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'Millionaire Matchmaker' offers new set of rules

The “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger, part Helen Gurley Brown, part Vince Lombardi, brings her take-no-prisoners brand of dating advice to New York. Ready for the new rules?
/ Source: The New York Times

On a misty late morning the Tuesday after Labor Day, Patti Stanger, namesake star of the popular Bravo reality program “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” was standing in her Marina del Rey, Calif., office — a raw industrial space with red-painted walls and matching red chairs shaped like lips — preparing to douse one of her clients in the cold water of her now-notorious realism.

“Today we’re going to do an internal makeover on a girl,” Ms. Stanger told me, as she forcefully flipped through an issue of Life & Style magazine in search of an ad in which she had posed for Sensa, the appetite suppressant responsible for her recent 25-pound weight loss.

“She can’t seem to get from A to B, and she always listens to my advice and doesn’t do it,” Ms. Stanger continued about the refractory client, a persnickety woman in her late-30s who pays for dating advice as part of Ms. Stanger’s real-life, brick-and-mortar matchmaking business, the Millionaire’s Club, on which the show is based. “Today’s going to be tough love with her,” Ms. Stanger said. “She needs to straighten her hair, for one. She can’t get arrested with her rat’s nest.”

When the client arrived, she perched on one of the lip chairs to wait while Ms. Stanger gave a phone interview. Dressed in flared jeans and brown wedge shoes, the client projected a ’70s vibe, enhanced by her hair, a mass of wild dirty-blond curls, and undermined by her French-manicured toenails. After a testy exchange about her hair — “Is it working for you, the curly hair?” Ms. Stanger queried — the woman said her romantic life was “abysmal.” Ms. Stanger dug in.

“What are you doing to attract men?” she asked. “Are you smiling?”

“I always smile!” There was sadness in the client’s voice.

“O.K., so where are you meeting guys?”

“Out and about, doing things, activities.”

She told Ms. Stanger she met a man at a restaurant and went out with him three times, until she got “bored.” Ms. Stanger pounced. “What do you expect, people to entertain you like a puppet show?”

The woman confessed that she ultimately wasn’t attracted to the guy because he was “meek.” Ms. Stanger charged on, advising, “Don’t judge it till you kiss it,” and ordering the woman not to come back “until you find someone you’re sexually attracted to.”

“That’s going to be a long time,” the woman told her.

“Oh my god!” Ms. Stanger hollered. “Let’s just be soooo negative!”

Newsweek: Dating tips from the Millionaire Matchmaker

'I can’t believe what comes out of her mouth'
This abrasive-to-the-point-of-abusive style of matchmaking has made Ms. Stanger famous, and her show, whose fourth season had its debut on Tuesday, a hit. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I watch the show, and my jaw is on the floor,” said Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president for original programming and development. “I can’t believe what comes out of her mouth.”

THE MILLIONAIRE MATCHMAKER -- \"Albie and Chris Manzo\" -- Pictured: (l-r) Patti Stanger, Destin Jude Pfaff, Rachel Federoff -- Photo by: Heidi Gutman/BravoHeidi Gutman / Episodic

Last April’s finale garnered a series high of almost 1.6 million viewers. Even those who generally consider themselves too refined for reality TV — the microwave dinner of the entertainment world — are closet fans. “Watching Patti rather savagely describe what’s wrong with these guys and why they have trouble getting/keeping themselves in real relationships is strangely invigorating,” wrote a blogger for the feminist magazine Bitch before fretting: “Can I continue to watch this show and write for Bitch in good conscience?”

This season, Ms. Stanger and her goth-attired associates moved their enterprise from Los Angeles to New York City, where they confront clueless millionaires who, much like their California analogues, believe that wealth should guarantee them a young, gorgeous mate. Alas, this is not true on either coast. New York makes ‘Sex and the City’ look like a “cakewalk,” Ms. Stanger announced during the first episode, in which she attempted to pair off Bryce Gruber, the captious, tightly coiled millionairess owner of, and Derek Tabacco, an endearingly amenable Staten Island Internet entrepreneur. (Later in the season, Ms. Stanger will contend with Freddie Mitchell, the retired Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, and Judith Regan, the fallen media queen, of whom Ms. Stanger says: “When she dates, she’s an angel.”)

Stanger to Kardashian: Stay away from Mayer!

In the practical, thoroughly Darwinian universe of Patti Stanger, anyone in search of a partner should simply follow her guidelines. Women must enhance their appearance by whatever means necessary: religiously caring for their skin (“I don’t care if you’re tired — do you want a husband or not?”), or growing out and straightening their hair (“Men like long, flowing locks. They just do”). Men, for their part, need to remember that a woman must be wooed. “I don’t care if you have to take me to Olive Garden,” she said, “you’ve got to take out the c.c. you know?” In other words, the credit card. And both men and women must adhere to the dictum on which Ms. Stanger refuses to budge: No sex without an “exclusive, committed, monogamous relationship.” (The producers make sure to capture the expressions of the men as they process this wholly radical idea.)

Isn’t this all a bit old-fashioned, even reactionary? “I consider it realistic,” said Ms. Stanger, who comes from three generations of matchmaking women. “We are programmed, since the beginning of time, to be this way. You ain’t gonna change the DNA just because it’s a new generation, a new millennium, whatever.”

Ms. Stanger’s own dark hair is aggressively straight and as glossy as marble; evidently she follows the advice she dispenses. She looks eerily young, at least a decade short of her 49 years, a feat that does not appear to have been achieved by artificial means. Instead of her usual outré on-screen uniform (the minidress, dangling holiday-ornament earrings and towering high heels) she was wearing a casual all-black ensemble of jeans, blouse, flats. The diamond heart pendant glimpsed in every episode, an apt amulet if ever there was one, rested in the divot above her clavicle. A modest bracelet of deep-amber beads dangled from her wrist. “Tiger’s-eye,” she said. “They demagnetize negativity. I attract a lot of takers.”

Latest in long line of female relationship gurus
Ms. Stanger — uncensored, irreverent and disarmingly charismatic — is but the latest in a long line of female relationship gurus, from Helen Gurley Brown, to Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, the co-authors of “The Rules,” who purport to know a thing or two about the sexes. But unlike Ms. Gurley Brown, whose message was addressed to the woman who had sex (preferably lots of it) out of wedlock and was less interested in marriage than in, as she wrote in her 1962 classic, “Sex and the Single Girl,” “squirming, worming, inching, and pinching [her] way to the top” — of the career ladder, that is — Ms. Stanger holds pair-bonding as the ultimate goal. “I don’t believe anyone’s better off single,” she said. “I don’t think marriage is for everyone, but at the end of the day, everybody wants to fall asleep in the spoon position.”

Her rules for getting clients there are not, it bears noting, the same as those other Rules that rose to infamy in the late ’90s. There’s some overlap, to be sure (that you can’t change men, everyone seems to agree), but Ms. Stanger does not advise women to be passive, retiring, delicate orchids. Hers is not a calculated, gaming method for seducing a man by effacing yourself. (“Write Light and Breezy E-mails” and “Don’t Answer on Weekends or Holidays” are two chapter titles in “The Rules for Online Dating,” published in 2002.) Instead, she recommends staring at men, striking up conversations, and always, always returning calls.

Although the show’s title speaks to an antiquated Cinderella fantasy of marrying a rich man, Ms. Stanger’s actual message is more sentimental than materialistic. “The 4:1 rule: every four times he takes you out, do something nice for him,” she posted on Twitter (a repository of her philosophy distilled). Her traditionalism is, at times, paradoxically progressive: “Do not ever ask for anything of monetary value. He is your potential soul mate, not your bank.”

During each episode, the male millionaires Ms. Stanger sets up receive a verbal drubbing as they neglect — or outright refuse — to follow her uncompromising directives. She tells these hapless men how to act, how to dress, what kind of date to plan. “You want to do it my way, or you want to be single forever?” she asked Mr. Tabacco, the Staten Island entrepreneur, as he sputtered in protest upon hearing her no-commitment-no-sex commandment. “You’ll be in the nursing home hitting on the nurse because there’s no one else to hit on,” she warned Lonnie, a “player” from the first season who tells her he’d prefer “a young girl with big fake guzungas.” And when a squat former child actor flew into a rage as she tried to rehab his wardrobe, she sighed: “He’s an angry Hobbit, what can I do?”

There are few pleasures so guilty as witnessing Ms. Stanger compress her theories of dating into pungent epigrams. “They want Madonna in the bedroom, Martha Stewart in the kitchen and Mary Poppins in the nursery,” she says of the men who seek her help. “Did the flagpole raise on anyone?” she asked Jeff, a software developer who dresses like the illusionist Criss Angel. She often puts this notion far more crudely: “The penis does the picking.”

Indeed, she acknowledges the mystery and importance of chemistry — a concession to the modern idea of romantic love that a classical matchmaker would not make — but she also pushes men toward women (and gay men toward men) who are age-appropriate and accomplished. To a homosexual male client who admitted that his sole criteria for a mate is “good-looking” and “in shape,” she replied: “But looks fade, and dumb is forever,” an aphorism that has been celebrated all over the Internet.

I asked Ms. Stanger whether she considers herself a feminist. We had moved into the conference room at the Marina del Rey office, its walls adorned with framed posters from romantic old movies like “Casablanca” and “Roman Holiday,” and Ms. Stanger was soliloquizing about the challenge of “retaining our feminism, as well as our femininity,” at a time when so many women are “surpassing men financially.”

She slammed the table with one palm. “I’m sorry! I didn’t pick Gloria Steinem to be my poster girl. I want my dinner paid for and I want my car door opened. But here’s the deal. At work, if I can multitask and make more money for your company, then you should pay me more than a man, if not equal. When you’re in a relationship, it’s completely different. If I make money, and you’re not willing to swim the ocean, climb a mountain, and bring back the bacon” — she suddenly began to yell, like Emilio Estevez in “The Breakfast Club” — “then you don’t deserve me! Then snip-snip-snip” —she gestured as though employing scissors as a tool of castration — “and I’m onto the next hunter.”

In the end, most of her tips for getting her clients over themselves and into a match are basic and as old as the hills. Go out to dinner (“Coffee is cheap, drinks are an audition, lunch is an interview”), don’t talk only about yourself (“No one wants to be an extra in the movie of your life,” she tells an egomaniacal film director), be genuinely open to a real commitment. “The Millionaire Matchmaker” lays out an ethical code of dating, which both parties must follow in gender-specific ways. If reductionist, it also seems manageably straightforward — pay for dinner, get the girl; blow out your hair, nab the guy — and this surely accounts for much of the show’s appeal.

'I was ready to build an empire with someone'
A self-made career woman originally from Short Hills, N.J., who began in the garment business and worked a series of one-off jobs — as a psychic on a phone network, a coupon-insert saleswoman and a director of marketing for the dating service “Great Expectations” — before founding the Millionaire’s Club in 2000, Ms. Stanger is a fascinatingly improbable ambassador for her ideas. She has been engaged but has never married. She announced her recent breakup, from Andy Friedman, a real estate executive and her boyfriend of more than six years, via Twitter in August. His reluctance to have or adopt children was the publicly stated reason for the split, but during a phone conversation Ms. Stanger said that money was also an issue: “I don’t want to financially take care of a man. He was ready to retire and I make way more money than him. And I wasn’t ready for that. I was ready to build an empire with someone.”

Can she lead clients to the aisle, not having walked down it herself? The question annoys her. “The biggest coach in the N.F.L. — what’s his name? — has he ever played on the team? Did he ever get a Super Bowl ring? Does that mean he can’t teach?”

Over a lunch of yam noodles and low-carb lobster rolls at a sushi restaurant near her office, Ms. Stanger abruptly announced that she was “getting nervous” about dating again following her broken engagement. She was about to emerge from a self-imposed 60-day exile she calls Dating Detox. “How do I date now? I can’t even go out in public. I went out Friday night with my friends and everyone harassed me.”

“She’s in good hands,” Destin Pfaff, her mohawked guy Friday, said, smiling at Ms. Stanger while speaking of her in the third person. “She’s in better hands than she realizes.”

What kind of man would be right for her? As I asked this, it occurred to me that Ms. Stanger might be an inveterate dater, a compulsive consumer of her own product, like a designer who wears her own clothes.

“Patti needs someone who’s attentive but also distant,” Mr. Pfaff said. “Someone that can put up with a powerful woman.”

“Is this someone I know?” Ms. Stanger asked.

Do people really want to be paired off? That is the fundamental question raised by repeated viewings of “The Millionaire Matchmaker.” If only Ms. Stanger’s clients could rise above their pettiness, narcissism and perfectionism and wholeheartedly accept her advice, each show reminds us, they would live happily ever after, or at least happier for a while. Yet even when she offers them a plausible match based on intuition honed through years of experience, they find a way to push back the plate dissatisfied. Ms. Stanger is like a Cupid or fairy godmother who grants her charges a wish, and then watches in horror as they wish for exactly what she has warned them against.

Ms. Stanger claims that the Millionaire’s Club has a 99 percent success rate. On the show, she doesn’t come close to that number, no doubt because smooth sailing does not make for juicy television. But Ms. Stanger is right even when the pairing is wrong; she always knows when (and this may be a reality show contrivance) a client has chosen against his or her best interests. We can almost see her thinking, to borrow a phrase from Puck, another matchmaker of sorts, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

The show reminds regular folks that seemingly privileged people are, despite their wealth or beauty, flawed human beings who often reject each other on trifling grounds and are unable to translate their hopes into realities.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.