She’s a self-confessed hyper-fussy divorcee who’d rather kiss her pet lambs than any man. So what happened when Liz Jones joined the world’s swankiest dating agency to hook herself a millionaire?
Until now, I always thought people who resort to dating agencies must be a little desperate. True love should happen by chance, shouldn’t it? I have never before even been set up by friends or been on a blind date.
But then I reached the first anniversary of my divorce and, much to my surprise, having sworn off men for life, I started to wonder, with the prospect of a great big yawning new year stretching ahead of me, whether there might be someone out there for me and, if so, how on earth am I going to find him?
Miraculously, given that I was the editor of a woman’s fashion magazine, before meeting my husband in my early 40s (then a BBC journalist, he came to interview me; as soon as we got married, he gave up his job and started having sex with other women), I had only ever had three boyfriends, two of whom hadn’t even liked me that much.
I think the reason I never met men was that I was either working, or sat at home, wishing they’d come to me, which, of course, they didn’t. With such a terrible track record, I started to realise that, if I couldn’t meet someone when I was in my prime, how on earth was I going to meet someone now I’m 50?
My friend Kerry, tired of my moaning, had told me about an upmarket dating agency that takes on only high-achieving rich people. ‘You need someone generous,’ she said, my husband’s name unspoken between us, ‘with a bank account, not a piggy bank’.
And so, just before Christmas, I meet Mairead Molloy. Irish by birth, and having made a fortune in hotels, she now divides her time between Cannes and London. Five years ago, with an address book positively bulging with successful but often lonely men and women, she decided to set up a dating agency.
Berkeley International’s membership fee of £10,000 per year guarantees her clients – thousands of singletons from all over the world, at a ratio of 40/60 men and women – are solvent, but I’m surprised when she tells me how many are multi-millionaires.
Surely, I ask her, rich men have no trouble attracting women? ‘Yes, but not the right type. These men – actors, plastic surgeons, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs – not only don’t have time to meet women, they’ve had enough of dating model types who are just after their money.’
That’s what I like to hear, but I’m still dubious. Men say they want intelligent, independent women who are their equal in every way, but do they, really? Mairead, who is 38, blonde and delightfully blunt, asks me to fill her in on my background, and tell her what I look for in a man.
I tell her I was married to someone much younger who never paid for anything. ‘But him not paying for things was not the deal breaker. The infidelity was. I’m a romantic in that I expect the man I’m with not to even look at other women – to be like my dad, in other words – but then I come over all feminist if he attempts to pay for dinner. I’d never allow a man to take me on holiday. I’d feel like a prostitute.’
Mairead says I am, compared to her other female clients, all of whom want to be looked after by a man, very unusual. Otherwise, the qualities I am looking for are pretty standard: he must be kind, funny, not pompous or bossy, be intelligent and well read and an animal lover.
I tell her I’d prefer someone around my own age (she tells me I don’t look 50, and am in fact ‘slim, fashionable and gorgeous’, which makes me want to date her), but they must be boyish rather than Steptoe-like (I tell her Imran Khan could be her template, although I wouldn’t date him as I don’t think my cats would want to live in Pakistan).
I’m not interested in the boring banker types that make up the bulk of her clients. She tells me I seem to have narrowed my options to Paul McCartney but, rather valiantly, accepts the challenge to help me find Mr Right.
This is how it works. Once a client has been interviewed and then vetted – Mairead visits them at home, checking out passports and, if necessary, decree absolutes – she will then introduce them to prospective partners all over the world (rich people, it seems, have no truck with annoying things like distance and time zones).
She never sends clients photos, but instead supplies a brief resume of their qualities. She has, she says, an instinct for knowing who will hit it off. I feel as though I’m about to sit my A-levels all over again.
My first date takes place in London. Mairead phones to tell me about M, who is 46, in wealth management, whatever that is, and a divorced father of two grown-up boys. He lives between London and Oxford.
I ask whether he is handsome. ‘Looks are subjective,’ she says, and adds ‘he is charismatic and an animal lover with a Labrador.’ That swings it. The next night, he calls me. He sounds young, and is surprisingly open. He says he likes good hotels and restaurants, long walks and log fires.
I tell him I live in the middle of Exmoor, have horses, dogs, cats and rescued farm animals, and am recently divorced. We agree to meet the following night in the bar at Claridges. I tell him I have dark hair, and will be wearing purple Burberry platforms. He laughs.
I go to a lot of trouble to prepare for this date. I buy a black lace skirt and silver platforms from Prada, and get my hair done. I invest in a Hollywood wax, and an all-over light sheen of fake tan. When I get to the bar I’m so nervous I down a glass of champagne in one go, then text to tell him I’ve had a ‘slight change of shoe: silver platforms, not purple Burberry’.
When he arrives I am disappointed: he looks ordinary, in a normal, brownish suit, clutching a briefcase. He has nice brown eyes, but is not quite tall enough for me.
He sits down. God, I think, this is awkward. He orders me another glass of champagne, and tells me about his ex-wife. ‘She was great eye candy,’ he says, confirming that all men would like you to believe the women in their lives are great beauties. He tells me she spent £500,000 of his money on the divorce and that they now barely speak.
I find it annoying that, when I tell him I work for a newspaper, he doesn’t even ask which one. After precisely one hour he asks for the bill, which immediately tells me he doesn’t fancy me.
I hobble off into the night on my shoes and text Mairead: ‘Am V depressed. He couldn’t wait to get shot of me. I think I looked pretty good. Who are these men expecting, Elle Macpherson?’ Thanks to the international nature of Mairead’s contacts, the next date is to take place in New York. Contrary to popular opinion there are, according to read, a glut of rich, single men in New York.
I find this hard to believe, having watched a great many episodes of Sex And The City, but I valiantly call skirt and shoes into service yet again (wearing the same outfit acts, I as a sort of scientific control). Meet Christie, from Mairead’s sister agency, Premier Matchmaking, who is hand to arrange everything. Our chat reveals straight away how different the dating scene is in the U.S. She tells me where my prospective date went to school and college, lists his many degrees, tells me he is 6ft 2in, divorced with no children, and is the CEO of a bank. She hopes very much I ‘enjoy him’.
I agree to meet P at a restaurant on Madison Avenue. I sit down at a table. He arrives, and although he is indeed tall and dark, resembling none other than Mr Big, I know in less than five seconds that I will never fancy him. But, after a few minutes, and much to my surprise, I start to enjoy his company immensely. What do you look for, I ask. He says women in New York are only interested in how much money a man makes.
Don’t you fancy the over-groomed, immaculate Manhattan type? I ask. ‘I put women through the shower test,’ he says. ‘Any woman can be made to look great. The test is what they look like straight out of the shower.’
Oh dear. But I can tell he fancies me, this despite his lack of curiosity about me, and his disconcerting habit of continuing to talk into the remote of his mobile phone.
He keeps touching my arm and once, instead of saying, ‘If I were to have a relationship with you’, he says, ‘If I were to have sex with you’. Crikey.
He is put off, though, when I tell him about my animals; particularly my anecdote about the fact I’ve trained my three lambs to kiss me on the mouth. ‘My god, who are you, Brigitte Bardot? That’s a deal breaker. Men like to know they come first.’
After two hours, he pays for our drinks, apologising that he has to leave for a dinner engagement. He gives me his card, and asks me to ring him if I’m ever in New York again. We say our goodbyes and I go to freeze in the snow, trying to hail a cab.
After about ten minutes, a man asks if I need help. It doesn’t bode well that it’s my date, and I don’t even recognise him! I think I cover up my amnesia, and he gallantly phones his driver to take me back to my hotel. He takes off his overcoat and buttons it around me, which I find presumptuous, as it ruins my outfit.
I realise I am not very good at being looked after by a man, and that this comes across as detached frostiness. As I get into his limo, he tries to kiss me and I’m afraid I duck, meaning he gets a mouthful of hair.
‘I’m not up there with the sheep, am I?’ he says ruefully. As I am chauffeured through the streets, alone yet again, I comfort myself with the realisation that I could, if I’d really wanted, have landed my very own Mr Big.
My final date, back in Britain, is a disaster. Mairead calls and asks whether I am interested in someone aged 40 who is in politics. She says he is ‘charismatic and bright’, which I take to mean ‘ hopelessly ugly’. He calls me, and I don’t like his voice, which is on the soprano side.
We arrange to meet for dinner, but I’m past caring by this point, so I’m afraid my grooming is a little below par, but I think I still look nice – clean, anyway. He is at the table, already sitting down. He stands up; there is little difference. Why are men so short these days?
I ask whether he keeps the fact that he uses an upmarket dating agency quiet, but he says no, why not use an expert to help him get what he wants? Which is? ‘An older woman, someone who doesn’t want children, who has her own life.’ It turns out he was in a long-term relationship until two years ago, and is only just ready to date again. He tells me he is ‘past dating beauties with fake breasts and blonde hair, the sort who make you look good’.
Do men really, in the 21st century, think those sort of women are an asset? He gets nervous when I say this. An hour and 45 minutes later, he asks for the bill. I offer to pay half, and he lets me, which makes me think: ‘What a tight a***.’
As we leave the restaurant, he doesn’t even offer to walk me to my car, which, given we are in Soho and it’s late, I find quite cavalier.
I learn a lot on my dates. That, despite money and success, men are as clueless and fearful about meeting potential partners as we are. That bankers aren’t always boring, and that a lot of the talk about models and eye candy is just their way of ego-boosting.
I learn that men and women have become mistrustful of each other but, most importantly, I learn not to be terrified of men, or to try too hard, or to yearn to be in my pyjamas watching telly instead because, you never know, it just might lead to something.
I am quite gratified that I could have pulled a banker. Mr Big’s post-date appraisal noted I was beautifully turned out, am not completely over my ex-husband but, even though I have far too many animals, ‘if she lived in the U.S. I’m wondering, might there be a relationship?’.
I learn that men – even powerful ones – probably appreciate a bit of flirting to give them encouragement, something I find impossible to do and which is probably the reason I’m still single.
I call Mairead to tell her she hasn’t yet found me the perfect man, and she insists that, even with a dating agency, I have to keep putting myself ‘out there’.
I tell her I can’t be bothered, and am heartened when she says: ‘It’s because you’re not desperate that I know you will meet someone, with or without me.’
And you know what? On Christmas Eve, millionaire number one texts to say he found me ‘intelligent and, dare I say it, sexy’, and that he wants to take me out for dinner ‘some time soon, and for a much longer date this time!’
It turns out he thought my reluctance to drink more than one glass of champagne showed a lack of interest rather than fear of losing my driving licence.
I think, despite myself, I might just have pulled a millionaire.