Five years ago, when my grandfather could still walk around, he and my grandmother would drive into the city some Sunday mornings and meet me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They would wait for me—I was late, inevitably—in the lobby, near the lavish bouquets that some particularly impractical philanthropist had caused to perpetually bloom there. I would spot them there and, for some reason, stop and stare at them for a moment before they saw me and try to imagine what I’d think of them if I wasn’t their grandchild.
Nana always wore a silk-scarf headband and lavish makeup. Poppy wore a polo sweater and neatly pressed, almost hipsterishly slouchy chinos. They would see me and advance, grinning, and my grandmother would press a little aluminum Met admission button into my palm that I would punch onto the edge of my jeans pocket, and then we would wobble slowly through one of the entranceways, clutching each other’s hands.
I would have figured them, especially given the setting, for rich people, which was of course the point.
For a while, I’m sure it seemed to them that they actually were rich, or on their way to being rich—during my father’s childhood, maybe, at the peak of my grandfather’s career as a jewelry salesman, when they still lived in a medium-sized house in a nice suburban neighborhood in Long Island. Before her marriage, at age 23, my grandmother had worked as a fashion model, commuting from Brighton Beach to swan around the Manhattan showrooms of department stores in the shoes and suits and hats everyone else would be wearing next season. She’d met my grandfather at a Catskills resort; their eyes had locked across a dance floor. They moved from a starter apartment in Forest Hills to the house in Rockville Centre where they grew older and raised two children and my grandfather retired. Then they moved to an apartment and eventually grew so much older that they had outlived their savings.
Now they clipped coupons, pretending that their Wendy’s lunches were a bit of whimsy and that they scorned high-priced entertainments because they had read bad reviews. On their faces, often, was the befuddled look people get when they’re on the verge of realizing something they would rather not know. And maybe it was only this: that they had done their best and it hadn’t been enough.
On a particular Sunday that I remember better than the others, maybe because it was among the last ones, we walked around the museum, taking frequent breaks so that Poppy could rest, while Nana cooed over the paintings and explained them to me as though we were standing in her living room. Afterwards we ate in the cafeteria, as usual, and as usual my grandfather made a show of tipping the attendant who cleared our trays. And when we were done, they drove me home, dropping me off at the curb in front of the Lower East Side one-bedroom I shared with another girl. Before I got out of the car, though, my grandfather turned his head to the backseat and asked me if I knew yet what I was going to do after I graduated.
I didn’t know. I would get a job, I told him.
He turned all the way around in his seat and looked into my eyes. “I’ll tell you what you do, Emily. You find yourself a rich man and marry him.” My grandmother also craned her neck around to look at me, nodding in agreement. “You’ve got the looks, and you’ve got the intelligence. So find yourself a rich man, and marry him!”
“They must have been kidding,” said my mom when I told her later. They had not been kidding. They had just been benighted and wrong. Hadn’t they?
Patti Stanger started the Millionaire’s Club, a service which pairs “successful men with beautiful women,” in 2000, after almost a decade working at another matchmaking service. Prior to entering the matchmaking field, she worked in retail marketing. At 47, she has never been married, though her long-term boyfriend is alluded to with increasing frequency on Millionaire Matchmaker, a “docu-series” that recently wrapped up its second season on Bravo.
The ambiguity of the show’s title, unlike much else about it, is artful: Patti is a Millionaire Matchmaker because she makes matches for millionaires. But Patti is also a Millionaire Matchmaker because, based on the number of clients her agency claims to have and the $25,000-50,000 annual fee she charges them, she would appear almost certainly to be a millionaire herself. Though perhaps she would prefer the term used to describe the occasional wealthy female looking for a match on the show: “millionairess.”
Or perhaps she would not. One of the most intriguing things about Patti—and there are many, her myriad weirdnesses are what make the show riveting—is that she seems not to realize how much her own lifestyle and personality contravene the rules she’s constantly telling other people to live by.
And Patti is really into rules. Men must always pay for their dates, and if they don’t, or don’t want to, they are “boys.” Real “men” like to pay because they are “hunters.” They like “being the provider.” In general, “Women should be women and men should be men. It’s worked for millions of years,” as Patti once told a millionaire who wondered whether his date would actually be charmed if he ordered for her in a restaurant. This particular millionaire, a retired ballplayer just embarking on a career in “The Industry,” ended up needing so much reeducation that Patti took him to see an etiquette specialist.
A lot of Patti’s other rules are about achieving and maintaining a certain kind of Los Angeles “attractiveness.” Women must have long hair because “men like hair they can run their fingers through,” and it must be professionally blown out. Everyone—men and women—looks better with a tan. One client who ignored this advice was spray-tanned in a bathroom minutes prior to being introduced to his potential matches.
Patti herself is tall and oddly shaped, with long, professionally blown-out black hair and blunt-cut bangs that conceal her forehead and eyebrows. Like many of her reality-show sisters, she favors the kind of shimmery lipgloss that underscores the lips’ every crease, so that when she puckers you can’t keep from thinking of a butthole. She has a wardrobe of formfitting business suits that showcase what she has decided are her best features: her legs and her enormous speckled cleavage. There is something about the way the latter asset is displayed that just makes you think “madam.” There are a few other things about Patti—I mean, besides the basic premise of her business—that make you think “madam.”
Patti’s signature move is something she calls a “mixer.” After she meets with a new millionaire client and ascertains his tastes in women—usually this boils down to whether he likes blondes or brunettes—she curates a group of women for him to meet at an emptied-out bar or club. To “cast” this mixer, she holds auditions, and the selected women are then given the opportunity to charm the millionaire enough that he’ll elect to go on a “mini-date” with them during the mixer and then—if the mini-date is successful—announce in front of all the other women that he has chosen them for a “full date.”
The initial selection process is brutal. Girls whom Patti thinks the millionaires won’t like—or whom she deems, for whatever reason, inappropriate for them—are dismissed with a wave of her manicured talons and a look of undisguised disgust. The rejects seem unfazed: This can hardly be the first cattle-call audition they’ve attended. In a few instances, though, because it’s good TV, a particular girl will be singled out for a more thorough critique, as when both of the “gentlemen” Patti was doing a “casting” for were Jewish. Neither had specified that they were looking for Jewish girls, but Patti seemed convinced that they should be presented with an exclusive selection of them. “You will never see a Jew marrying an Episcopalian,” she announced. (Patti has also propounded the scientific theory that gay men are feminine because their bodies produce a surplus of estrogen, so they are “basically women.”) A black girl who’d made it to this casting was given the full Patti treatment. “I don’t think you’re an Ethiopian Jew,” Patti said, expressing frustration that she had to waste her time talking to this woman at all. You could tell that, for her part, the woman considered taking offense, but then probably decided she’d signed up for a certain amount of exploitation and might as well be a good sport. “Actually, I’m a Satanist,” she joked. Patti’s eyes bugged out. Cricket noises were edited into the soundtrack to emphasize the awkwardness of the moment. Later, Patti was all “Oh my god, can you believe that girl was a Satanist?” to her assistants.
A Millionaire Matchmaker “mixer” will look familiar to anyone who has seen Cathouse, the HBO reality show about a legal Nevada brothel. A recurring Cathouse motif—it’s featured in the show’s intro—is the “lineup,” when new clients enter the Bunny Ranch and all available prostitutes come rushing from their rooms so that the potential buyer can inspect the merchandise. “Girls, come and meet my millionaires,” Patti cries, and whatever cavernous LA-cheesy venue she’s selected becomes an ad hoc brothel. Heavily made-up women in tiny outfits and towering heels clutch moisture-beaded glasses of white wine and cluster around the men, all but throwing elbows in order to stand out in the crowd. They shout answers to questions addressed to the group, competing to see who can be most sexually provocative, flashing every whitened tooth in their smiles. None of this looks like fun. The men often seem anxious, sweaty, and overwhelmed.
At the end of the mixer, the girls who haven’t been selected are reassured by Patti that they will be matched with someone eventually. “Don’t be sad, girls! Destin and Chelsea” (her assistants) “will find someone for you!” We never see this happen; it seems unlikely that it does.
It seems unlikely that a lot of stuff on the show happens, of course, but for our purposes we’re going to accept as a given that the show is neither documentary nor entirely staged: it’s “reality.” True, the incentive for many of the Millionaires Club’s female members is obviously less the chance to marry a rich man than the chance to be on TV, which despite all the evidence to the contrary is still perceived to convey some kind of benefit. But if its website is to be believed, the MC has thousands of other female members in other cities, who must know that it’s unlikely they’ll ever be on the show. They must want what they say they want: a romantic relationship founded on the idea that a man’s job is to make money and a woman’s job is to be one of the possessions he buys with it.
“Qualify your buyer,” says Patti over and over again to women on the show, and it seems to mean something along the lines of: Make sure he is the one for you, make sure he is who he says he is, make sure he is worthy of you. It is also one of the tips in her book, Be Your Own Matchmaker, which is aimed at women who hope to find love offscreen. These are some of the ways, per Patti, that you can “qualify your buyer”: force him to buy you fancy things; insist that he show material interest in you by taking you on a certain number of expensive dates before you have sex with him. It’s supposed to seem clever and even ironic, maybe, that Patti uses retail terminology to describe exchanges between men and women, but as a catchphrase it’s too literal. When Patti describes the men who use her service as “buyers,” she is comparing apples and apples.
But what happens when the “buyer” is female? The season’s most interesting episode featured Shauna, a “millionairess” owner of a hair salon in her early 40s who had recently moved to LA from Minneapolis. She seemed to have wasted no time in going native—”Her face does not move,” Patti observed while watching Shauna’s introduction video with her assistants. “She’s got too much Botox and fillers up in her face.” Then Patti forced her assistants to tell her she looked younger than the Shauna, which was marginally true. It was also true that the woman had injected her facial muscles with too many paralyzing toxins—her face was so inexpressive that the only way a viewer could tell how upset she was during her first meeting with Patti was the tone of her voice, which grew increasingly shrill and at one point seemed to indicate that tears might emerge from her eerily unblinking eyes. Patti, straightforward as always, had told her to be more realistic about the type of man she was looking for. The millionairess had said she was attracted to model-pretty types: “Ashton Kutcher.” Patti told her that she was not Demi Moore. In exchange, she received some feedback about how she needed to be “softer.” “You’re not used to working with a female,” Shauna said. Patti bridled and trotted out the stats, how long she’d been in business, how successful she’d been. “Why aren’t you married?” asked the woman. Patti stammered out an unsatisfactory answer; the woman stomped out. Later, speaking directly to the camera, Patti seemed rattled. The millionairess was no fun. “She’s a superficialist,” Patti said.
To prove that she could deliver the goods, Patti set the millionairess up on a dream date that beggared belief: a young, supra-Kutcherian hottie who was eager to discuss his humanitarian missions looked into the millionairess’s eyes and flirted audaciously. “I would definitely go out with Shauna again,” he told the camera post-date, citing her “amazing legs” and “magnetism.” Either the millionairess had some kind of pheromonic appeal that the camera was unable to detect, or the hottie was a credible actor, eager to add a national cable appearance to his reel.
I don’t know if his star has risen as a result of this effort. The millionairess managed to parlay her date into something more: she and her hair salon appeared on the Style Network show Split Ends.
Millionaires came on the show; they hit it off with their matches or didn’t; and then they left. Perhaps they got married. And Patti remained.
As Season Two progressed, the oddness of Patti’s position as an unmarried matchmaker became the show’s central conflict. In one mid-season episode, Patti chose to confront the question of her singleness directly by visiting a psychic—not just any old psychic, but a soulmate medium.
The medium wanted to know why Patti had come. (You would think, being a medium, especially one prepped by Patti’s producers, the medium would have known already, but whatever.) Patti said she wanted to know the future: will she get married, and is her lover her soulmate?
“I can tell you that he is a soulmate,” the medium announced. “But he is threatened by the power you hold.”
Patti did her best to look surprised. “I’ve always been great in business,” said Patti, “but, I’ve gotta be honest with you, the reason I became a matchmaker is because I sucked in love.”
Well, said the medium, at this point if Patti wanted to get married, the medium couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t happen.
Patti paused. “I’m not so sure I want to get married anymore, to be honest with you,” she said. “I love my boyfriend to death, but there are times when I want to get work done, want to do things by myself, and if I go back to the, ‘I’m submissive towards a man,’ I might lose my joy, and I’m afraid of that.” The diamond on her left middle finger, a sign of something like engagement, except not, caught the light as she gesticulated.
Later in that episode, Patti was forced to confront the implications of her singleness in a less comfortable setting. At a “mixer” for a plastic surgeon and an Internet entrepreneur, an uninvited guest—identified only as “Josie/model”—penetrated the ranks of the selected talent. Thong visible, hair un-blown-out, she attempted to stir up dissent in the ranks. “Is this a beauty contest?” she leered, in a way that seemed to indicate that, actually, she knew exactly what it was. The girls seemed frightened. She was like Banquo’s ghost.
Patti and her assistants circled the intruder, playground style, and we learned via flashback that she was a disgruntled former member of the Club who had never found her millionaire—and that she’d picked fights before, had once even once invited Patti to compare cup sizes (she won, and Patti said, “Oh good, that means you’re heavier”). This time, she wanted to battle over something even more contentious: “How come you can’t find a husband?” she said, getting up in Patti’s face. “You’re 45 years old and you can’t get to ‘I do!'”
Patti was flustered. “You’re not my god, I don’t have to answer to you.”
“Why do you think God has punished you and made you 45 and single?”
“I’m not single!”
“Do you have a husband? Where’s your ring, Patti? Your boyfriend’s from Sherman Oaks! How can you be the millionaire matchmaker when some guy’s screwing you from Sherman Oaks!”
“My boyfriend’s not from Sherman Oaks! My boyfriend’s from fucking Encino!”
(These were fine distinctions of San Fernando Valley socioeconomics—made all the finer by the fact that no one moves to the Valley for its prestige.)
At last the intruder was ejected. In the to-camera recap that followed, Patti was still flushed and agitated. “Who are you to judge me, and who am I to judge someone else? LOVE is what I sell. I don’t sell marriage, I sell love.”
This was false. Amid all her many rules and wildly contradictory pieces of advice, two of Patti’s “Ten Commandments” are told to all the participants in the Club without fail: The women aren’t allowed to have sex with the men, and the men aren’t allowed to buy the women fancy things. This seems to fly in the face of the show’s very premise, which is that the girls should dress up to look like hookers and the men should pretend they’re super-rich (some of them are; some of them—not so much). The super-rich men will then exchange gifts for sex with the hookers (and vice versa). But it turns out that the way to make this a lasting contractual obligation is to put everything on the surface—to make everything reek of sex and money in the most vulgar possible way—and then to prevent the sex and the money from touching each other. And also to make sure that the girls have gone to college.
Last year, VH-1 brought us The Pick-Up Artist, with its pompous neo-cavemanism. Patti, like that show’s star, Mystery, is convinced that there are biologically determined laws that govern why women and men are attracted to one another, and if you know these laws you can exploit them to your advantage whether you’re a man or a woman. That idea is what Patti sells—not, as it turns out, “LOVE.” But the inarticulable problem for the show is that when you reduce people to their basest caveman impulses it becomes hard to then shunt marriage back into the equation. No evolutionary biologist will ever tell you that humans have evolved to mate for life. Lately some of them will tell you that humans have evolved to pair-bond for four-year increments (about as long as it takes to get a child up and running), which seems about right. This information is not particularly hard to come by. But a weird thing about the show, and about American culture in general, is that we are so eager to hear and believe scientific and pseudoscientific explanations of why people “fall in love,” but then we cover our ears and hum so that we don’t hear the end of the sentence, which is about why people fall out.
And this is why MM is important, and compelling, and infuriating: because Patti sometimes seems on the verge of engaging with, or even answering, some of these questions. And then inevitably she backs away from the verge and starts shrieking about getting a spray-tan or taking off someone’s “mannery”—a coinage meaning “man jewelry” that Patti tried, and failed, to popularize.
When Patti had calmed down a bit after the intrusion of evil Josie, she returned to the emptied-out daytime club, where the clusters of women were milling around making distressed noises and bobbing their heads, as though a fox had just come and carried off a broodmate. Patti quieted them down by ordering them to sit. She looked around the room, waiting for the little side conversations to subside and allowing a little bit of dramatic tension to build. Finally, she clasped her hands, head cheerleader–style, and began to speak.
“What you just saw was a gatecrasher. She is what you’re not supposed to do. She’s the Glamour Don’t, know what I mean?” (In case you don’t: Glamour magazine publishes “do’s” and “don’ts,” of ladies on the street wearing unfortunate outfits.)
“The things she said about me, it kinda hurt my feelings, I’m gonna be honest with you, OK, I was ready to cry. I realized something this year at 47 which I’m damn proud of …
I don’t know if I’m ready to get married.”
Patti looked around, gauging the girls’ reactions. “Is that shocking, that I can teach you but I don’t know if I want to get married? Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I shouldn’t do this for a living, I’m serious. I look at people like Oprah, and people who live together, and unless you’re gonna have children, what’s the rush? And I look at Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and I say my GOD, they’ve been together forever!”
Patti was beginning to raise her voice. The once-distracted girls were all staring, rapt, as she built to her crescendo:
“You have to decide what is right for you, and SOCIETY CANNOT DICTATE IT. When the time is right,” and here she paused, “you’ll know what to do.”
Maybe Patti is just like any of us, in this department. Maybe we all believe that there are rules, and also that those rules don’t apply to us.
After her speech, Patti got back down to the business of the mixer. The plastic surgeon either rejected or was rejected by the first three women he chose, so he ended up going on a date with a 22-year-old college student, whom he charmed with promises about the future. Later, though, he confided to Patti that he wasn’t interested in seeing her again because she was “too young.” As for the Internet entrepreneur, he selected a tall brunette who’d secured her place in the Club with a sob story about how her twin sister’s recent death had made her eager to “embrace life.” But then the Internet entrepreneur grossed her out by peeing in the bushes on the golf course in his Florida compound. When she’d said “life,” apparently, that wasn’t at all what she’d had in mind.