Biondi is in good company. Dating services have blossomed over the past few years to become a billion-dollar industry. Though the Internet fueled that explosion, real-life matchmakers with names like Great Expectations and It's Just Lunch are popping up around the country like valentines in J. Lo's mailbox. The Matchmaking Institute, which offers the nation's first certification course for would-be Cupids, opened in October and is attracting students from as far away as Singapore. It helps that the modern-day yenta looks less like Sylvia Miles in Crossing Delancey and more like Alicia Silverstone in NBC's Miss Match: young, attractive and a long way from loserdom just like her clients. Hey, even Paula Abdul is rumored to have met her boyfriend through a matchmaker.
The Internet is playing a double role in matchmaking's revival. On the one hand, the ubiquity of online dating 1 in 10 Web surfers uses those sites, which get 40 million hits a month has eased Americans' hang-ups about paying a third party to set up dates. On the other, Web-dating singles have grown increasingly weary of the attending aggravations the overly flattering photos, the fibbing bios, the less-than-honorable intentions, the inevitable letdown of that first date.
Online-dating sites are responding by trying to be more like real-life matchmakers. The fastest growing site, eHarmony.com, draws 10,000 new users a day with a 436-question screen. Match.com, the largest of the services, recently added its own test as well as an advice site manned by live therapists. "We can get into the nuances of chemistry and attraction too, but on a mass scale," says Trish McDermott, vice president of romance for Match.com.
But many singles seem to crave the human touch. "People like to think matchmakers are in it not just for money but because they have a sixth sense," says Darren Star, creator of Miss Match. "A matchmaker is part psychologist, part psychic."
Those who come to the Matchmaking Institute believe they have the magic; they just need to learn the spells. Over a frozen weekend in late January, half a dozen students gathered at the institute's downtown Manhattan headquarters, a loft dominated by a lipstick red wall, a well-stocked bar and two sleepy Chihuahuas. The students were greeted by the school's co-founders, Lisa Clampitt, 39, a veteran matchmaker in a miniskirt and knee-high suede boots, and Jerome Chasques, 34, an amiable Frenchman with an international singles-events business. Nestling into black leather lounge chairs amid animal-print cushions, the students list their qualifications. Alayna Tagariello, 29, works in public relations and plays host to singles parties. Nelson Hitchcock, 35, an events coordinator, recounts the time he helped arrange a friend's elaborate proposal. Lia Woertendyke, 18, a high school senior, uses paste-on tattoos as conversation starters at parties. All the students this weekend are 35 or younger. All but one are single.
The institute describes itself as a "school of matchmaking and relationship sciences," but it soon becomes clear that its teachings are far from exact. Of the 22 hours of intensive training, a good many are spent on the decidedly unscientific business of assessing and handling clients, many of whom need help far beyond the introduction. Some require sober advice about wardrobe or hygiene. Others need schooling on how not to sabotage a date with obnoxious behavior. Some matchmakers, including Clampitt, have degrees in social work or psychology. Still, she warns, "matchmaking is not therapy. You've got to be real careful about boundaries." She advises clients with serious issues to get professional counseling.
The modern matchmaker offers much more than a dating service. Clampitt's high-powered male clients pay her up to $20,000 a year to act as pal, coach, mom and concierge (she'll also be host at their parties, find interior designers and make restaurant reservations). In early February she met with client Robert Marinelli, 41, a tall, strikingly handsome banker. With his sharp wit, jet-set lifestyle and gregarious personality, Marinelli has no problem landing dates. Last year, in fact, he had 60. "Robert doesn't need me," admits Clampitt, who spotted him at a charity bachelor auction and hounded him to sign on. Marinelli, who is twice divorced, uses Clampitt to up his odds. "The way I see it, it's a numbers game," he says. "Women today don't need a man financially. And I don't need someone to dress me, fix my house or cook for me. What we're looking for is a soul mate. If I get up to bat a lot, maybe one of these days it'll be the one."