“RentAFriend”—it’s exactly what it sounds like, although not exactly as weird as it sounds.
Founded in 2009, the “strictly platonic friendship website” profits off “Members” who are charged $24.95 a month for access to the company’s worldwide database of over 600,000 rentable “Friends,” who create free profiles and then lease themselves out for anywhere from $10 to $50 an hour.
But while the idea of meeting up with online strangers who pay by the minute for your companionship may seem incredibly sleazy at worst or simply awkward at best, almost all of the professional Friends I interviewed by phone said their experiences were wholly wholesome, completely comfortable, and sometimes even a bit fun.
I could barely hide my disappointment.
“I’ve been lucky — and also, kind of, I guess, for you, unlucky — in the sense that I don’t really have any crazy stories,” said Tara, a professional athlete in California who told me she makes $200 to $300 extra a month by being a Friend. “It’s all been pretty normal, down-to-earth people that just generally don’t have someone else to call, or just don’t want to.”
I did, indeed, feel unlucky not to come across any wild anecdotes about eccentric Members. Yet the conversation did inspire a new idea: Why not hire a Friend myself, and share what it’s like to be a Member?
Setting Up the Perfect Friend Date
I contacted RentAFriend’s Friendship Coordinator, Jessica Rose, who paired me with a nearby Friend in Chicago named Lauren Little. We agreed to meet up at Map Room, one of my favorite coffee shops/bars in the city’s Bucktown neighborhood.
The Penny Hoarder editors liked the idea so much they told me they were flying in photographer Carmen Mandato to capture images of my “Friend date,” which I then scheduled to run from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., so that we could start socializing in broad daylight and continue talking on into the “golden hour.”
“If I’m going to be photographed paying a woman to talk to me, I’d better make sure I look good doing it”, I thought and began excitedly pondering my outfit. This turned out to be the least of my concerns.
First, a scheduling snafu forced us to change our meet-up time from 3 to 5:30 p.m., which meant we’d only have about two hours of daylight for the photo shoot.
Then on the day before our rendezvous, I went to a White Sox game and committed two unforced errors: 1. Forgetting to wear sunscreen and 2. Being a ginger.
How Real Friends Can Prepare You for RentAFriend
When I got home I realized just how badly I’d burned myself, and desperately texted one of my (real, pro bono) friends, asking if she knew of any way that I might fix my fire engine complexion before picture day.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, she offered to meet me at Walgreens for an impromptu cosmetics shopping spree and makeup tutorial. I hurried to join her at the drugstore, where I spent a small fortune in makeup.
Back at her apartment, my friend patiently showed me how to dab my beet-like nose with tiny dots of concealer and then gently blend them together, then brush on a light dusting of powder.
Another friend I’d solicited advice from recommended I moisturize overnight, so the rest of my “interview prep” that evening consisted of smearing gobs of pure petroleum jelly on my face, and then trying to fall asleep in a position that would prevent pillowcases covered in goo streaks.
The next morning, I called Mandato to finalize our schedule and casually mentioned my plan to doll myself up a bit with makeup.
She strongly discouraged the idea, insisting that I appear au naturel. “Also, the worst thing you can do is wear any kind of lotion, because it makes your face appear very shiny,” she cautioned.
I looked in the mirror and saw my greased-up disco ball of a head staring back at me.
It was frowning.
After applying a lather, rinse, repeat treatment to my Vaseline-coated face, I walked my #NoMakeup self over to Map Room at around 5 p.m. Without the Cover Girl, I was already feeling a bit self-conscious about not looking my easiest or breeziest. Mandato noted that my hot pink shirt only emphasized the fact that my hair and face were the same shade of fuschia.
Maybe she can change it to a blue shirt in post, I thought nervously.
The more pressing concern, however, was that Little’s Uber was being slowed down by rush hour traffic.
Hi, We’re Friends Now
When Little arrived with only a couple hours of sunlight left, the pressure was on to forge an instantaneous connection for our photo session.
“Hi, I’m Patrick — thanks for rushing over from work,” I said enthusiastically, shaking Little’s hand as soon as it passed through the door at approximately 5:45 p.m. “Uh, where do you work by the way?”
Little said that for the last year, she has been selectively accepting administrative assistant gigs from temp agencies to allow time in her schedule for modeling or acting assignments.
Raised in northern New Jersey, Little moved to Taiwan after graduating high school for what was initially supposed to be a six-month volunteer program teaching children at a summer camp.
“It ended up becoming six months, and then another six months, and then three years, and then eight years,” she said.
A tantalizing cliffhanger, but about as far as I got in her life story before we had to abandon our drinks and join Mandato in moving the action a half-mile south to Chicago’s unimaginatively named, yet-scenic, Park No. 567.
There, Little and I made small talk and strolled through the surroundings as photogenically as possible. We made our way up the winding path to the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated greenway built on the bones of an old railroad track.
All of this was second nature to Little, a professional model who has appeared in television commercials and photo shoots for companies like Groupon and Aldi. She told me the biggest thing she’d done recently had been a print ad for Sheraton Hotels, in which she played one of the upscale resort chain’s pastry chefs.
“I was pouring milk from a jar into a cup,” she explained of her role in the shoot. “I did that over and over and over again… for four hours.”
She explained that they were trying to capture the image in every possible lighting condition — a luxury we were not afforded as twilight settled in and it started to get cold on the bridge.
We headed to Tea Bar by Easthill, an apt setting for Little to finish telling me about her time spent in Asia and start with RentAFriend. She confidently ordered us a pot of Oriental Beauty, an oolong tea produced in Taiwan’s Hsinchu County that she had warm, nostalgic memories of drinking during her time abroad.
Little didn’t have any friends in the Windy City when she arrived here in 2014, so she started seeking them out through sites like Meetup and RentAFriend.
Little’s Start with RentAFriend
Little’s first experience as a hired Friend was helping to plan and attend the bridal shower of a newly engaged law school student.
“Her mom and dad were, like, really excited for her to have a bridal shower with all of her lovely girlfriends that she had from law school,” Little said. “And she was like, ‘Well actually, I study, and I’m an introvert, and I don’t go out, and I have no friends, and my two friends are both guys…’”
But rather than come clean about the sad state of her social life, the bride-to-be rented out four Friends from RentAFriend, including Little, to populate her party.
The betrothed also paid Little to meet up with her twice before the shindig — once for coffee and once to do some party planning — all the while being sure to document each interaction.
“[She took] selfies of us going to get some drinks and going to get some decorations,” Little said. “So we had some pictures leading up to the event, so it wasn’t like I just appeared out of nowhere.”
Cons and Criticism From Friends and Family
It’s not a coincidence that both of those interactions have been with women. Little’s RentAFriend profile states she is only friends with “Gay Men, Straight Women, Gay Women and Bi Women,” with “Straight Men” being conspicuously absent from the list. (She apparently made an exception for me. Either that, or my first name and fuchsia coloring led her to believe I was more cartoon starfish than man).
She said her clear stipulations, however, still haven’t deterred disconcertingly middle-aged straight dudes from messaging her about going out for drinks.
Nor has it stopped others from side-eyeing Little’s use of the site. When she told her Facebook friends about becoming a RentAFriend Friend, she found their responses were less than friendly.
“I got attacked, by like, everyone that’s on my Facebook,” she laughs, “Like, ‘Oh no, what are you doing, you’re selling yourself for money online! Lauren, what has your life become?’”
To those who doubt the legitimacy of the RentAFriend experience, Little reflected, “I mean they have an app for, what is it called, Cuddlr or something? Where you can rent somebody to come hug you?” She laughs. “Like, that… I don’t know.”
Little said she doesn’t see much of a difference between being a Friend and engaging in more traditional forms of performance. “That’s what you do when you’re modeling,” she said. “They are using your image for something and you’re getting paid for it.”
She also added that she’s become actual friends with the woman whose baby shower she was hired to help organize and attend.
Little said her RentAFriend experiences have benefitted more than her bank account. “It inspired me to think about the whole aspect of being rented for your time like that.”
And working in the service industry and as an actress, those people skills go a long way. “I was like, this is really great, I can literally be anybody’s friend at a moment in time.”
As she graciously poured another cup of hot tea, I smiled back at her with my horrifically sun-blistered face and couldn’t agree more.
I had a fun time on our outing. And in general, I’m glad that Lauren and others like her have been able to befriend others for fun and profit, but there’s still something that makes me uncomfortable about the commodification of companionship.
I may be vain and pathetic enough to spend $33 on Cover Girl makeup that I ultimately never even ended up wearing, but I hope I never get to the point where I need to hire a Friend to teach me how to layer it properly.
Patrick Grieve is a writer living in Chicago who swears this is the first time he’s ever paid a girl $100 to be seen with him in public.
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