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.
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?