Arran Bardige smoothes over his T-shirt and baggy jeans, glancing nervously at his phone. It’s happy hour at Patroon, a crowded rooftop bar in midtown Manhattan, where patrons in pinstripes and pencil skirts get inebriated after work and exchange business cards and, if they’re lucky, bodily fluids. This isn’t Bardige’s usual approach to meeting women, but tonight is different. He takes a deep breath, gulps down his cucumber-jalapeño margarita, and sidles up to a brunette in a particularly comely pencil skirt.
Antonio Sabato Jr., the lantern-jawed former star of General Hospital, is Bardige’s wingman for the evening. Nodding his head as he watches the scene unfold, he flashes a thumbs-up. “Arran’s doing great. He’s a funny guy, and he doesn’t even know it.” Bardige is a funny guy, and he does know it, but this nevertheless qualifies as the most astute observation Sabato will make all night as a dating coach.
Sabato, whose advice column on the “premium international dating” site AnastasiaDate debuts today, is giving Bardige a preview of what readers of his blog can expect: tips on how to woo women, put forward the best version of yourself, sound like the most desirable person on the Internet, find the mail-order Russian bride that’s right for you. His advice to Bardige is simple: “You can be funny, but you want to let her know you’re a sexual being.”
At 40, Sabato has never dated online, but he has dated Madonna. And Jennifer Love Hewitt. His sinewy pecs would fill a B-cup bra. He has no visible body hair, and he is blessed with daytime-television good looks. It’s also worth considering his other claims to fame, like taking over for Mark Wahlberg as Calvin Klein’s underwear pinup in 1990, the same year he appeared in Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” music video; playing Heather Locklear’s husband on Melrose Place; guest-starring on CSI: New York, Scrubs, and Ally McBeal; and hosting a Bachelor-like reality TV show on VH1 in which 13 women jumped out of helicopters, climbed mountains, and walked on fire in competition for Sabato’s affection (on television, at least).
In other words, Sabato’s success in dating is less determined by technique than by wealth, celebrity, and good genes. Indeed, when I ask him how shlubby guys trolling AnastasiaDate will benefit from advice from someone whose biceps are the size of my head, he answers: “I’m not training them physically, I’m training them about how to be themselves.”
In the world of serious dating coaches—not the kind indulged by former soap stars—the potential instructor can expect to navigate a labyrinth of certifications and federations. A 2008 article in the Wisconsin State Journal on the "booming" dating-coach industry charted one potential instructor's path to becoming a guru: personal experience was secondary to "becoming a Certified Professional Coach from the International Coach Academy, a program that is an accredited program with the International Coaching Federation."
And the down-on-his-luck American male, desperate for a sexual connection, will gladly empty his bank account to "learn" the art of dating. A quick search on LinkedIn reveals the demand for this tutelage is so high that the dating-coach industry has grown 15 percent in the last year, and the bigger players charge astronomical rates. Erika Ettin from A Little Nudge offers a $750-per-month (three-month minimum) “platinum package” that includes micromanaging your online dating profile, scheduling dates, answering messages, and offering pre- and post-date advice.
Sabato’s advice is free, but only to the 4 million men already paying for AnastasiaDate’s services. To interact with the Ukrainian of their choice, users end up shelling out hundreds of dollars for easily exhausted credits (one credit buys a minute of chatting via instant message, according to Forbes, and pricing starts at $16 for 20 credits). The site, which expects to make $140 million in revenue this year, did not return requests for comment on its collaboration with Sabato, but he assures me that he “really clicked” with the company and will draw on “my background, from my days when I was single and dating” to answer user questions.
Therein lies the problem: the more you listen to coaches like Sabato, the more they sound like astrologers, issuing broad, empty edicts that could apply to anyone and everyone. "Be yourself!" "Project confidence!" To the socially awkward, such advice can be a hindrance—it doesn’t really mean anything. And as studies of online dating sites routinely show—and actual field experience confirms—men frequently exaggerate their income, age, and height and generously pad their résumés. To convince your quarry, it’s best not to be yourself.
Those ambling unsuccessfully through the dating scene don't want a wall covered in degrees and certificates. Nor are they interested in Adonis-like television stars’ tips on picking up girls (the secret is to be an Adonis-like television star). It’s the charmingly mediocre man—not hugely wealthy, not exceptionally good-looking—who snags the beautiful, smart, and interesting woman worthy of study. Sometimes.
After an hour of consulting with Sabato and approaching women, Bardige leaves the bar alone with only his wingman’s business card. Sabato mentions that he met his wife— “the most exotic, beautiful woman in the world”—through mutual friends. This is how Bardige has met every other woman he’s dated, so the evening is not entirely lost on him. His only regret is not copping a feel of his dating coach’s breasts.