Patti Stanger, host of the Bravo reality show Millionaire Matchmaker, is the iconic antidote to the bloated expectations and self-delusion of our times
One of the most often repeated criticisms of the Millionaire Matchmaker is that it is more common for singletons to wind up on other reality TV shows than to live happily ever after. This misses the point. Stanger is holding the mirror up to dating in the era in which everything is determined by wildly fluctuating markets. And because one of the matchees is a millionaire and the other is not, Millionaire Matchmaker is also a study of class, recalling Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, in which a young woman comes to Chicago to make it and, finding going it alone hard, allows a man to corrupt her. Stanger understands that in our fluid world, reality television is our Chicago.
There is a telling moment from season one, when Stanger’s parents, who live in Florida, visit. They gab about what has changed since her mother, Rhoda, played matchmaker in the 1950s.
Rhoda: Modern men differ. They’re not looking for marriage. They want to play, play, play today, like Peter Pan. …
Stanger: It’s so hard for these women and me. I’m still not married. My mom used to say, ‘Don’t give away the milk for free.’ And I did. I went for the bad boys. Now a nice guy looks pretty good.
Rhoda: Had you listened to me now, you would’ve been a … I gave you my formula.
Stanger then abandoned her regret to conclude that if she had lived in the ’50s, she wouldn’t be a successful businessperson. “It’s pretty much all worth it.”
The question is: worth what? Although Stanger makes enough money to be a candidate for her own service, her singleness fuels a show with the tag line “Everyone Wants Love and Not Everyone Finds It.” What could be more ironic than the host “not finding it”?
That Stanger does not look the way she commands the wanna-be millionaire dates to is another factor in the show’s success. “I love my Big Patti,” her tiny, blonde mother says in the season-one episode, trying to get her arms around her large adopted daughter. Stanger is not the petite Jewish spinner (a woman tiny enough to spin around on a man during sex) that the millionaires ask for loudly and often. At 50, her face is unlined—she claims to eschew plastic surgery—but Big Patti is tall. In the first years, she was photographed in a white three-piece pants-suit, but now she has graduated to jewel-toned, cleavage-revealing mini dresses, sky-high heels, chandelier earrings, and long, Brazilian blow-dried glossy straight hair, lengthened by the extensions she is constantly pushing. She recently supposedly lost 25 pounds thanks to Sensa, which she endorses, but she is not model-thin.
One subject that seems to make Stanger hysterical is Jews, which means something specific. Judaism is sometimes a look—“you know what Jewish looks like that’s hot,” she tells her colleague Rachel, as she sends her to fetch some Jewish chicks—and other times a shorthand for explaining the combination of chutzpah and neurosis she believes unique to the millionaires of her people. One Jewish millionaire has a “Jewish messiah complex.” Another is “the Jewish player” and Jewish ex-nerd. Another “leads with his money.” She is scornful of Jewish millionaires’ preference for shiksas, and in at least one instance, she tries to compel a shiksa-lover to choose a Jewish woman, which he does, at least for one night.
Yet Stanger believes both that Jews should not intermarry and that you can “merge” religions. When a Christian millionaire who wanted to marry a woman of his own faith picked a Jewish flight attendant for a date only to balk when she explained that under Jewish law, the children would be Jewish, she concluded that religion is a deal-breaker. Yet for the most part, Jewish millionaires on the show are indistinguishable from non-Jewish millionaires. Money levels everyone.
The show’s appeal finally lies in its contradictions: Although Stanger often chastises her clients for treating dating like buying a car, just as often she uses that language to advise them. “You have to qualify the buyer first,” she says. She reserves her harshest criticism for entitled trust-fund millionaires even as she shrieks defenses that sound positively quaint. “You come from a good family,” one take-down begins.
Because this is reality television, Stanger’s romantic life has to seep in. In July of 2009, she announced her engagement to Andy Friedman, a kosher-observant real-estate/insurance broker whom she herself met through a matchmaker, it was said. Now interwoven into the romantic debacles of millionaires was Stanger’s success. But hints that all was not well began to surface. Both a psychic and an astrologer seemed underwhelmed with Friedman, and Stanger created another story. In an appearance on Ellen, she made a Freudian slip: “I don’t believe you have to be happy to be married.”
On Aug. 16, 2010, Stanger announced her split with Friedman on Twitter. She has subsequently explained the breakup with several different stories: He was ready to retire and she wanted to build an empire. She wanted children, and he did not. (Since she was born in 1961, this seems implausible.) Although bloggers attacked her, again, the contradictions and the disasters made her human.
The sad, posh dates, peppered with the comic relief of Stanger’s take-downs, compensate for the romantic grievances that are now a fundamental part of American life. If this truly is the best we can do, what hope is there for any of us who want to venture into the forest with or without Puck’s help?
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