Need a real-life pal for a day? Just look online
sites offer to match parties of one with companions for hire
In a not-so-secret double life, Jennifer Morrison is simply “Jennifer,” platonic friend for hire.
The reservation-taker at a popular Las Vegas restaurant has accepted cash to show an introverted, out-of-town computer programmer around the Pinball Hall of Fame and the Bellagio’s famous dancing fountains.
A bored grandmother from the Midwest visiting relatives hired her for an afternoon movie. A stay-at-home mom who was new to the area paid her to come over to do some scrapbooking. Morrison, 31, met a traveling businessman at the airport with a folder of research he had requested on things to do and helped him rent a car.
It’s all because of a new arrival to the Web-fueled, rent-an-anything revolution: Rentafriend.com.
“You look at a site like this and think, ‘Oh, they must all be escorts or it’s a dating site or something,’” said Morrison, a mother of a 2-year-old who signed on with the blessing of her husband. “When I first saw it, I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was kind of sad that people have to do this.”
Although Morrison is happy to meet new people and make a little extra money, charging $20 to $30 an hour, she’s not the only one to think lonely thoughts about the 7-monthold service modeled on similar, hugely successful sites in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
In a world where friend is a verb and you might never meet some of yours from Facebook in real life, where research indicates chronic loneliness can lead to depression, suicide, high blood pressure and viral infections, where about 20 percent of all people — 60 million in the United States alone — say they feel lonely at any given moment, is renting a friend a solution or stopgap?
“The real question is: Is it solving anyone’s problems? My first reaction was to roll my eyes, but it may in fact help people meet others and get back into circulation,” said John Cacioppo, a social neuroscience researcher and co-author of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Interaction.” However, “if it’s used as a substitute for meaningful face-to-face relationships, it’s not going to work.”
Rentafriend receives 100,000 unique views every month and has nearly 2,000 members who pay $24.95 a month, or $69.95 a year, for a login and password so they can peruse the photos and profiles of 167,000-plus possible pals.
Christopher Barton, 31, of Boulder City, Nev., first tried Rentafriend about six months ago during a business trip training clients for an online university. Living on the road, he hates to eat alone in restaurants and wants to make the most of his downtime.
“I’m in different cities all the time,” he said. “You kind of get a tour guide, to a certain extent.”
Barton chooses young, attractive women because “I’d just feel weird paying to go out with a guy.” A rent-a-pal in Chicago took him to a fun, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that he never would have found himself. In New Orleans, he and another rental hit Cafe du Monde in the French Market and Jackson Square.
Started by Scott Rosenbaum in Stewartsville, N.J., a former marketer for dating websites, Rentafriend has some competition from other services that will make platonic matches for a fee, such as Rentalocalfriend. com for travelers.
The difference, he said, is Rentafriend allows the renter to make a pick, negotiating the cost and making arrangements one-on-one through e-mail or phone calls.
“People e-mail me all the time about it: ‘Is it legal? Is it really platonic?’ There’s no 100 percent way to be sure, but we have zero tolerance if a friend says they were solicited. There’s no second chance,” Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum’s site, like the similar ones in Japan, has people renting for lots of different reasons. Two students rented parents to meet with college officials after they were caught drinking on campus. A woman once hired a college girl to visit her mother in a nursing home three days a week after she moved away.
“In Japan and China, they’re more cultural because having a full family is so important,” he said. “It’s common to rent a fill-in family member for a wedding, like a father figure or someone to stand in as an important uncle to give a toast.”
Rosenbaum’s site is set up for search by ZIP code. His rentals skew toward young users, with most ranging from 20 to 35, though there are plenty in their 40s and 50s. Hourly fees can range from $10 to as high as $150 but are usually between $20 and $50.
“When you look at the profiles, there’s tons of things people want to do,” said Barton, who’s an actor on the side. “You can kind of pick and choose and find a profile of somebody who’s into what you’re into. It’s a better kind of experience than going around by yourself.”
Morrison mentions her husband and child in her Rentafriend profile and offers that she dances Tahitian style and hip-hop. “If you need someone to work out with or just hang out, I am your girl. I’m pretty peppy and bubbly if you just need a smile and I have lived a life of someone twice my age if you need an ear and some advice.”
She has a full-time job, but Rentafriend has helped her earn a little extra money. “I’m trying to save more. … I treat it like a business, but it isn’t my profession,” Morrison said.
Ori Brafman, co-author of “Click: The Magic of Instant Connections,” said the Rentafriend concept “seems really tragic, kind of surreally tragic” in ways that sex services don’t because it represents the worst kind of social isolation.
“The danger isn’t Rentafriend per se, but rather what it symbolizes,” he said. “We purchase fleeting replacements because, as a society, we lack those close, meaningful bonds that are so essential.”
Does Barton consider himself lonely? Not really. He has buddies but doesn’t have a girlfriend — and he isn’t using Rentafriend to find one.
“If I did have a girlfriend, she’d probably want to know what was going on,” he said. “I’d use it a little less probably, or maybe I’d start paying guys.”
Christopher Barton doesn’t have a girlfriend but says finding one isn’t his purpose for using Rentafriend: ‘I’m in different cities all the time. You kind of get a tour guide, to a certain extent.’