In Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand’s classic 1897 play, the large-nosed titular character desperately wants to confess his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxanne, but worries she will never return the compliment because he is too ugly. He devises a devilish solution that still brings delight to literature students today, writing a series of romantic letters under the name of his more handsome rival, Christian.
James Preece, a self-styled “dating guru” based in London, might not look much like Cyrano, the long-haired French novelist, but he arguably performs much the same service. Author of I Will Make You Click: Online Dating Secrets Revealed (CreateSpace, £14.99), the 43-year-old has built something of a roaring trade over the past decade as a ‘cyber Cyrano’, who impersonates his clients on dating websites in order to find them love.
For £1,800 a month, he takes over his client’s profile on a website like Match.com, Plenty of Fish, or OkCupid, helping them to choose “amazing pictures” and to present a charming impression of their personality in their “About You” section. Then, he logs in to his client’s account and, pretending to be them, sends messages on their behalf, employing “humour and a bit of cheekiness” to acquire a phone number, which he then hands over to his client. The person on the other end need never know.
His clients range from 25 to 73 years old, but most of those he mentions are middle-aged or elderly men who have been out of the dating scene for many years and simply cannot get to grips with the world of online dating, where the choice is overwhelming but quality candidates seem few and far between. Many are divorcees who, after decades of stable marriage, are plunged into a world in which one in three relationships now begin online, according to research published last year by London’s Imperial College Business School.
“Many people have not got a clue how to do online dating,” says Preece, who met his own wife on the website MySpace 12 years ago. “They get it wrong and they give up so quickly.
“I always start with meeting or speaking to the person, getting to know them, working out what’s gone wrong and what their frustrations are. I also teach them how to speak on the phone.”
Some clients arrive at his door because they are tired of the endless rejection of online romance. “If they get rejected, it’s me getting rejected. Dating has become more disposable now. People will not put much effort into it, because they say: ‘I’ve got two more dates lined up.’”
Others have fallen victim to romance scams and employ Preece to weed out potential ne’er-do-wells. One client, in his late sixties, came to him after he was targeted by a number of foreign fraudsters posing as attractive women. Preece says he becomes suspicious when matches have a poor grasp of English or refuse to speak over the phone: “If someone’s too good to be true, they usually are.”
Preece speaks with a kind sensitivity about his clients, who, he seems to think, are poorly attuned to the modern mores of online dating. Matt Prager, on the other hand, a former Hollywood screenwriter who now performs a similar “cyber Cyrano” service from his Brooklyn apartment, is brutally honest about his clients’ romantic shortcomings.
“Have you met any lawyers?” he replies when I ask why his clients are so bad at finding love online. “[They can’t do] the basic give-and-take of a response. In order to keep an online conversation going, you have to ask questions, some thread to keep the dialogue going. So if someone says: ‘I had a fever this weekend’, [you might respond], ‘Oh, are you feeling better?’ But they don’t.”
Although he also provides a more simple romance coaching service, the clients who employ him as a Cyrano are mostly “extremely rich” middle-aged and elderly men, including many Brits. Author of You In Print (Kindle, £2.27), he charges them between $2,500 and $3,000 (£1,900 and £2,300) each month for the full online package.
Every day, he sees men who have chosen terrible photographs for their dating profile; many have their faces obscured by sunglasses, and others don’t even show themselves, preferring something like a “desert landscape” instead.
But he thinks women are even worse at finding love online. “Women are way better at marketing themselves in reality: they’ll dress up and put on something nice. But online, [their profiles] basically read like a ransom note: ‘I want someone smart, sexy, well-off, and I better have it by tomorrow or the kid gets it.’ It’s just a list of demands, which is not the same thing as marketing yourself.”
Once Prager has arranged a real-life date, he goes as far as giving his client a “cheat sheet” with all the information they should already know from their faked online exchanges. “Clients will look at it, like, three minutes before they walk into the date, and they’ll come out sounding like a genius. ‘Oh, what did ever happen with Betsy?’.”
Both Prager and Preece claim that most of the women on the receiving end simply do not care, if and when they eventually find out. Prager was recently invited to a client’s wedding, for example; the bride was fully aware of his role in setting them up. Another time, Prager’s client went out with a woman who told him: “I have something to confess: I have a 13-year-old son.’” His client replied: “I also have something to confess: you haven’t been talking to me for the last six weeks.” She laughed and “no one cared”, Prager says.
But in a world of romance fraud and ‘catfishing’ – whereby someone cultivates a fake persona on social media that has little bearing on their true identity – some are worried about what information we share online. Benjamin Daly, author of Appily Ever After: A Woman’s Guide to Online Dating (Kindle, £5.99), says: “I can understand why [using a ‘cyber Cyrano’] would be tempting because online dating is so time-consuming and emotional. But it really is unethical. You’re misrepresenting yourself. It’s misleading to the person you are potentially meeting.” Practically speaking, he thinks it is also an unhealthy footing on which to start a relationship.
Does he have a point, I ask the cyber Cyranos? “In the world of the internet, you think that’s the worst thing – four or five [messages] you thought were somebody else?” replies Prager. “These people are being upfront except for this one area. I actually like to believe the person on the receiving end benefits, because if you’re willing to pay someone, you must have some interest in dating.”
Preece has equally few qualms: “All I do is the first couple of messages. I’m not dealing with emotions, I’m not trying to trick them. Anybody could manage your account. Children do it for their parents nowadays, it’s not unusual. The fact I’m just really good at it is irrelevant.
“It’s nothing to worry about.”
Perhaps – although not if you ask Cyrano de Bergerac himself, who ends the play by collapsing to death in a crumpled heap on stage. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Would you use a ‘cyber Cyrano’? Share your thoughts in the comments below.