Cupid Academy

Time – Feb. 16, 2004

Elizabeth Biondi wants to be a matchmaker. After a devastating breakup with a boyfriend last summer, the Detroit social worker decided to channel her romantic energy into something constructive. She had always enjoyed setting friends up on dates — why not strangers? So late last
month Biondi, 25, hopped on a plane to New York City and enrolled in matchmaking school.

Biondi is in good company. Dating services have blossomed over the past few years to become a billion-dollar industry. Though the Internet fueled that explosion, real-life matchmakers with names like Great Expectations and It’s Just Lunch are popping up around the country like valentines in J. Lo’s mailbox. The Matchmaking Institute, which offers the nation’s first certification course for would-be Cupids, opened in October and is attracting students from as far away as Singapore. It helps that the modern-day yenta looks less like Sylvia Miles in Crossing Delancey and more like Alicia Silverstone in NBC’s Miss Match: young, attractive and a long way from loserdom — just like her clients. Hey, even Paula Abdul is rumored to have met her boyfriend through a matchmaker.

The Internet is playing a double role in matchmaking’s revival. On the one hand, the ubiquity of online dating — 1 in 10 Web surfers uses those sites, which get 40 million hits a month — has eased Americans’ hang-ups about paying a third party to set up dates. On the other, Web-dating singles have grown increasingly weary of the attending aggravations — the overly flattering photos, the fibbing bios, the less-than-honorable intentions, the inevitable letdown of that first date.

Online-dating sites are responding by trying to be more like real-life matchmakers. The fastest growing site, eHarmony.com, draws 10,000 new users a day with a 436-question screen. Match.com, the largest of the services, recently added its own test as well as an advice site manned by live therapists. “We can get into the nuances of chemistry and attraction too, but on a mass scale,” says Trish McDermott, vice president of romance for Match.com.

But many singles seem to crave the human touch. “People like to think matchmakers are in it not just for money but because they have a sixth sense,” says Darren Star, creator of Miss Match. “A matchmaker is part psychologist, part psychic.”

Those who come to the Matchmaking Institute believe they have the magic; they just need to learn the spells. Over a frozen weekend in late January, half a dozen students gathered at the institute’s downtown Manhattan headquarters, a loft dominated by a lipstick red wall, a well-stocked bar and two sleepy Chihuahuas. The students were greeted by the school’s co-founders, Lisa Clampitt, 39, a veteran matchmaker in a miniskirt and knee-high suede boots, and Jerome Chasques, 34, an amiable Frenchman with an international singles-events business. Nestling into black leather lounge chairs amid animal-print cushions, the students list their qualifications. Alayna Tagariello, 29, works in public relations and plays host to singles parties. Nelson Hitchcock, 35, an events coordinator, recounts the time he helped arrange a friend’s elaborate proposal. Lia Woertendyke, 18, a high school senior, uses paste-on tattoos as conversation starters at parties. All the students this weekend are 35 or younger. All but one are single.

The institute describes itself as a “school of matchmaking and relationship sciences,” but it soon becomes clear that its teachings are far from exact. Of the 22 hours of intensive training, a good many are spent on the decidedly unscientific business of assessing and handling clients, many of whom need help far beyond the introduction. Some require sober advice about wardrobe or hygiene. Others need schooling on how not to sabotage a date with obnoxious behavior. Some matchmakers, including Clampitt, have degrees in social work or psychology. Still, she warns, “matchmaking is not therapy. You’ve got to be real careful about boundaries.” She advises clients with serious issues to get professional counseling.

The modern matchmaker offers much more than a dating service. Clampitt’s high-powered male clients pay her up to $20,000 a year to act as pal, coach, mom and concierge (she’ll also be host at their parties, find interior designers and make restaurant reservations). In early February she met with client Robert Marinelli, 41, a tall, strikingly handsome banker. With his sharp wit, jet-set lifestyle and gregarious personality, Marinelli has no problem landing dates. Last year, in fact, he had 60. “Robert doesn’t need me,” admits Clampitt, who spotted him at a charity bachelor auction and hounded him to sign on. Marinelli, who is twice divorced, uses Clampitt to up his odds. “The way I see it, it’s a numbers game,” he says. “Women today don’t need a man financially. And I don’t need someone to dress me, fix my house or cook for me. What we’re looking for is a soul mate. If I get up to bat a lot, maybe one of these days it’ll be the one.”

As a newly certified matchmaker, Jill Richardson, 25, doesn’t have a roster of clients yet. On a rainy Tuesday, over hot chocolate at Starbucks, she tests her interviewing skills on college friend Pete Gelling. Richardson wants to market to young singles, but many of her peers — including Gelling, an aspiring journalist — can’t afford the $350 introductory fee or the $75 monthly charges the school recommends. “If I had a job, I’d do it, though,” says Gelling, 24. Most of their friends have profiles on Internet sites like Nerve and Friendster and see little shame in matchmaking. “Even when you’re our age, it’s hard to meet people in a big city,” says Richardson. “I think a lot of people like me just want to find someone.”
Experts are skeptical. “Young people don’t need the help,” says Rachel Greenwald, author of the best-selling How to Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. “The bulk of people needing a matchmaker are women over 30–really, over 40. And for them, there’s a problem of supply and demand.” She’s right. According to the Census Bureau, for those in their 20s and 30s, there are 115 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women; that drops to 69 for every 100 in the 45-to-64 age bracket. A much better tactic than paying a professional, Greenwald argues, is to corral friends into finding suitable matches.

But according to Neil Clark Warren, the founder of eHarmony, no human knows enough about the complexities of modern romance to handle such a task. So Warren drew upon his 37 years as a psychologist to create an intricate, 29-variable, computerized personality profile that he claims practically ensures accurate matches. Warren says his service, launched in 2000, has resulted in more than 2,000 marriages. “The task of choosing a marriage partner is so much more complex than anyone credits it with being,” he says. “You need the technology.”

So far, no marriages have resulted from the efforts of Matchmaking Institute graduates. One date, however, did come out of the January course: Clampitt sent Biondi, the pretty, blond social worker from Detroit, for a sushi dinner with a New York lawyer. “He was a perfect gentleman,” according to Biondi, who says they keep in touch. Who knows? Cupid may have found a mark.

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