Patti Stanger, host of the Bravo reality show Millionaire Matchmaker, is the iconic antidote to the bloated expectations and self-delusion of our times
Patti Stanger, host of the polarizing Bravo Television reality show Millionaire Matchmaker, the woman called the “Simon Cowell of dating,” is not just a TV host. She is a post-modern version of Shakespeare’s Puck, spinning the threads of economic and romantic life into a terrifying fable about our narcissistic, dysfunctional era.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck did not engineer happy endings for the lovers right away: He pushed them into the forest, sprinkled fairy dust on them, watched the shenanigans, and then paired them off. The forest that Stanger pushes us into weekly may be less prettily presented than Shakespeare’s, but it is as real.
Millionaire Matchmaker, on the air since 2008 and now in its fifth season, has a set formula: Meet the male and female millionaires and their potential partners, the casting session, the mixer, the mini-dates, the dates, the post-mortem. Its terroir is Los Angeles, except in season four, when Stanger went to New York and was disappointed by ill-dressed, surly East Coast women and delighted by bagels. On whichever coast, Stanger and her staff—the gothically styled couple Rachel Federoff and Destin Pfaff—prod the millionaires into dates that include five-star restaurants, limos, hot-air balloons, or helicopter rides. Luxury, it turns out, does not protect anyone from their worst behavior.
Whereas in Midsummer Night’s Dream, two men fall in love with the same woman and another woman falls in love with an ass before the happy ending, Millionaire Matchmaker celebrates the “committed monogamous relationship” throughout the show and often ends unhappily. Perhaps Stanger’s most infamous and iron-clad rule is that millionaires have to abstain from sex before they are “exclusive.” She is known to announce: “No in, in, or in,” pointing to each orifice, in case any deaf-mutes happen to be watching. This rule has produced some of the show’s most comic moments, and yet because Stanger is concerned (or Bravo is) about appearing sex-negative, recently she has mentioned on camera about how much she loves men.
As Millionaire Matchmaker’s popularity has exploded, so have the attacks: The show is bad for women, Jews, and gays (“Jewish men lie,” Stanger recently said on national television); Stanger is a 21st-century Sophie Portnoy, she encourages gold-digging, she is Heidi Fleiss. After Stanger’s wedding plans imploded in 2010, another complaint surfaced: It was absurd for someone who was herself unmarried to advise the romantically challenged. Others scorn her chutzpah at placing herself in the tradition of the yenta or shadchan—the Hebrew word for matchmaker—because those professions are concerned with finding soulmates for people from all walks of life, including the disenfranchised, whereas Stanger charges huge sums to match millionaires and civilians.
There is something to these objections, but they miss why the show is impossible to write off. With her sharp take-downs of millionaires and their dates, Stanger is an antidote to bloated expectations and self-delusion, a riotous consolation to women who believed that Sex in the City was a documentary, and maybe even a how-to for men who want to grow up but don’t know how. She is the Jewish Tiger Mom to us all.
Outspoken Jewish women are generally smeared with the Sophie Portnoy label, but Stanger is more a female Lenny Bruce: a raucous outsider shouting unspeakable truths. She has confessed that she became a matchmaker in part because she wanted to be a fly on the wall while men were talking, which is far different from wanting to couple people. She is intent on showing us how to treat people—and how not to—in a celebrity-driven, outsourced, HD world.
Stanger’s make-overs may seem shallow, but they offer a TV version of Know Thyself. When she dissuades men from dressing like TPT (“trailer park trash”), she is suggesting that if you are a 38-year-old accountant, dressing like a boy rock ’n’ roll star is unpalatable. When she advises a catatonic millionaire to “find his inner hunter,” she is actually trying to make him see that forcing women to pursue him will not make him happy. When she counsels a sun-wizened millionaire to have plastic surgery, it might seem shallow, but she is channeling the old James Brown line, “You got to use what you got to get what you want.” (If you are “plumpty dumpty,” don’t ask for Ashton Kutchor, as she has told some female millionaires, is another version of this advice.) When she screeches at a woman in one of her casting sessions to straighten her hair, she is not espousing an anti-Semitic ideal of beauty (curly hair should stay in Israel, she has said): She is a realist, conveying “her” millionaires’ actual desires.
The show is not exactly feminist, as Stanger has, on occasion, claimed. When Stanger tells a woman she wants to see “the real you,” the woman takes off her wig; Stanger’s advice: “Get extensions.” Stanger prefers men dating in their age range, and she sets them up with accomplished women—albeit ones who look like Charlie’s Angels. Women can work, if their jobs are disposable enough to go to Paris for the week. I have never seen a female neuroscientist or law professor on the show.
Still, although Stanger’s critics are right to say that some of her harshest criticism is reserved for the female millionaires—the millionairesses—who come across as cartoonish control freaks, or worse, ultimately her advice to both men and women boils down to: Think about the other person. Some of that thinking is superficial—psychiatry is limited to five-minute “lifestyle coaching” sessions, crystals, or other cretinous fare.
But always, Stanger leaps from behind the New Age goop with Old World scorn: When a millionaire rambles on about himself, she snaps, “Does it always have to be the Dave show?” When a millionairess whips out a long, hand-written wish list enumerating her dream date’s qualities, Stanger burns it. She complains that “hoity toity” Manhattan women refuse to date men from the other boroughs. And although she is a celebrity-adulator, she cautions that ordinary millionaires should not emulate them, at least not entirely. She is the antidote to a generation whose parents have pumped them so full of self-esteem that they believe they’re getting ripped off if they are not dating a superstar.
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