A Starbucks in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., bears a striking resemblance to nearly any other strip mall Starbucks. It’s filled with cougars wearing yoga pants, students tapping at laptops and geriatric Russians playing chess.
I find a seat at a communal table and place my laptop case on the seat across from me. A harried student comes in and asks, “Is this seat taken?” “Yes,” I reply, “I’m saving it for my friend.” The student shuffles off in search of a power port.
A few minutes later, Alyssa walks in, long black hair cascading over her shoulders, her cheeks rosy from the blustery cold weather, her glasses fogging from the change in temperature. She sits down and I set up my recorder.
What I couldn’t explain to the student, and what I have a hard time explaining to you, dear Luckbox reader, is that I was saving a seat for my friend; a friend I rented on the internet.
What appears to be two millennial women catching up over banana loaves and dirty chai lattes is actually a first-time meeting between two people whose relationship is transactional and facilitated by rentafriend.com.
The site was founded 10 years ago by serial entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum. The “strictly platonic friendship” site generates revenue from members who pay $24.95 a month for access to more than 620,000 rentable “friends.”
Savvy side-hustlers create free profiles and rent themselves out for anywhere from $10 to $50 an hour for activities ranging from hiking to catching the latest museum exhibit or helping plan a party.
The site features full-color images of “friends,” showcasing areas of interest, height, hair color and eye color. The data blurs the line between a platonic friend site and a potential dating site. Most people don’t search for friends by cup size.
An online search for RentaFriend yields enough weirdness to make it seem the site exists solely to help journalists write clickbait stories. But Alyssa assures me the requests are genuine.
“I joined in the summer, and I’ve met three people in person since then,” she notes. She’s a single mom, so it’s hard to meet new people. She sees the site as an avenue to forge possible friendships while also earning extra cash.
Her first “friend” was a woman. “I really thought it was more weird for a woman to be looking for a friend,” she recalls. “I could see how men would want one, [but] we texted for about a week and it was for her bachelorette party.”
The bachelorette festivities included a DJ, fun games and even a “naughty cake,” Alyssa recalls. “Then I found out that the other ‘guests’ were also from the website.” The woman, whom Alyssa describes as “kind of a wallflower” threw herself a raging party attended entirely by strangers from the internet.
Alyssa says her second “friend” was a gentleman, “a few years older,” who reached out via a sweet text telling her he liked her glasses. He asked if she would accompany him to dinner.
“He was asking me what type of food I wanted, and it came off like a date to me, and he gave me three options and all were four-star restaurants,” she says. “We went to an upscale steakhouse.”
He was shy but respectful. “He kept telling me he just wanted someone to talk to,” she remembers. “He says that to be in a relationship you should be friends first. So he thought rentafriend.com would be the best avenue.”
The third person she met was in a relatable situation. His coupled-up friends had planned a bar crawl, and he was literally the lone man out. He’d heard about RentaFriend on the radio and thought it was a joke.
When he found out it wasn’t, he contacted Alyssa to pose as his “pretend girlfriend.” She says it threw her off guard because, “I wasn’t meeting just one stranger, I was meeting a bunch of men.”
They all seemed cool, but the one hiccup of the evening occurred because they hadn’t devised a cover story about how they’d met. Alyssa smoothly told his friends they had met on Tinder.
He was respectful, holding her hand while crossing the street without getting handsy.
As a side hustle the income isn’t consistent enough to count on. But Alyssa hopes the site will enable her to connect with people on a spiritual level. She knows it’s weird, which is why she has only told one of her friends and no one in her family about her entrepreneurial endeavor.
The stigma is real. “Once I tell people, they’re going to say, ‘That’s kind of weird,’ and ‘Do they touch you?’ Stuff like that.” I laugh and tell her, “Do they touch you” is going to be the pull-quote for this story.
Alyssa gets serious for a second and then says, “To be honest, I feel like society is losing its ability to make friends organically. We’re losing this kind of skill to just go up to someone and make small conversation and then develop a connection or friendship.”
Talk to any sex worker or watch any documentary on “transactional relationships,” and you’ll find most people aren’t really interested in knockin’ da boots. Increasingly, they’re paying a premium for “girlfriend experiences” where customers receive calls and regular texts from women. It’s an imitation of a real relationship. In 2019, “Honey, how was your day?” is more of a turn-on than “Do me, cowboy.”
The premise for this article was that Alyssa would help me with the “wing woman services” listed in her profile. I’m nerdy and awkward. As a matter of principle, I should not interact with the opposite sex unless under the supervision of a trained professional.
But her personal story was so intriguing that we didn’t really get around to it. I did ask for pointers, and she told me how she does it.
“Make eye contact, flip your hair, look at him, then look away,” she said. “If I feel like he’s taking the bait, then I would go up to him and tell him about you.”
We giggled like school girls conspiring in a note-passing scheme but, as usual in the modern age, there wasn’t a single man around us who wasn’t engrossed in his smartphone or laptop. The most coquettish hair flip would have failed to distract anyone from his screen.
In a time when my own friends are popping out kids like kittens under the L tracks and my asinine texts about boy problems go unread, it seems nice to have a site where someone will have time for you.
Alyssa is earnest and a good listener. She says, “I feel like I’ve been through a lot, and people my age are going through things that I may have gone through, so I have good insight. Sometimes people just need someone they can talk to. I’m a big believer in therapy. It doesn’t have to happen sitting in an office—it can take a lot of different forms.”
Friendship, whether organic or transactional, can be deeply healing, and in a world of social media personas carefully crafted for likes, true friendship seems elusive. The pain of loneliness is real, so if texting a stranger isn’t for you, calling an actual friend you haven’t reached out to in a while might be a good idea. It’s important to check on friends and acquaintances this time of year, when the smiles online might not match reality. But yeah, if you want to throw yourself a kick-ass party but you’re too embarrassed to buy an outrageous penis cake, I have a friend for you.
Vonetta Logan, a writer and comedian, appears daily on the tastytrade network and hosts the Connect the Dots podcast. @vonettalogan