02.22.10

The Cattiest Matchmaker

Millionaire Matchmaker’s Patti Stanger tells Emily Gould why she shouldn't date a poor guy, why she should get highlights, and why—even for Stanger—divorce is always an option.

Via an announcement that dovetailed nicely with the news that her Bravo reality show would be renewed for a third season, Us Weekly readers learned this summer that Patti Stanger, the 48-year-old Amazon whose bitchy brand of tough love has endeared her to viewers, was finally taking her own advice: "Millionaire Matchmaker Is Engaged!" trumpeted the headline. The item went on to give the size of the ring (4 carats) and the name of the black swan who delivered it (Raymond).

The highly public engagement seems to have mellowed Patti. This season—new episodes air Tuesdays at 10 p.m., and have been drawing 1.2 million viewers a week—she's been saving much of the vitriol she used to spew at women who don't meet her L.A. beauty standard (spray-tan, large hair, fake, but not ostentatiously fake, boobs) for the men who have hired her. Her focus has clearly shifted—now she's more concerned with molding these men into dateable shape than with finding them dates. It's hard work, she says.

"You're gonna end up having sex, thinking he's cute, and then he can't afford to pay for your Caesar salad…"

"I think men have lost their balls," she says to me, when I ask whether there's a "crisis of masculinity" in America. "I think they're hiding them somewhere and they haven't taken them out of the closet and dusted them off."

We're eating roast chicken and salads at the Cucina under Rockefeller Plaza, where I've joined Patti and her entourage immediately after her Valentine's-themed appearance on the Today show.

In person, Patti is prettier—less orange—but otherwise exactly the same as she is on television. Exactly. She speaks in those signature Patti koans—"poor with ambition is a mogul"—gesticulating with her French-manicured hands, describing all men in terms of their "hunterish" qualities, worrying constantly about whether someone will "carpe diem," or accusing someone of not "carpe diem-ing," which is her term for closing a deal, romantically. This is exactly how she talks to her hench-matchmakers, Destin and Chelsea, in the opening moments of each episode of the show, as they screen tapes of the millionaires they'll be matching up that week.

After they've gotten a sense of what the men want (or think they want), a typical episode follows Patti and her staff through the process of cattle-call style "castings," which then lead to "mixers" with the guys. Then they rehabilitate the millionaires with the help of various life coaches and gurus. The episodes conclude with the dates, which usually go badly—often thanks to the men's ineptitude at basic human decency. Last season, one millionaire peed in front of his date. This season, one made a joke about his date being a hooker, then brought her home to meet his monkey. Not a euphemism! "I've never petted a monkey before!" the date gamely said.

Just like on the show, Patti says "gonna" and "gotta" and "balls" a lot, her flirtatious little-girl voice deepening when she's making the ironclad proclamations about how to get love/money that have earned her all those fascinated fans. Some of this advice is general, but about halfway into our lunch, she starts focusing on the project of me.

"Look at your hair," she says—chiding, yes, but more mildly than I'd expected. "I would get a little more highlights." I used to get them, I say, but I haven't been able to afford it for… well, however long it takes for hair to grow about eight inches.

"But if you think of that $200 every six weeks as, like, an investment in your man future… you should always have a little fund that you play with, on the side, and you say, I am not going to spend this weekend buying five drinks at the bar this weekend at $15 a pop. You can always get men to buy you drinks. Maybe you buy the first one, but not the second one. There's tricks to the trade. Maybe you're not gonna spend $500 on a dress that you wear twice. Maybe you go to Loehmann's instead."

Now that Patti is in advising-mode, she's unstoppable.

"You have to say to yourself, I can't roll out of bed and expect that gorgeous guy at the bar who is looking at his newspaper and waiting for his client to show up to look at me if I don't match him," she says. "An eight can be with a 10, but that 10 isn't going to be with a six. And if highlights can take you from a six to an eight"— she smiles, not unkindly, in the direction of my braid—"then those highlights pay for themselves."

I try to make it clear to Patti that I'm not looking to land some jerky millionaire. But I also mentioned—it just popped out!—that I've never dated anyone who makes much more money than I do, and as far as Patti's worldview is concerned, this seems to mean that I'm single.

"I empower women to make their own money—then they have the right to make their own decision," Patti has said on her show. And she does occasionally have female clients (she refers to them as "millionairesses.") But despite those rare reversals, the fact remains that Patti—via her XM radio show, her matchmaking service, and her Bravo show—has made her own millions by exploiting America's still-profound sexual inequality: She reinforces the idea that marrying wealthy men is the most reliable way for women to achieve financial stability.

Patti is honest about her role in this system. This is just how things are, she's saying, and if you want to be idealistic about your love-life, you're in denial—and you can feel very free to stay there, and screw yourself over. Or you can get the highlights. It's very simple.

I ask her if it's OK to date a poor guy. "Yes, of course!" she says.

But there are just a few caveats:

"You're gonna end up having sex, thinking he's cute, and then he can't afford to pay for your Caesar salad…"

I look down at the salad. "It was only $6…"

"Exactly, and you're gonna think, what a loser, why am I paying for all the meals, you're gonna resent him, you're gonna close your legs, you're gonna resent him, you're gonna close your legs, you're gonna look for other men, he's gonna get cantankerous and mean…"

"It's like you're describing my early 20s."

"You've gotta remember, the secret to a relationship whether you're rich or poor is balance."

"Meaning, like, equality?"

"If a woman makes more money than a man, the minute she pays for everything, she becomes the man. If she chooses to be the man, if she enjoys being the man, if she doesn't want to be a female, it's OK. It works if the guy is OK with being the female."

Patti's fiancé, Andy Friedman, has sat silently through most of this, occasionally quietly interjecting a protest when he's concerned that Patti is violating Bravo's rules—revealing former clients' last names or personal details. Mostly, though, he's been quietly polishing off a dish of mac 'n' cheese—he's the only person at the table who has ordered carbs.

Patti's unmarried status had been a major plot point during Millionaire Matchmaker's second season. Tension peaked when a chesty blonde who was dissatisfied that her time in Patti's stable hadn't resulted in a match crashed a mixer in order to take Patti to task about not practicing what she ostensibly preached. "Where's your ring, Patti?" the crasher screeched. In a later episode, Patti visited a "soulmate psychic," who told her that the decision about marriage was in her hands. "I'm just not sure I want to give up my power," Patti told her. This sentiment, coming from an independently wealthy entrepreneur in early middle age, seemed refreshingly realistic. What had changed Patti's mind?

It turns out that Patti always wanted to be married, but Andy had wanted to wait—he'd told her that he needed to be with her five years before they could marry. She flipped out at first, she says, but then adjusted to a situation that grew to seem ideal. "I basically didn't date anyone else, we were still monogamous, but we lived in separate homes—and I waited. I got really busy in my business, and clearly I did something right, because look where I am now."

Now everything is coming together for Patti. Business is booming, and she's planning a wedding—"not only will it make me happy, it'll make my parents happy. It's a nice little custom." And if things don't work out, well, "there's always divorce." Patti's mother was married three times, and, she says, it taught her not to believe in soulmates but in "lifemates'—you say 'til death do us part,' but that doesn't mean physical death, that means if your souls aren't growing at the same rate... you can say goodbye." She will have a prenup.

Why the fuss about the ring and forever if you really just mean "forever, maybe?" I keep asking, and Patti keeps dodging until finally I realize that she doesn't have a pat answer for this question. I begin to wonder why I'd expected her, or anyone, to have one. Finally, she turns fully toward me, pure sympathy in her beautifully made-up eyes.

"Everyone says they don't want to get married at some point, but you, what are you, you're 25?"

I'm 28.

"Whoo!" she says, and rolls her eyes. "Talk to me when you're 35, then we'll have a discussion."

On a recent episode, a millionaire was shepherded by Patti into dating a woman closer to his age, which was 50, than he'd have really liked. Ultimately, though, the millionaire rejected this age-appropriate woman, though she had her own millions (a second-act surprise) and even knew how to fix his Harley. It seemed that Patti had called it right when she'd first watched his video. Chelsea had been smitten with the man's telegenic good looks, but Patti wasn't quite buying it.

"There's something really wrong with him," she said. "Otherwise he wouldn't be here."

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Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, to be published by Free Press in May 2010. She writes at www.emilymagazine.com and lives in Brooklyn.