Buying Mr. Right

DINNER COMPANION: Ed Morand joins some of his Pilates students out on the town.Photo: Scott Jones

It’s close to midnight, and Ed Morand, a handsome, heterosexual, 34-year-old Pilates instructor with a winning smile and washboard abs, is still on duty. He’s perched at a bar in Tribeca swigging a cranberry juice and ginger ale, chewing gum, and chatting amiably with a host of young professionals at a magazine writer’s 31st-birthday party.

Morand is there with one of his students, a pretty banker and friend of the birthday girl’s. He flirts with his student and her friends, talking animatedly about salsa dancing and Sarah Jessica Parker’s fabulous body. He’s not there on a date, exactly. Rather, he’s serving as a companion to a woman who pays him $360 a month. Ostensibly, she pays him to help her keep fit with reverse curls and roll-ups—but that’s only where the job starts.

Morand says hanging with his clients is part of the occupation. He exchanges lengthy e-mails with them, listens to their work woes on the phone, gives them advice on everything from bad backs to bad boyfriends. He calls it “value-added service.”

“I do it all the time,” he says, waving a sculpted arm nonchalantly into the smoky air. “Sometimes it’s the whole gang. We go out as a group.”

He fishes a card out of his DKNY leather business-card holder, a gift from another client.

Throughout Manhattan’s gyms and massage studios, practical-minded women are learning that in terms of men, you get what you pay for. In a city where finding Mr. Right is, to some, an onerous burden, these guys can be better than dating, more satisfying than sex (and even sex, in a few cases, isn’t out of the question). After all, the reasoning goes, don’t you deserve a man who’ll rub your shoulders, listen to your worries, and look good on your arm? It’s just one more luxurious, feel-good perk in a city that’s predicated on serving up the best. And New York is certainly swarming with willing guys—massage therapists, Pilates instructors, holistic chiropractors, aromatherapists, and personal trainers—who are enlightened, available, and clamoring to love, not judge, their clients.

with willing guys—massage therapists, Pilates instructors, holistic chiropractors, aromatherapists, and personal trainers—who are enlightened, available, and clamoring to love, not judge, their clients.

“Ed’s got a great personality,” explains the banker, who had her first one-on-one extracurricular outing with Morand on Valentine’s Day, when her boyfriend was away on a business trip.

“I don’t know how Ed does it,” says a petite brunette from the Upper East Side who regularly attends Morand’s Pilates class. “He deals with all our problems.”

Johanna Abreu, a 32-year-old attorney who’s had a fulfilling two-year relationship with her doe-eyed 37-year-old massage therapist, Lance Williamson, says she’s gained something beyond relaxation from her time with him: an escape from the dating life.

“Dating in New York is a pain in the ass,” she gripes. “People are so pretentious. The guys either think you are looking for someone who’s making a gazillion dollars—or that’s what they’re looking for. It’s a big city and you can feel so lonely in it. Lance is someone to talk to. When you’re with him, it’s not like you are going to wake up the next morning with a hangover and say: ‘Oh, I should not have done that.’ ” Abreu and Williamson do Sunday brunch a lot, go to parties, and e-mail regularly; this summer, she asked him to take a house with her on Martha’s Vineyard.

I do not have one client I do not like touching; I love every one of them,” says Williamson, who cat-sits for out-of-town clients, attends their birthday parties, sends notes, and calls them when he knows they’re feeling blue. “If clients come in depressed, I give them a big hug. Then I’ll follow up with a phone call or a letter. I’m not just a massage therapist. I’m a voice and a good listener. Sometimes, when clients go on vacation, I’ll call them and say: ‘I miss you—hurry home.’ ”

In return for his caring, Williamson gets a lot of free stuff from the well-to-do whose backs and necks he kneads for a living: hotel stays in Thailand, pricey dinners at Craft and Babbo, weekend stints in mansions in Bridgehampton, tickets to the theater and concerts.

“My clients have money. I don’t,” he says. “They have good taste in restaurants.” He pauses. “I know it sounds conceited. But I almost look at myself like a beacon of light. I love to take care of people. I’m a giver. I like to enhance people’s lives because it enhances mine.”

Holistic chiropractor Craig Martin, a Russell Crowe look-alike whose cozy Greenwich Village office is decorated with miniature elephants and plaques that say things like expect a miracle today, goes boating in Maine with his clients, attends their opera and art performances, and is often invited to their out-of-town weddings and showers.

So are these people patients, clients, or friends? The question elicits a euphoric look. “It’s a relationship,” he replies.

Williamson, who lives in a tiny two-bedroom on the Upper West Side, is equally puzzled by the question. “I never really thought about it much before,” he confesses over lunch at Viceroy in Chelsea. Williamson beams as he recalls his first client friendship, the first enormous New York City apartment he entered, the first celebrities he met. “And you just love spending time with these people!”

Certainly, the financial rewards are substantial. In a city where networking is key and personality is marketable, providers of health and fitness services say their businesses grow more rapidly when they aggressively network in nonaggressive settings (e.g., people’s homes, private parties, summer houses).

That kind of networking has helped Williamson expand his relatively young business fast. When he started four years ago, fresh out of massage school, his clients would call in the afternoon and get an appointment that night. Now, with a regular client base of 60 and rates that go as high as $200 for an at-home massage, he is booked almost a month in advance. His annual salary is approaching six figures.

Ed Morand
AGE: 34
OCCUPATION: Pilates Instructor.
COST OF SERVICE: $380 for ten hour-long group sessions.
ADDED SERVICES: Will escort clients to social and business functions; throws dance parties at his house; counsels clients on diets and broken hearts.
WHAT HIS CLIENTS SAY: “He deals with all our problems.”

BABY LOVE: Craig Martin is interested in getting to know his clients' extended families-- including their children.Photo: Scott Jones

Architect Christina old was coming off a five-year relationship when she began seeing Williamson for regular massages. It was a rough year, she recalls: “I was going through a breakup. He was easy to talk to; he makes me laugh.”

During and after massage visits, they shared dog stories, both being fond of schnauzers. Lance gave her dating tips and always noticed the things other guys never saw, like her hair-color changes and her moods. After a year of bedside chats, Christina decided to initiate what she refers to as the “professional-social icebreaker.” She invited Lance to her 29th-birthday party at Serena. “He’d heard all my stories,” she explains. “And I was marking the end of a bad year and the beginning of a new year.” That night, Lance spent a lot of time chatting with her ex. He was getting to know her past.

That summer, she decided to up the ante. She took him as a date to a karaoke party in Chinatown. That’s when the relationship took on a new element. They had dinner and drinks, and she got sick. “I was throwing up on the sidewalk,” she says, chuckling. “He took care of me. He began joking: ‘Oh, you ate more than that.’ ”

Christina sounds like she’s sharing one of those “the day we fell in love” stories. Except, in this case, Christina’s connection is with a guy she regularly writes checks to.

An Army brat whose father was a fighter pilot, Williamson comes from a happy family. “My parents are madly in love,” he says. “My brother and sister are my best friends.”

The scents of spearmint and eucalyptus waft through his apartment as he flips through his music collection, sharing CD ideas and making purchasing suggestions: “I try to stay away from Enya.” He rolls his eyes. “I don’t like New Age.”

Williamson, who is gay, left a two-year stint as an interior designer (“too stressful!”) to go out West. He went to Boulder, Colorado, to escape a bad breakup; while there, he realized he could live without the boyfriend—but not without New York City. He came back and enrolled in the Swedish Institute, the Harvard of massage schools.

In his massage room, daisies line the narrow bed and the walls are painted pale green. “The same color,” he notes, “used in the Prada stores.” He talks tulips, pregnancy massages, his propensity to wear all white, and his home-decorating tastes. “Do you see that lamp?” He points to a rectangular light fixture by his couch. “That’s the look.”

How does Williamson feel about all this emotional massaging? “It’s nice to be needed,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a housewife. Now I consider myself an overachieving housewife.”

On a recent Thursday night at Haru, a trendy Japanese chainlet that also happens to be one of his clients’ favorite gathering spots, Ed Morand is putting out a fire, the kind most boyfriends and husbands get stuck with—and quickly botch.

“Ed, my thighs are getting bigger,” whines a well-dressed (and emaciated) Barneys buyer. Morand raises an eyebrow. “You are like a size 0,” he points out matter-of-factly. Then he goes on to make several sharp physiological points about aging and muscle loss and the importance of toning, and offers the Barneys Thigh Girl the name of a similarly concerned student to chat with. “Ed’s classes are like therapy,” says Joy Sargent, a pregnant real-estate attorney who made Morand the fourth person in her life to know about her pregnancy. “My friends think it’s a cult.” Morand blushes. “That is so flattering to me,” he says.

The girls are nibbling on king-crab dumplings, chatting about wedding bouquets and Comme des Garçons. Morand weaves in and out of the conversations, the lone male presence at a table of six twenty-something women. If he’s like any other straight guy in this city, he’s bored out of his skull. But Morand never seems anything less than fascinated.

“I try to take it to a level that’s different,” he muses later. “I want to know more about the people I work with. I want them to know more about me.”

During a recent class at his Pilates studio, Morand greets a slouching student in soothing tones: “Your energy seems a little muted,” he says.

“I know,” she replies sullenly. “I’ve had a few droopy days.”

“Oh, I thought you were going to say you’ve been drinking for days.”

He laughs affectionately. She laughs, too.

“I’m literally thinking about each student every day,” Morand says at one point.

Besides helping his mostly female students achieve the three A’s—toned arms, abs, and asses—during hour-long group sessions (for which he charges each student around $38 an hour), Morand, the son of a Staten Island church organist, is a part-time songwriter and performer who was once in the traveling companies for West Side Story and A Chorus Line. Last Christmas, he organized a Secret Santa giveaway for the women who attend his studio. He bought feng shui candles and got, in return, a bottle of herbal muscle soak and a Sleep Easy body wash. Sometimes he just gives out hugs.

These added bonuses don’t go unnoticed by the husbands and boyfriends of his happy clients. One of Morand’s students, a pencil-thin design director, tells this story: “My fiancé met Ed at a party, and he was like: ‘Ohhh … that’s Ed.’ ” She smiles and shrugs. “I guess they get intimidated.”

Craig Martin
AGE: 40
OCCUPATION: Holistic chiropractor.
COST OF SERVICE: Initial visit, $125; subsequent visits, $65.
ADDED SERVICE: Sends presents on special occasions; will attend art openings, recitals; will take clients to dinners, plays, and parties.
WHAT HIS CLIENTS SAY: “He’s more than a chiropractor. He’s a healer.”

PARK RANGER: Lance Williamson with client Christina Old on an off-hours bike ride in Central Park.Photo: Scott Jones

“My clients always say: ‘Why can’t my boyfriends be more like you?’ ” says Williamson. But boyfriends are rarely like these guys. And that may be part of Morand’s and Williamson’s success. It’s also part of what really annoys the women who do the jobs they do.

Few of the women in the same line of work as Morand can or would use their beauty and charm to boost business among clients of the opposite sex. Those tactics don’t say “love” to male clients; they say “sex.” And most female trainers, massage therapists, and instructors say they keep transactions as professional as possible as a safety precaution, a way to ward off unwanted advances or worse. As a result, they network less and get fewer fringe benefits.

“The thing that really pisses me off is that because I am a young, single woman, I have to really play that down,” says 28-year-old massage therapist Daniella Caplan, who wears oversize T-shirts to work to avoid giving the wrong impression. “I have to be extra-professional.” Unlike the guys, Caplan has turned down countless fringe benefits—U.S. Open tickets, Knicks tickets, invitations to fancy dinners. In almost all of those cases, she suspected, the invite wasn’t a reward for a good massage; it was a come-on. She’s scaled back going to see clients in the Hamptons “because there is always a professional boundary,” and has turned clients away because she suspected they wanted a lot more than a massage. “It’s a very, very sensitive thing,” she says. Morand is aware of this male-female discrepancy, although he is reluctant to talk about it. His clients say they often felt snubbed by the female instructors at his former Pilates studio, whose client bases tended to be about a third of his.

“It’s a huge issue. I have this good thing going on because I’m a straight guy. There aren’t that many straight men teaching Pilates. But I can’t not be myself. I can’t hold in my natural spontaneity.”

If platonic male-female relationships get murky in real life—even when we’re going Dutch and no one’s writing anyone a check—aren’t they likely to get really confusing for these guys? The fashion executives, attorneys, and Wall Street hot shots they service are used to getting what they want. So wouldn’t some of them decide that what they want is to sleep with caring, sharing, well-toned Ed? And since they’ve been footing the bills, aren’t some of them prone to feel entitled? For gay men like Williamson, it’s less of an issue. For others, fending off unwanted advances—delicately—is practically part of the job description.

“My demeanor in the class for the first few classes is businesslike,” says Morand. “A very sober version of what they get later. If I started out fun, it might show that I am more available as a person.” He’s aware of his allure; he likens the in-class dynamic to the animal kingdom, with his female clients “shaking their feathers” at him: “I guess they want to know I find them attractive.” Some want more: This year alone, an estimated half-dozen women have asked him out after class. When he’s not interested, he treads lightly. When he is interested, he goes on the date. “Once a year, maybe once every ten months,” he says, and only if there is a lot of chemistry between them. It gets weird, he insists, only if they stop dating, the client keeps coming to the class, and “we haven’t established what happened.”

During his seven years as a Pilates instructor, he says, three women have abruptly stopped taking his class and started calling him obsessively. One was picking up the phone and dialing his number two or three times a day: “She just wanted the personal. And it didn’t exist.” At one point, she left a message on his machine saying, “I’m going to wait here by the phone until you call me.” Another student, a thirtysomething documentary filmmaker, began sending Morand “devilishly flirtatious e-mails.”

What Morand decided to do in all four cases was nothing. He didn’t respond to the advances. And his pursuers eventually gave up.

Dan Connolly, a 33-year-old boxing coach at New York Sports Club, wasn’t so lucky. He went on a date with a student in one of his classes. When he decided not to ask her out again, she went on the offensive. He says she spread rumors about his sexuality and alleged abusive personality, stalked him, continued to take his class, then used the time in class to harass him. He says it wasn’t until he eventually threatened to contact his cousin, a New York City cop, that she backed off.

“The problem is, you’re in a gray area,” he says. “If a student wants to make a bad situation for you, she can.”

As their businesses have grown, both Williamson and Morand concede, they have found less and less time for their “real friends”—the people who don’t pay them. Morand, who is currently single and spends up to sixteen hours a day doing Pilates-related work, says that sometimes he wonders whether all this giving is wreaking havoc on his social life. How much emotional space, really, does he have left at the end of the day for friends or a girlfriend? “It’s the same intimacy. It’s communicating and sharing,” he muses after the Haru dinner, trudging through Times Square on his way to the Hell’s Kitchen apartment he shares with two roommates.

“When I get home after a day of classes, I can’t talk for an hour,” he admits.

As for Williamson, he says that two years ago, when his friends complained that they didn’t see him enough, he told them: “I’m having more fun getting paid to socialize. Make an appointment, and we’ll talk.”

Now, he makes big X’s on his calendar to block off time for his friends.

Lance Williamson
AGE: 37
OCCUPATION: Massage therapist.
COST OF SERVICE: $90 at his home; outcalls start at $135.
ADDED SERVICE: Travel companion; will cat- and dog-sit; will call clients on vacation to tell them that they are missed.
WHAT HIS CLIENTS SAY: “He’s funny as hell.”

THE PARTY BOY: Greg McKenzie at a birthday party in SoHo for a client.Photo: Scott Jones

On a recent Friday night, Greg McKenzie, a svelte, ebony-skinned sports coach who has clocked personal-training time at nine gyms around the city, is rummaging around the Central Park West kitchen of a slim and sexy Calvin Klein underwear designer who regularly attends his abs class at her neighborhood New York Sports Club. McKenzie—wearing black pants and shirt, a pair of pricey A. Testoni shoes, and a silver heart ring wrapped around his pinky—emerges from the kitchen with corn bread, then clams in white-wine sauce, followed by poached salmon from Citarella. McKenzie, a 36-year-old single dad who lives with his mother in a less-than-glamorous neighborhood near Riverdale, carefully places the dishes on the dining-room table for a crew of six polished-looking guests who are chatting about mountain climbing and stationary bicycles.

When McKenzie finally sits, he’s at the head of the table, half-guest, half-staff. While he seems eager to please, bouncing up each time a guest expresses a need for some more wine or a glass of water, it is hard to say whether this is the behavior of a guy trying to woo potential clients or just a particularly considerate fellow.

Someone suggests that McKenzie maybe ought to offer his training time in exchange for, say, goods or services.

“I think we should have an exchange in kind,” says the designer in a clipped British accent, tossing back her coal-black hair.

“Training for underwear,” someone else adds.

Everyone—the professional mountain biker in the tight-fitting sweater, the South Carolina blonde in the black spaghetti-strap dress, McKenzie—chuckles. And it does seem funny. Except that it might not be so amusing if this were how you made your living.

“Ohhh,” the hostess drawls at one point during the evening. “I think it’s totally normal that I had my personal trainer make me dinner.”

Talk to enough service professionals, and it’s not always clear who’s getting what out of these relationships. One thing is clear, though: The closeness can get complicated. In the case of McKenzie and his dinner companions, what seemed like a potentially equal friendship became glaringly uneven a few weeks later when the underwear designer announced she was hosting another party–but asked McKenzie to show up after the meal. There wasn’t enough room at the table for him. Harry Hanson, who owns a chain of upscale personal-training gyms downtown, says another surefire way a trainer relationship sours is when a client opens up too much. He once stood awkwardly by as a female client halted her rigorous rowing machine workout and began to bawl. She told him she had been a victim of incest. “I didn’t really know what to do,” recalls Hanson. “So I think I said, ‘Keep rowing.’ ” He later offered her emotional support.

Some clients don’t want to exercise at all, but instead just want to do lunch with their new friend. Or in the case of one twentysomething Upper West Side trainer, an alluring client, unhappily married to a stockbroker, wanted to pay for her training sessions with sex.

“I really wanted to do it,” recalls the trainer. “But I said no. And I went home and I was glad I said no.”

Williamson recalls the first client he got to know well: a “big shot in fashion,” he says, who immediately awed him with her access to the “cream of the crop in the city. I was so impressed by it. And we just clicked.” Williamson cat-sat for her, ran errands for her, and spent countless hours with her over dinner and drinks, sometimes joined by her fabulous friends.

Then Fashion Big Shot “got difficult,” he says. She started treating him like the help: “She’d call me at ten and ask me if I could come over at eleven. I stopped returning her phone calls.”

Williamson winces.

For several years, Morand trained a well-connected personal assistant whose superrich boss was footing the bill. She loved him, and the boss and his wife called frequently to tell him that. When the boss died unexpectedly in an accident, the bills stopped getting paid, and his client stopped coming to her appointments. Morand kept her slot open for a while, knowing that she was devastated by the death. But eventually he had to let her go.

“She protested vigorously,” Morand remembers, sounding a bit like an ex-boyfriend still displeased with how things ended. She thought he would let her take the classes she missed for free. After all, weren’t they friends? Didn’t he care?

Well, he did care. But a working guy’s got to make a living.

Greg McKenzie
AGE: 36
OCCUPATION: Personal trainer.
COST OF SERVICE: $75 to $90 an hour.
ADDED SERVICE: WIll cook healthy dinners for clients and their friends; can get himself and his clients into just about every club in the city.
WHAT HIS CLIENTS SAY: “He’s so sweet!”

Buying Mr. Right