap from 20 to 40 percent since he opened shop last year. ViDA's ghostwriters interview clients for two hours, create a profile, filter potential suitors, send flirtatious e-mails, and set up dates—all for a monthly fee of up to $1,200. "We spend at least 40 hours a month working for each client," says Valdez. "It's a full-time job for us so it doesn't have to be a second job for them."
Nancianne Sterling, CEO of Target Love, a D.C. area—based outsourcing shop, says women who go for the full-package treatment "tend to work a lot and do nice things for themselves. They go to the spa. They pay people to clean their house and do their laundry. They can afford to off-load the things they don't have time to do themselves."
One such woman is Monica Astley. "I work a lot, and so does everyone here in our open-plan office. I couldn't access my account on my work computer. I'd have to use my BlackBerry. The whole thing was stressful," says the 40-ish New Yorker. So she hired Laurie Davis, of eFlirt Experts, dropping $225 for a profile makeover, ghostwritten e-mails, and advice. Suddenly, she was meeting the type of guys she was looking for—"solid career, athletic and adventuresome, honest, at least 5'8", without too much baggage ..." she ticks off a partial list. Though she hasn't met Mr. Right, she's had a few good dates, which is a few more than she had when she was doing her own legwork. Does she think it's wrong to have a Cyrano writing her e-mails? "I only use her stuff for the initial contact. After that, it's all me," Astley says. Davis compares herself to a tax accountant. "It's your salary, your financial information—someone else just writes it up for you, and you approve it," she says.
Not an apt analogy, says Mark Brooks, founder of Online Personals Watch, which monitors Internet dating trends. "I understand all the justifications, but, ultimately, it's misrepresentation in the extreme," he says. He admits that, in a business that is thriving despite its failures—according to The New York Times, 56 percent of men who use online dating sites never hear from a woman—there is a need to fix the system, but ghostwriters aren't it. "Imagine if everybody started hiring proxies," he says. "Then you'd just have virtual dating assistants chatting up other virtual dating assistants, and what a mess that would be."