I like making friends in unusual ways. I once made a friend in college by approaching him at the dining hall and asking him what he thought about color. A coworker and I bonded in the break room over the fact that we both had the same shade of purple socks. I’ve made friends with an inmate through a prisoner pen pal program.
So when my friend Anthony told me about Rent a Friend—a paid dating service. Instead of hook ups you meet up to play chess—I figured, hey, why not? It was a simple way to make some extra dough. I imagined myself as the spunky wingwoman who nudges her meek buddy to chat it up with the cute gal or lad at the bar. How hard could hanging out with a stranger really be?
This would be a cinch.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]As of mid-May, 621,585 Rent a Friends were available worldwide.[/quote]
The Rent a Friend site looks like a mix between Craigslist’s apartment rental page and a beta version of OkCupid, circa early 2000s: blocks of clunky text, outdated stock images, the silhouette of a pin-headed man in place of the i in the word friend. Featured is a reel of photos showing different groups of people, all flashing cheesy variations of a fake smile: teens holding popcorn and drinks in a theater, gray-haired men and women clinking wine glasses at a party. The sidebar notes the daily total count of friends available for rent around the world. As of mid-May, 621,585 Rent a Friends were available worldwide.
In the minute-long promo video, an attractive blonde in a black suit walks across the screen. She looks as if she’s about to give a corporate spiel on workplace benefits. “Hello,” she says. “There are many reasons why you may want to rent a friend,” she continues with well-timed hand gestures. “And no matter the reason, we can help you find the perfect friend.”
I didn’t care about being a perfect friend—just a hireable one.
I set about creating a profile and filling in all the necessary fields: Jackie; female; straight; above-average height. And willing to be friends with “everyone.”
Next, I look through the activities that a Rent a Friend can be rented to do, some of which include: teaching manners, friends with disabled, psychic, friends with seniors, religious, prom dates, and hot air balloon. At the very top is the option: “I’m up for anything.” Nope, definitely not. I stayed true to myself and checked wingman/wingwoman, book stores, and a few for the pure novelty—hot air balloon, giving tours, board games, teaching manners, and friends with seniors.
When it came time to upload profile photos, I remembered what my dad told me when I smashed one of the rear headlights on my car: Presentation is very important. People will judge you based on your looks first—and your mind second.
The first thing I did was size up the competition. There was Pat, 24, from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, a bearded boy with a baseball cap casting a shadow over squinty eyes. “I’m loyal, outspoken and your best choice as a friend, so look no further,” he writes in his profile. Not convinced. Andrea, 24, from Los Angeles, holds a terrier in her lap. She impresses potential friends with a yoga pose against the tree. Her profile reads, “I’m adventurous, spontaneous, funny (I think), and I love dogs, pizza, and yoga (in that order). I”m a really good listener and I truly love getting to know people. Let's hang out!”
I was far from being an Andrea—but screw it, I thought. Hopefully people would like me for my down-to-earth, easygoing self. I put up the photo I used on LinkedIn: smiling, hair braided to one side, wearing an asymmetrical dress. Professional, but fun.
Next came my written profile. I needed to cater to the widest audience possible to be able to stand out among the 621,585 global friends for hire. So, without thinking too much, I wrote: “I love getting to know new people and try new things. I like to hike, bike ride, go to concerts, museums, and to the movies. I also do roller derby and write fiction in my spare time.” Generic with a little flair.
The last section was on how much I charged. Rates for rented friends started at $10 an hour and went up to $50. I checked negotiable. Then I closed out my account and forgot about it.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]No red flags so far. Except for the fact that he was willing to pay to hang out with someone.[/quote]
A week later, I received a text from an unknown number:
“Hi Jackie! My name is James. I’m fairly new to the site, but I was wondering if you might be free this Friday?” It took me a minute to register who the hell was texting me.
Ah, yes. Rent a Friend. I forgot that I had included my phone number on my profile. “Oh, hi! Thanks for reaching out,” I texted back, trying to keep it brief. Be a blank canvas, I thought. Be the perky teenager I never was.
“Just wanted to share with you a little bit about me. I teach science to high schoolers and live out in Bakersfield. I’ve been working a lot, and thought I’d take a half day this Friday and drive out to LA. What do you do for a living? And might you be available then? Maybe for a few hours?”
No red flags so far. Except for the fact that he was willing to pay to hang out with someone.
Then he sent me a blurry selfie, a quintessential fuzzy flip phone photo. I made out a smile and some glasses, dark hair, a square goatee. “Soooo what kinds of things do you like to do?” he asked. I logged onto my profile to see what I had checked off. I wanted to keep it consistent: “I love concerts, hiking, art museums, movies, bowling. And yourself?”
James texted: “Oh, I enjoy doing all those things too. I like hiking, like Griffith Park although it’s been awhile. Bowling is fun too. And who doesn’t like going to the movies?”
This was a game, and I wanted to win. I said I was into any of those things. I lied and told him I lived in West Hollywood (in case he was a murderer) and we agreed to meet at 2 p.m. in front of the California Science Center.
Then came the dreaded question: “What’s your rate?” He continued, “I make $30 an hour as a science tutor, and think that’s pretty fair. So just let me know what you think is fair for you.”
“$40 an hour,” I responded. Charging more to be someone’s friend than to tutor chemistry seemed ludicrous, but I wanted to test my limits. Plus, I was worth it. “Works for me,” James texted back.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I did some vocal exercises I learned at an acting class to make sure my voice wouldn’t crack when we exchanged initial hellos.[/quote]
Before I knew it, I was waiting for him in front of the museum. As I sat on the bench, I did some vocal exercises I learned at an acting class to make sure my voice wouldn’t crack when we exchanged initial hellos. I wondered about all the fellow rent a friends and caregivers and more-than-friend escorts in LA and beyond.
Finally, James appeared, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khakis, and sunglasses. He was a combination of my high school band teacher and all my geekiest guy friends, the ones who spent their weekends playing Dungeons & Dragons: tall, olive skin, dark, bushy hair. Told bad dad jokes. Harmless, but socially awkward.
When he took out his wallet to pay for the Imax movie, I was suddenly uneasy. I had to stop myself from reaching for my wallet. On first dates, I usually offer to go dutch. And if I was this dude’s real friend, we’d probably go splitsies anyway. I reminded myself that I was a professional—his paying was part of the deal. So I thanked him and acted as if I enjoyed having guys pay for me.
The afternoon played out like any pleasant friend date. We sat in silence in the nearly empty theater as we watched A Beautiful Planet in 3-D. Conversation flowed freely between us as we meandered through the science museum, poking at plasticized human organs, peering into the mouth of a giant fish, and trying out the earthquake simulation.
James’ loneliness eventually revealed itself. He was in his 40s, living in a conservative town with a couple of pets, and people assumed he was gay. He even showed me an Instagram picture of him and his Turbo Kick class—he was the instructor at the 24 Hour Fitness and the only guy in a classroom full of ladies.
After the museum, we sat on a bench in the rose garden. I started to feel weird again—there were no placards about outer space to distract ourselves with. “So what it’s like to live in West Hollywood?” James asks. Oh, right. The lie.
I quickly changed the subject. “So have you done this Rent a Friend thing before?”
“Yup. Just once. She was really young, like 22 or something. And it just felt awkward. But this time around it didn’t feel weird at all.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Here was a human who worked hard for his money, just like everyone else. The only difference was that he was lonely and willing to put himself out there.[/quote]
After a late lunch at Chick-fil-A, we talked about our family. How we were both raised by single moms. And how he keeps cat food in the trunk of his car in case he stumbles across some strays.
We walked toward the direction of the museum. “Well, I guess it’s time for me to head back to Bakersfield.” He pulled out his wallet. “I had such a nice time, and don’t want disagreement over payment to get in the way of that,” he said. “Since this was closer to three hours than two, here’s $120.” He counted out some $20 bills and handed me the cash.
I tensed up. The “Rent a Friend” gig thing started to feel too real. Here was a human who worked hard for his money, just like everyone else. The only difference was that he was lonely and willing to put himself out there. “You know what?” I said. “It’s cool. I’ll just charge for two hours,” and handed him back 40 bucks.
He walked me to the train stop and asked if we could take a photo together. Also he asked if could follow me on Instagram. This was something I wasn’t too keen on, but how could I say no?
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Taking a photo together was a way for James to make our friendship “real” when it wasn’t.[/quote]
Giving James a discount was a mistake. It signified authenticity, that maybe I was interested in a friendship that extended beyond our professional agreement. I also crossed certain professional friend boundaries I shouldn’t have. Taking a photo together was a way for James to make our friendship “real” when it wasn’t.
Authenticity is what we all crave in our relationships—and the very thing that makes commodifying that interaction so difficult. Take sex work, for example. It may seem that men just want an erotic experience, but, for many, an authentic connection—or at least the illusion of one—is what makes them keep returning for more. Perhaps the sex worker offers to cuddle afterward, or asks the man personal questions about work or family. It’s all part of the job: to create a more intimate, authentic experience for the client.
But at some point, a job ends and the relationship, though seemingly real, must end with it. Because outside of that money, the relationship doesn’t exist at all.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I didn’t realize that you had dimples, and how cute you were.[/quote]
The following Monday, I received a text from James. “Our meetup made my weekend, and I was wondering if you would like to hop on a phone call later this week?” It was followed by, “I didn’t realize that you had dimples, and how cute you were.”
The paid experience was over and now James was crossing the personal line. This time, I ended it for good. It was harsh, but I didn’t want to keep giving him the wrong impression. “I’m really sorry, but I realized this ‘Rent a Friend’ thing isn’t for me,” I texted back.
After a pause, he responded, “I see. Thanks for letting me know.” I could see the sad look in his eyes as he sat alone in his house in the mountains, surrounded by his birds and cats.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It reminds me of being a magician; they use theatrics and sleight of hand to direct your attention to only what they want you to see.[/quote]
So much of our working lives is quantified, calculated, and negotiated in a formal way. While there is an element of reciprocity in any relationship, friendships, to me, are a way to give freely. There are only so many pockets of time and space I allow myself to squander, and friendship occupies one of them.
When you add money to a friendship, it changes the whole dynamic. Suddenly, your personality—perhaps the purest part of a friendship—is your service. And when you put a price tag on that, the boundaries are fuzzy. You have to be authentic, but not too real, part who you actually are and part who your rentee wants you to be. The lines between these parts of yourself are up to you to negotiate, which, in my case, was beyond exhausting.
For me, being a professional friend was like manipulating a bunch of constantly shifting mirrors. What parts of you can be offered, and which parts should be deemed sacred (and when)? It takes a true performance. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of being a magician; they use theatrics and sleight of hand to direct your attention to only what they want you to see. And you’re so enchanted by the illusion of what might be real and true, you hear the words coming out of your mouth: “What else you got? I want to see more.”