Matchmaker Janis Spindel threw open the doors of her “love villa,” the East Hampton home where she spends her summers.
“You have great teeth,” Spindel said, squinting at me as if appraising a racehorse. “But are you going to the gym?”
I knew Spindel’s tough-love reputation, and I’d assumed that at some point I’d be in her crosshairs — but I was surprised to meet brutal body honesty right away. “Yeah!” I said. “I mean, no … Sometimes? I guess I go sometimes, but not often?”
“No, I mean, are you going right now. At this moment?”
“Oh,” I said. “No.”
“Then why is your hair pulled back in a ponytail?” Spindel demanded. “I can’t tell you how many times women go on a first date or come to a meet-and-greet with their hair in a ponytail. You are not going to the gym!”
Spindel, an auburn-haired sixtysomething, wore a bright-blue bandana-print baseball cap, flared spandex pants, and copious body glitter. She bills herself as “America’s Leading Matchmaker,” and since 1993 she’s been matching male clients (who pay hefty fees) with eligible women (who agree to follow her rules). Spindel’s style is idiosyncratic, but when it comes to love, her views are antique — her advice hews closely to the wisdom of self-help books and romantic comedies, complete with the occasional dash of misogyny. (She calls women “needy, naggy, dishonest”; she goads them into straight hair and weight loss.) Yet even in a postrecession, post-online-dating world, this combination remains in demand. Spindel claims to have laid the groundwork for 999 weddings and is looking to hit 1,000. The world may have changed in the last twenty years, but through sheer force of personality — plus the timeless needs she meets — Spindel’s business is still going strong.
If she sounds a lot like another brassy matchmaker Patti Stanger, there’s a reason: Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker was Spindel’s assistant for five years before she struck out on her own. Spindel doesn’t quite approve of Stanger’s trademark crass, and sometimes cruel, persona; unlike Stanger, she’s never had her own TV show. While Stanger is a social-media-savvy self-branding pro, Spindel relies mostly on word of mouth — just as she did twenty years ago, when she went from setting up friends for fun to a career as a matchmaker. Wealthy men, whom she recruits at parties and bars, give her their résumés, their preferences, their history, and $100,000 checks. Then they get to peruse a literal binder of women who have applied to be included in Spindel's database. She’ll use social media, but never to self-promote. She mostly tweets real-time reports on the number of eligible guys at events (“Who can meet me at the Hampton’s Classic? Tons of guys”) or tracks down new clients on Facebook.
Interested to see how she’s sustained her business for two decades, I visited her in the Hamptons as she hosted a “meet-and-greet” for eager new women, and as she prowled the Montauk Surf Lodge after hours in search of more elusive prey.
“I’m a press magnet,” she said of her success. “There is not a show I haven’t done, a radio show, a newspaper, or magazine I haven’t been in 25 times. They’ve told me I’m a sound bite waiting to happen. I’m a character, and I’m the first person to tell you that.” The paper trail bears this out. "I am so good at this it's scary," she told New York's Vanessa Grigoriadis back in 2000. In 2008, as the recession took hold, she told the New York Observer that desperate clients were resorting to barter: “He wants a wife," she explained, "and I want a red Corniche."
On this day, she's expecting nine women, ranging in age from late twenties to early sixties, who have come by car, Jitney, and plane to vie for a spot in Spindel's database of potential dates. She chooses her women with care and her men with even more scutiny, which involves constantly following who's renting which Hamptons house, who's running which Manhattan business. This fall she hopes to represent an octogenarian billionaire. In the meantime, though, she has to sift through some of the women she might eventually match him with.
The group listens attentively as Spindel holds forth. “It’s the four Bs: beauty, brains, body, and balance,” she explains. “That’s what all men want. They are visual, they are superficial, and they are shallow. And they do fall in love through their eyes.” Most of the women appear to know this already; they’ve come with hair blown out, makeup done, heels on — they nod knowingly as Spindel continues to describe the perfect woman. She continues: “Then she has to be intellectually stimulating, and then she has to lead a healthy lifestyle and have a great body. It just doesn’t stop.” According to Spindel, the women she deals with these days are “over the top”: Ivy-educated, powerful professionally, and, says Janis, intimidating even to her. But romantically, she considers them raw material, which is why she keeps a stylist and nutritionist on staff to correct imperfections.
Next she asks her hopefuls a rapid-fire line of questions: What do they do? Do they want children? She advises on headshots and asks about divorces. Women open up, reveal insecurities, take notes about what to do next. "Does it matter that I’m over 60 and can’t have children? Will men even want to date me?" asks a heartbreakingly sweet widow. She’d met Janis at a lecture at the 92nd Street Y, where she was told to grow out her hair and get a new dress. She'd obeyed.
We hop in the car to go recruiting over in Montauk, heading to a Sunday night party at the perpetually packed Surf Lodge. Though the kind of women who hang out at the Surf Lodge on a Sunday in Montauk — affluent, stylish, attractive, and confident — seem to be doing fine on their own, Spindel insists they need her help. Surveying the scene, she sees a room full of possibility. On the prowl by her side, I’m self-conscious. We’re not at the Villa of Love; we’re in the wilds of the Surf Lodge, and here she’s not “THE Janis Spindel” preaching to a check-holding choir. She’s just an incredibly chatty older woman covered in body glitter, starting a conversation with anybody and everybody — welcome or not.
First we approach a gorgeous black magazine editor in town with friends. She’s talking to a preppy guy who obviously wants her number and a make-out session — but Spindel has bigger plans for the woman and inserts herself directly in the middle. “Are you single?” she asks, effectively cock-blocking. The guy slumps away without getting a number.
This scenario plays out every time. Spindel, operating like a pickup artist, looks at every woman, selects a target, and charges up. Victims, or future wives of clients, respond with the same cycle of reactions: first with amusement, then confusion, then an eye roll when they receive her business card — a small pink mini-pamphlet that looks like a prayer card — and finally a mix of acceptance and curiosity. We stop at least eight women, including a 36-year-old from L.A., a trio of intimidatingly perfect South American girls, and two stunning Brooklyn actresses. By the next week, four of them have filled out applications.
Spindel calls her job “the second oldest profession in the world,” and as far as she’s concerned, the demand isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Regardless of the economy, everyone wants love,” she says. “If people are getting their $5 million bonuses from Goldman or no bonus at all, that doesn’t change.” Spindel has already enlisted her 27-year-old daughter Carly as a junior matchmaker and possible heir to the business when she retires. Carly plans to take on female paying clients as well as men — but other than that, her mother’s formula seems secure. When it comes to something as nebulous as romance, people can’t resist definite answers, and Spindel is happy to offer them.
“I’m no-nonsense,” she says. “I believe in honesty.” Spindel believes that with the right haircut, the right style, the right workout regimen, you, too, can find love. You just need a shove in the right direction.
As we get back in the car after the four-hour scouting mission, she flicks her gaze over to me again. “You have really nice eyes,” she remarks. “How old are you?"
“Ah, too young," she responds. "I almost had the perfect guy for you — black, a little short, unbelievable-looking, though.”