He’s a business man who prefers to go by the alias “Michael.”
She’s a Russian model and Samba dancer named Jessica, who withheld her last name.
It’s their first date and Michael, like a gentleman, has paid about $45 for it. Only, he’s paid Jessica directly.
The pair met on dating “auction” site WhatsYourPrice.com, where users labelled “Generous” bid on first dates with users labelled “Attractive.”
The site has been criticized for blurring the line between dating and escorting. Some blogs have called it “indistinguishable” from prostitution. Its more than 7,000 Toronto users — who spend or are paid an average of $214 on first dates, according to site data — would argue it’s about companionship.
“I’m not selling myself in any way,” says 25-year-old Jessica, wearing a lacey corset and leather pants, all black, with red lipstick. “It’s having dinner with somebody that enjoys my company. And why not get paid for it?”
Michael, 36, who is wearing an open-collared navy blue Le Chateau shirt and black pants, nods along. They’ve agreed to let the Star follow them on the date. For obliging, the site has promised Michael 500 credits to his profile, credits he’ll use to open locked messages from “Attractive” users.
It’s almost 11 p.m. on a Thursday night at a chain restaurant in Toronto’s Fashion District, and from across the room Michael and Jessica appear to be your average dating couple with a small age gap. They order a steak dinner and a bottle of red.
Michael, a Toronto entrepreneur working on getting a weight loss “nutraceutical” business off the ground, uses other conventional dating sites such as Match.com but hasn’t had much success. He has noticed he gets a better response from women on What’s Your Price, but he’s not really sure why.
“For some reason it seems to interest females a bit more as opposed to regular dating,” he says.
When others in her generation are swiping right on apps including Tinder and Bumble, Jessica’s first digital dating experience is the unconventional sugar daddy site. This date is the second she’s been on using What’s Your Price after a friend recommended she check it out. So far she’s made nearly $300. A man visiting from Hawaii paid her $220 earlier last year to join him for dinner.
Michael’s offer then is relatively low. But tonight, Jessica says it was substance more than cash that brought her here. “He had a very charming profile,” she says. “His offer wasn’t anything special. It’s not all about the money.”
But the money is the key component of the patent-pending site. It works like this: the “Generous” user bids on a first date with an “Attractive” member. When Jessica accepts an offer from Michael, for example, he then has to use credits that he bought on the site to “unlock” the message and open communication. The higher the original bid, the more it costs to unlock messages. The bid payment is promised in “good faith,” according to Brittany Burridge, a rep for the site. What’s Your Price does not facilitate the payment, and the “Generous” member normally pays in person after the date.
The payment is where things get controversial. Site founder Brandon Wade says the site’s “no escort” policy is answer enough to its critics who say its brand of dating is no different than escorting.
“We make it extremely clear that, first of all, no sex is involved. You can’t talk about sex and you shouldn’t expect sex on the first date,” he says. “The world in general knows that ‘escort’ is really just prostitution in disguise. So in that sense, we have already set ourselves apart from that.”
Nicole McCance, psychologist and relationship expert doesn’t buy the “no escort” policy. “This is a business deal. This is not dating,” she says. “It just worries me that if he’s paying for appearance, that there may definitely be pressure on the women to do other things — sexual favours and so on — once she’s with him.”
McCance has counseled men who have used similar sites, which she says can become addictive. Men sometimes get a kind of “companionship high,” the comedown from which can be rough. For the women, she says, it often leaves them feeling used and exploited.
But on this night in Toronto’s Fashion District, What’s Your Price appears to have forged a benign connection — perhaps even a profitable one for both. Michael says they are “hanging out as friends” and business partners. Jessica has joined him as a salesperson and product designer in his venture launching a nutritional supplements and health foods business.
BRANDON WADE’S DATING UNIVERSE
Wade’s multi-million dollar dating empire has a menu of options for every sugar daddy and baby variety.
What’s Your Price
“Get the date by simply using your wallet.”
This is Wade’s second most popular site, an online “dating auction” where users buy and sell first dates.
“Never Travel Alone.”
For the worldly types of sugar daddies who love to travel. On Miss Travel, “generous” men can pay “attractive” women to travel with them.
“Where beautiful, successful people fuel mutually beneficial relationships.”
This is Wade’s most popular sugar-daddy service, where users get straight to the point about what they want out of the relationship. Cha-ching.
“Why limit yourself to dating just one girl when you can have any woman you want?”
This site is an extension of Seeking Arrangement, but here personal matchmakers do the work for you.
“Find a richer life.”
Dating in the upper tax brackets is made easy with Wade’s site for “aspiring women” seeking “successful men.”
Open relationships are an “underserved world” in Wade’s universe. This site provides a “safe and stigma-free” space for couples looking for a ménage à trois or more.
Pair Me Up
On this Wade site, a real matchmaker helps set up a date for a small fee paid by the man. Women can get reimbursed up to $100 for the date.