Zara was a beautiful divorcee. Tanned and toned from regular gym sessions, she had glossy black hair and a knockout smile.
We had met on the dating app Tinder and I decided to take her to Home House, a private members’ club in London’s Marylebone, for our first date, where she devoted the entire evening to a vituperative slating of her ex-husband.
She didn’t ask me a single question about myself. Not one. I don’t think she even noticed when I picked up the £200 tab at the end of the evening (I was raised to be chivalrous and, like most men I know, don’t mind paying if my date appreciates the gesture).
I think she was in mid-rant about her ex-husband’s filthy habit of leaving his dirty boxers on the floor as I silently handed over my credit card.
Paul Ratner, 36, (pictured) shares his online dating disasters on Bumble, Hinge and Tinder that he has ‘notched up’ over the past seven years
Glutton for punishment that I am, however, I carried on seeing 33-year-old Zara for another three months. ‘No, but you don’t understand. She’s really pretty!’ I’d protest, when friends expressed horror at some of my anecdotes.
And, to be fair, she did start asking me questions: she seemed very interested in my commercial property consultancy firm’s turnover, the value of my flat in Hampstead, North London — and whether I’d consider paying her daughter’s private school fees.
We finally called it a day shortly after her birthday. Zara made it clear that she’d really like a white Range Rover — I bought her a Chanel bath set. She texted the next day to say she was ‘happy for us to part ways’ and I responded with ‘that’s absolutely fine’.
So ended one of the many online dating disasters I have notched up over the past seven years.
Last month, divorcee Kim Thompson wrote despairingly in the Mail of the two disastrous years she had spent online dating, bemoaning the liars, bores and weirdos who seem to saturate the market. ‘Are there no decent men left?’ she lamented, as other women queued up to share their equally horrific tales of woe.
Well, Kim, I’d just like to point out that it’s just as difficult for us men ‘out there’. Lack of quality dates is not a women-only problem and mercenaries, cheats and oddballs are not restricted to the male of the species.
At least Zara was honest: she never hid the fact that her aim was to quit her job as a nail technician and for her and her daughter to live a lavish life, courtesy of a wealthy husband. I hear she’s married now and I wish her all the luck in the world.
But why is finding a life partner so difficult nowadays? My lovely parents recently celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary, having started dating aged 16 when their eyes met across a crowded Luton airport, long before internet dating had been invented.
I grew up believing that something equally wondrous would happen to me. I didn’t think it was too much to expect as, at 5ft 11in tall, solvent, dark and (I’m told) relatively handsome, I think I have a lot to offer.
After leaving Merchant Taylors’ independent school in North-West London, I went on to Warwick University to study economics and politics. I got my first job in the property business in my early 20s and, aged 25, set up my own company.
By the age of 29, I’d had four quite serious relationships but still hadn’t met anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. So, when a fellow guest at a wedding told me about the new world of app dating, my foray into Tinder, Bumble and Hinge began.
Never did I imagine that now, at the ripe old age of 36 — a time in my life when I expected to have children and to be spending my weekends flying kites and enjoying dinner parties with other parents — I would still be single.
Is it because I’m especially picky? I don’t think so. What I’m looking for in a wife is someone with a sense of fun who is intelligent and attractive — I don’t think that’s asking too much, do you?
Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that my bizarre and disastrous experience with Zara is far from unique.
Another date I’ll never forget was Isabelle: a gorgeous, olive-complexioned 31-year-old estate agent, of Greek descent, whom I first came across on the dating app Hinge in about 2013.
I arranged to meet her for drinks at the London Edition boutique hotel in Soho and she arrived in a top-of- the-range Mercedes SLK — I like cars and have an Audi TT, so I knew it was worth about £35,000 — then regaled me with tales of how successful she had been ‘playing’ the London property market and the extravagant lifestyle it afforded.
Paul is left asking why is finding a life partner so difficult nowadays? His parents celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary, having started dating aged 16, long before internet dating had been invented (file photo)
After our third date, she asked if I wanted to see where she lived and drove me along the King’s Road in Chelsea, pointed to a very swanky block of flats, then inexplicably dropped me at the Tube station.
The next time we met, I suggested after dinner that she might like to show me inside her lovely flat.
She turned to me sternly and said: ‘Oh Paul, do you really think I could afford to live there? That’s just a story I tell people. I actually live 20 miles out, in Essex. And this isn’t my car — it’s rented through a car-sharing scheme. In fact, I have to get it back by midnight.’
Pointing to her designer threads, she added: ‘These aren’t my clothes, either. They’re all borrowed.’
It didn’t matter to me whether she was rich or poor and I told her so. But a chill ran down my spine as I realised I was trapped in a car with a compulsive liar whom I didn’t know. What else could she be hiding?
As we stopped at traffic lights, I instinctively reached for the passenger door handle, hoping to escape, but it was locked.
Thankfully, she dropped me at the station and neither of us ever made contact again.
I think she was a ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ kind of girl, but there was no way I could build a life with someone if I could never trust a word she said.
Within months, I’d met Lisa, who had long black hair that she wore in an alluring beehive, and green eyes and with whom I was utterly smitten.
When she discovered I was interested in politics, she revealed she had a ‘double first’ in the subject from University College London.
After finding out I ran my own company, she told me all about her award-winning businesses. I couldn’t believe how much we had in common.
All the while she regaled me with tales about partying with A-list celebrities.
It was as if someone had created my perfect woman and delivered her to me. And throughout the three months we dated, I was utterly besotted.
Then, one day, without warning, Lisa ghosted me — she suddenly stopped picking up when I called and didn’t return my messages.
Via a mutual friend, I heard she was dating someone else and gradually discovered this was her modus operandi: dating a man for three to four months while pretending to be whatever she thought he wanted her to be, then moving on to someone new.
Still, I was heartbroken and refused to believe it until a friend said: ‘Do you really think she got a double first from UCL?’
Without asking my permission, he had done some research: it turned out UCL don’t actually award double firsts and, even if it had — this was before the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced — it had no record of Lisa ever going there.
Since lockdown began, Paul has become even more determined to find his Miss Right, as ‘it would have been so much nicer to have had someone to share this time with’ (file photo)
Then came Georgia — 29, slim, with green eyes and curly brown hair, who taught piano in schools — who came into my life via Tinder.
On our third date, she invited me to her parents’ house in Hertfordshire for dinner, along with her sister and brother-in-law. I was delighted.
Georgia had a real warmth and I loved the fact that she, like me, was clearly family-oriented.
But we had barely finished our starters when her mum began grilling me about how much I earned from my business and where I lived. I’m guessing she was trying to establish if I was suitable marriage material, but it felt more like being credit-checked.
The evening went from awkward to downright bizarre when Georgia’s mother, a slim, wiry woman without obvious muscles, challenged her son-in-law to an arm-wrestle.
I sat wide-eyed as the mum, clearly as strong as an ox, beat him hands down. It turned out this was something of a party piece.
I don’t know if I should have been flattered or offended — or if the whole display was a veiled warning of what could happen if I mistreated her daughter — but, luckily, she didn’t challenge me to a turn.
Georgia turned 30 soon afterwards and, for our fourth date, I took her to The Ivy Cafe in Marylebone to celebrate, and bought her flowers and a Smythson leather-bound notebook.
Sometime between the main course and dessert, she announced that her master plan was to be married and have a baby within a year — and if that didn’t happen, she would book herself into a sperm bank and try for a baby alone.
I almost choked on my wine. I mean, I too want to settle down but I want to know I’m with the right person.
However, I do understand that a ticking biological clock puts women in their 30s under far more pressure than men, and I thought the kindest thing I could do, given that I wasn’t yet completely sure about her, was end the relationship so she could look for someone who was.
As it turned out, she found that someone pretty fast and I understand they were married within six months.
Then there was Amanda, 28, a Welsh Valleys vixen. She was incredibly vivacious with big blonde hair, steely blue eyes and a come-hither smile. As we merrily worked our way through two bottles of red, I felt I had finally met someone I could really connect with.
That was until the subject of politics came up and she proudly announced that she voted for the British National Party.
Things got heated when I told her I didn’t see the BNP as a political party but as a nasty racist rabble who had no place in British public life.
I also mentioned that I had run for Parliament, for the Conservatives, in 2015, in the same constituency as former BNP leader Nick Griffin stood for in 2000. While I lost to Labour, I’m relieved to say so did he.
That was my first and last date with Amanda. As a Jewish man, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have been her perfect spouse either.
Paul is not letting his ”bizarre experiences with online dating’ put him off, as he has a socially distanced drinks date planned with a woman he met on Bumble
Another memorable one-off was with Cathy, 29, a stunningly beautiful Londoner. When the conversation turned to what we both did for a living, she announced proudly: ‘I take leases on flats and then sub-let them to other tenants without the landlords knowing.’
Taken aback, I asked: ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ And she replied: ‘It’s not not illegal’.’
I’d thought women couldn’t get any stranger but then, last year, came Jasmine, 34, a petite brunette with a nose stud and tattoos who worked in the music industry. She looked like trouble but, in a way, I found her exciting and fun.
Our third date was at her local pub. She texted me en route to say: ‘I’m here early, what would you like to drink?’
Thrilled, I replied ‘whisky on the rocks’. But when I turned up, she was nowhere to be seen and wasn’t answering her phone.
I waited at the bar, confused and a bit worried about her, for 20 minutes, until she emerged from the toilets wearing hot pants, white trainers and a long white T-shirt horribly stained with vomit, which she said had come from ‘a friend’s son’.
She never explained what she was doing in the loos all that time and I’ve no idea why, as she only lived around the corner, she hadn’t gone home to change. Something felt very odd about it all.
My friends agreed when I told them the tale afterwards. Perhaps it was inevitable that it just fizzled out. Real-life dates have obviously been off the agenda since March, but I’ve had a few over WhatsApp, none of which I felt was right for me.
However, being alone during lockdown has made me even more determined to find my Miss Right — it would have been so much nicer to have had someone to share this time with.
I’m still a romantic and believe there are women out there with whom I’d be a good match.
So why have I had so many bizarre experiences with online dating? I don’t believe the people it attracts are any odder than those you’d find in the general population. But when your first encounters with a romantic interest are in real life, you pick up on nuances that are absent when you’re relying on computer algorithms to decide if someone is a match.
I’m not letting that put me off, though, and I have a date — with a woman I met on Bumble — planned for this evening.
We are having socially distanced drinks in Regent’s Park, North-West London.
No one can accuse me of being a quitter. And who knows, this one might just be ‘the one’.
The women’s names have been changed.
As told to Helen Carroll.