Dating agencies are booming, but what actually goes on behind the scenes – and can you really meet the man of your dreams? Samm Taylor reports.
For Karen Mooney, weddings are an occupational hazard. On average, she attends 20 a year, sometimes more. Then there are the christenings, hen nights and baby showers – to say nothing of first birthday parties and significant anniversaries.
Because Karen, a petite blonde, is a one-woman cupid. Since founding her company, Sara Eden Personal Introductions, in 1988, she’s been the romantic catalyst behind more than 1,000 marriages. Quite a success rate.
“I still get a thrill when someone invites me to their wedding,” Karen grins as she sits in her office at the company headquarters in Windsor, Berkshire. “How many other jobs give you the chance to watch someone’s life totally change in the space of a few months?”
Looking for Love
Photographs of happy couples line the walls, while files overflow with thank-you letters and honeymoon postcards. “Dating agencies aren’t about lonely misfits who don’t have a social life and can’t make friends,” explains Karen. “They are for intelligent, well-rounded people, who are looking for someone special and a meaningful long-term relationship.”
As if to prove her point, a tall brunette arrives in reception looking a little flustered. “Hi I’m Charlotte,” she says. “Sorry I’m late, I’ve been stuck at work.” Charlotte looks every inch the confident career woman; she’s certainly not a no-hoper. She hands over three forms of identification – a requirement for anyone who signs up with the agency – and is given a sheaf of paperwork, before being ushered upstairs for an interview with Helen, a senior consultant.
“See what I mean?” Karen whispers. “Charlotte is 37, she’s stunning, she runs her own marketing business and has a flat overlooking the Thames – yet she’s still single. Although she’s attractive, she works long hours and never gets the chance to meet people. At least this way she’s not wasting time on men who don’t want the same things in life. She’s looking for someone intelligent she can relate to.”
Modern Dating Dilemmas
Of the 2,500 people currently on Sara Eden’s books, many are in the same boat as Charlotte. All have jobs – the agency doesn’t accept applications from the unemployed, unless, of course, they have private means – and most are professionals, working in everything from the media and medicine to the RAF.
“To think I nearly didn’t pick Andrew out, because he was an inch below my height criteria – we got engaged four months after we met!” Jackie, 33.
“Today, working hours are much longer and dating has changed,” says Karen. “Women have equal opportunities and more financial independence, but it makes finding love harder. Dating agencies are one way of doing something positive to change your situation. That’s why the old stigmas have gone.”
Bizarrely, it wasn’t a broken heart that inspired Karen to set up Sara Eden, but a broken shoulder. “I was stuck at home for weeks while I recovered,” she laughs, “and every time one of the girlfriends came to visit, they’d complain about how they couldn’t find anyone decent to go out with. I sat there listening until, eventually I figured I could do something about it. That’s when I came up with the plan for an agency.”
It has been a remarkably successful – and fulfilling – venture. After starting with just a few friends, Karen now has plush offices in London as well as Windsor, and a staff of 14. Regular membership entitles the client to look through the files of current members and choose up to 10 introductions a month – with the option of freezing it for a year if you meet someone and want to see how the relationship progresses.
For those who can afford it, there is also the elite Personal Selection Service. Karen and her consultants will personally comb through the files and set up dates with suitable partners for one of their members. Extensive checks are made with prospective dates to ensure compatibility. It comes with a 95 per cent success rate for those prepared to pay, according to Karen.
“It tends to be for businessmen, surgeons, celebrities, people like that,” she says. “They have no time to go on wasted dates, and want you to find someone they are guaranteed to like. Some need to protect their identity in the initial stages, perhaps because of the jobs they do, or to ward off gold-diggers.
“I can think of one male celebrity who has been through a very expensive divorce with his first wife. He joined Sara Eden because he wanted to meet someone nice, but he also wanted to make sure the same thing didn’t happen again, so we spent a lot of time vetting women we thought would be suitable. He married one of our members six months after joining up. It’s very time-consuming, which is why its so expensive, but it works.”
Pick and Mix
It’s lunchtime, and Charlotte is about to leave. Two more hopefuls are sitting nervously in the waiting rooms. One, Chris, a 34-year-old solicitor from Guildford, Surrey, has been a member for four months after being single for a year. “I’ve met about 18 women so far, and had a great time,” he says. “I’ve made some good friends, but I still haven’t found anyone I’ve absolutely clicked with; that’s why I’ve decided to pick another 10 women to meet. To be honest, it’s a lot less nerve-racking than chatting up a woman in a bar.”
Every member has to fill out a detailed personal profile, including hobbies and future aspirations. Photographs, descriptions, vital statistics and career details are included. He profiles will then be shown to other members to see if they appeal.
Although she doesn’t act as a one-to-one matchmaker for those who don’t pay for the Personal Selection Service, if Karen, with her years of experience, spots a likely candidate for a new member, she’ll make a point of putting them forward. But it doesn’t always go to plan.
“One time, I went on about someone for ages, how he’d be just perfect for this woman. It was only when she saw his picture that she fell about laughing – it was her ex-husband. They’d recently split up after 25 years together. The break-up had been very amicable, but neither had told the other they’d joined a dating agency!”
Not everyone who applies is accepted. To put it bluntly, it you’re too old, too fat, too bruised from a past relationship or unreasonable about your requirements, you’ll be turned down or asked to reapply in a few months.
“We don’t have any hard and fast rules,” says Karen. “But we have to be confident that we can match a person, otherwise we would be taking their money unfairly, and it wouldn’t help their self-esteem.”
Often, Karen and her team reply on gut instinct. “Sometimes you have to read between the lines and know what people really want, even if they don’t know it themselves. That’s where we come in,” she says. “it isn’t rocket science; all we do is drastically increase the odds of meeting someone you’ll want to be with.”
“I’ve made good friends and been introduced to many interesting people. I haven’t met that special someone yet, but I haven’t given up hope – it’s only a matter of time” Jonathan, 29.
It’s 4:30pm and the last of the day’s interviews with potential clients is over. Consultants Miranda, Anita and Debbie have gathered in the hallway. “We’ve got another one,” chimes Anita, waving a Post-it Note in the air. “Ben just phoned to say he and Cathy are getting married in the autumn.” Karen is delighted, “They’re such a nice couple,” she says. “I knew they’d hit it off.” As she locks up, her thoughts are with her wardrobe. Another wedding means another frock. She smiles – after all, there are perks with every job…
I’m seeking a soul mate – not second best
Sarah, 38, a project manager from Fleet, Hampshire, believes a dating agency is the sensible way to meet Mr Right.
I’ve been single for six years. I’m quite independent and enjoy my own company, but I do think the time is right to meet someone else. My last relationship lasted 10 years. It was never right, but I was too young and naïve to realise it. I thought love was supposed to be a struggle – something you had to work at.
Bizarrely, the crunch came when I bought my horse, Winchester. My ex couldn’t handle it. He gave me an ultimatum – the horse or him. I chose Winchester, and I’m very glad I did! My friends still laugh about it all, but it taught me an important lesson: compromise is a good thing, but you should never sacrifice your personality or your friends – not for anyone.
I’m one of those people who don’t need a relationship to feel happy. I’ve had my fair share of married men coming on to me, and offers of sex on the boardroom table, but I want something special. I’m looking for a soul mate who will complement my life, not just fill a gap. I’ve promised myself I won’t settle for second best. I want a man who is honest and makes me laugh. Using an agency means I don’t waste time. Three of my friends have found partners through Sara Eden, so I know it works. I’ve been with them six months, and even if I don’t fancy my dates, I normally have a good evening. So far, I’ve met some incredibly interesting men. One guy, a political reporter with the BBC, took me to watch trooping the colour.
We were even in the VIP area.
Since joining, I’ve been on about 15 dates. My friends are supportive, but my mother went mad when I told her. She assumed I’d be meeting lots of strange men and putting myself – and my feelings – at risk. But as I told her, this is much safer than picking up a man in a pub. They are vetted, you speak on the phone first and there are no hidden agendas.
My membership is currently on hold, because I’ve met a lovely man through the agency. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll try again with Sara Eden. I’d recommend it to anyone. If nothing else, it’s great fun.
Why was I ‘buying’ a date?
Divorced marketing manager Daisy, 36, from Camberley admits she joined Sara Eden as a last resort
Sitting in the consultation room at Sara Eden was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my life. I kept wondering what I was doing there, and how I’d got to the point where I had to ‘buy’ a date. To be honest, I felt embarrassed, humiliated and physically sick as I filled in the forms. It’s only now, after being with the agency for a month, that I’m feeling much more positive.
Although I’m outgoing and meet lots of men, I work long hours and I’ve made a conscious decision not to get involved with anyone who works for my company, or any of my clients. But all the other men I met were either married, or younger guys with a Mrs Robinson complex. I just wanted someone compatible to share life with.
When I hit a real low point, someone suggested I try Sara Eden, because it had worked for them. Unfortunately, I was in such a state on the first day I went along, I didn’t look at the male profiles very closely. When I got home, I realised that I’d panicked and picked people on the basis of looks, without seeing if we had anything in common. One of my friends started laughing when I told her my first choice was mad on line dancing – I’d never done it in my life and I’m not sure I ever want to!
Ironically, after signing up, I actually met a couple of nice men outside the agency. I bumped into one at a function at a top London hotel. He gave me his business card and we e-mailed. I initially thought that I might have wasted my money signing up with the agency, but he turned out to be awful. Admittedly, I didn’t make as much of an effort as I could have done, as I knew there was a pool of dates around the corner.
I suspect just knowing that helped me seem more confident and attractive.
I do see a dating agency as a last-chance saloon, but there must be some genuine men out there, and the amount of money they’ve paid to be on Karen’s books suggests they are serious – now all I have to do is find one I like!
Why was I ‘buying ‘ a date?
Cherry, 54, only wanted to find male friends – she’s now been married to Ian for 10 years.
When I went to Sara Eden, I was determined not to wed again. My first marriage had been volatile and convinced me that the whole institution wasn’t for me. I just wanted to make some new male friends. At the time, I’d just set up a company specialising in event organisation. I was working hard and felt old and boring. Friends told me I was imagining it, but I knew better.
Unfortunately, most of the men I met through the agency wanted a wife. It felt like they were checking my credentials – until I saw Ian. In his photo, he was casually dressed and had a little dog. I thought he might be a bit different, so I asked Karen to get in touch. Ian was totally upfront about his background, which was very traumatic. He was an alcoholic who hadn’t touched a drink in 15 years. His wife, also an alcoholic, had died just over a year before. When he’d first contacted the agency, they’d turned him away, saying it was too soon.
It all came as a bit of a shock, but I wasn’t put off. He was obviously nice, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. On the second date, we went to the pictures and for a meal, and just clicked. Despite my original plans, getting married seemed like the right thing to do. We’d been planning a holiday to Florida, but had to cancel because of a hurricane. We were working out what to do with ourselves, when Ian said, “Well, we could get married…” We’d known each other for nine months when I walked down the aisle, and I’ll always be grateful to Karen and Sara Eden.
Ian says: I always thought dating agencies were for the depraved and desperate, so I never imagined that I’d end up marrying someone I met through one – especially after being rejected when I first tried to sign up. Not being allowed to join Sara Eden was a low point. My wife had died two months earlier, Christmas was coming, and I had no female friends. I just wanted someone to go out with. I left their office thinking, “How dare they say I’m not ready?”
But they were right – I was all over the place. And as the months passed, I realised that another agency might have taken my money and not cared. That’s why I went back.
Meeting Cherry was a surprise. She’s very attractive, but it was her love of golf that made me select her. Neither of us wanted another marriage, which took the pressure off. We started out at friends, but now we’d found our life partner. Ten years on, I still believe it.