Need a real-life pal for a day? Just look on­line

sites of­fer to match par­ties of one with com­pan­ions for hire

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Leanne Italie

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.”

Laura Rauch As­so­ci­Ated Press

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.’

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