“At one party the women made me get on my hands and knees like a dog and circled all around me. They told me to crawl around while I read passages about slavery from the Bible.“
This is the kind of thing that happens to 26-year-old Nigel when he’s moonlighting as a “ManServant.”
“I was thinking, oh man, this is terrible. I’m probably going to leave after this. I’m probably going to pull the plug. But then at the end, they seemed kind of guilty and were just like, ‘We can’t believe you did that.’”
ManServants are the modern equivalent of escorts, a kind of Prince Charming meets Deuce Bigalow situation.
They’re chiseled, affable Romeos for hire who spend their workdays entertaining women at dinner parties and pouring champagne for bachelorettes.
Meet the “madams”
Dalal Khajah, 26, and Josephine “Jo” Wai Lin, 32, are the entrepreneurs behind ManServants. They came up with the idea while working at the digital advertising agency AKQA. They recruit attractive men, train them, and then send them out to clients. They launched in 2014.
They’ve been compared to Heidi Fleiss, the famous “Hollywood Madam” who ran a high profile Los Angeles prostitution ring (before being arrested).
But unlike Fleiss’s stable, ManServants must vow to never ever have sex with their clients (their job is to flatter, entertain, do menial tasks and anything else, within reason).
So it’s unclear whether that comparison is a compliment or a burn.
But hell, they’re now in three major markets (San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles) and have 7 full time employees and 36 part-time ManServants.
And their business is just over a year old.
“Rather than selling sex, we’re selling the promise of no sex, which is what makes the idea controversial. We’re selling a fantasy, and that’s creep-free, sex-free entertainment,” Khajah told me.
Khajah said they bootstrapped from the beginning. Once its popularity was proven the ladies completed a small seed round to fund their smartphone app, scheduled for release in early 2016. The app lets people order men from their phones, “among other things that will be fun for ladies to play around with.”
They’ve rented men to individuals and corporations, which include Bravo, Warner Brothers, Benefit Cosmetics, Armani and Cosmopolitan magazine.
The men make $50-$80 hourly, and the company charges $125 an hour for them. Overtime is prorated and charged every 15 minutes. The men are never allowed to stay after midnight.
“It’s a joke we took way too far”– but nobody’s laughing now
The idea for ManServants is so surreal, it’s no surprise it started off as a joke between BFF’s.
“Jo is from LA. She’s a Pisces. I’m from Kuwait, and I’m based in New York. I’m a Cancer. According to our charts, we’re perfect for one another,” Khajah told me.
Back when they worked at AKQA, they loved giving their coworkers funny birthday gifts. One day they tried to rent a man who would wait on their girlfriend. But — go figure — no one seemed to be renting quality men.
So many dick pics
Determined to find the perfect man, they turned to Craigslist. They held an open call. But…
“We just got dick pics,” Khajah said.
Then they searched TaskRabbit, but none of the men there were cute enough.
They ended up hiring a stripper. “We asked him, ‘Can you just come in and dote on our girlfriend at the office?’ But he couldn’t help himself and ended up giving her a lap dance in our office. It was an HR nightmare.”
After that, Khajah and Wai Lin knew they were on to something: the world needed a service that rented men.
“We had a list of qualities we wanted. He had to be charming, witty, a showman, emotionally intelligent, easy on the eyes, charismatic … and a feminist,” Khajah said. “It was challenging. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be so many good single girls out there,” she said.
Thousands of men apply for the job, Khajah told me. And it might sound like the men who make it through get to live the high life. But in reality, their lives aren’t always glamorous.
Manservant J.G. (a.k.a. Nigel) couldn’t tell me his full name as it would break the ManServant code. But he could tell me some of the shit that goes down when he’s working.
“I was at a bachelorette party and everyone was dancing to The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. All of the sudden the bride just started running towards me and I thought ‘Oh man, she wants me to do the Patrick Swayze lift.’ Luckily, I’m a trained ballet dancer, and I got her up. Then I just noticed these looks of horror on everyone’s faces. And I looked up and the bride, who was wearing a skirt, didn’t have any underwear on.”
“ I was at a party in Napa with another ManServant, and the ladies said they wanted to play chicken, like when girls get up on guys shoulders and play in a pool. I didn’t see a pool, but the ladies were like, ‘That’s fine, let’s do it in the vineyard.’
As soon as they were up, they just started going ape shit on each other. It was the dirtiest catfight I’ve ever seen. Eventually the one on my shoulders got pushed over backwards and just fell back onto the rock hard ground — like, splat. She took out a whole grapevine with her.”
Sometimes people call security
At this point, J.G. told me, he’s kind of seen it all. In the 10 months since he was recruited at a San Francisco Trader Joe’s, he’s man-served at 40 to 50 different events. All while continuing to work at the grocery store and pursuing a Master’s degree in acting.
It’s mostly a weekend gig, but one that pays way better than most others he’s had.
“The only gigs I hate sometimes are the office gigs. It’s like doing an hour of standup. Because sometimes, someone orders me for a friend — maybe for their birthday — and they’re like, ‘You got me this? I don’t like this.’ One time I got kicked out of an office like that.”
“Another time, I got kicked out of an office because the client’s boss thought I was a distraction … The boss was like, ‘You have to go. I’m calling security.’ But the client came out with me … and we went outside and took photos with this big, life-sized dog mask that someone had made. It could have been weird. But it was actually pretty cute.”
The business had to deal with haters
Not everyone “got” the concept of ManServants right away. By this, we mean men; who dominate the market when it comes to buying sex.
“It takes them a bit longer to wrap their head the idea that a ManServant makes all her dreams come true — and that includes keeping his tuxedo on. We’re about designing experiences catered to suit a woman’s needs, so we don’t expect men to understand, ” explained Khajah.
“We realized that’s what women want: the fantasy with boundaries,” Khajah told me. “It’s kind of a reversal of the gender dynamic. Men have kind of had their fun. They’ve always had gentlemen’s clubs and geishas. This is our version of the fantasy, with the promise that it will never lead to sex.”
Men get turned on with physical stripping, Khajah said. But women want emotional stripping.
“That’s women’s fantasy,” she said, “to have a really deep conversation.”
As a result, Khajah said they’ve amassed “The biggest database of women’s nonsexual fantasies.”
And fantasies can be weird…
“Most recently I heard a client ask her ManServant to say, ‘I’m wrong, you’re right,’ whenever he made eye contact with her,” Khajah told me.
Actually… maybe that’s not that weird.
Here are some other fantasy requests from client order forms:
- “Hipster meets lumberjack”
- “History buff”
- “Rough and tumble, in a Hemingway kind of way”
- “Reenact the Dirty Dancing lift”
- “Christian Grey”
- “Proposes to me in public, just so I can refuse him”
Awesome or awkward?
When ManServant J.G. arrived at the Hustle office and kissed my hand, introducing himself by the name “Nigel” I was having none of it. He was late and I had photos to take. And apparently, I’m not the only one who gets turned off by the routine, which can come off as awkward and smarmy. On the other hand, when he walked into the office, I had to laugh at the range of reactions.
The men were amused, bemused, or visibly insecure.
The women blushed redder than I’d ever seen.
J.G. said he’s seen the ManServant fantasy turn a few people off.
“Often, that’s people’s biggest hesitation to me. They almost get grossed out by it, like, ‘You’re hanging out, but we’re paying you to be here.’ That’s when I go into butler mode. And eventually, they feel more comfortable because I’m working. I’m bringing the car around, I’m taking coats, I’m washing dishes. Once they see that, they warm up and tell me, Hey, stop doing that, come over here and hang out with us.”
“People never want to feel like they’re being manipulated but they do like when they know I’m lying to them. There’s a suspension of disbelief.”
“Sometimes, I’m at a party where people just keep saying, ‘You look so uncomfortable! You look so uncomfortable!’ But really, they’re saying that because they feel uncomfortable. That’s when I take off my (tux) jacket and just try to entertain them, and get them to relax.”
How much for sex?
Despite what people might assume, J.G. told me he’s never been propositioned for sex outright, although people have dropped hints. Mostly, he said, he just plays them off.
“No one has ever been, straight up, ‘Here’s $500 dollars.’ If they did, I’d just turn it into a joke … People have asked me to strip, but the only time the suit will come off is when it’s a pool party and I have a swimsuit on.”
“I mean, if you come in the room and you’re cleaned up and in a suit and you come to be eye candy — you can’t blame someone for thinking you’re attractive.”
What you tell momma when you’re a ManServant:
“My mom thinks it’s hilarious. She’s always, like, ‘I would order you!”
What it takes to be a ManServant, from one who knows
“We’re a hybrid of an English butler and the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World,” Peter Clarkson, one of the original ManServants and Director of Talent told me.
Clarkson was the one who spotted J.G. when he “had his head in a freezer” at Trader Joe’s and told me what he looks for in new recruits:
You must be a man. “We don’t want any of our clients to receive a boy servant,” he told me.
You must be hot. “We definitely want there to be that shock and awe factor when the man arrives.” All ManServants arrive in tuxedos.
You gotta be self-assured, but chill. “The guys have to lack absolutely any shred of douche. If we pick up on any indication that they’re douchey, they’re out. Because you have to be there to celebrate the lady clients. Sometimes that means in addition to opening the Champagne, you’re also taking out the trash and doing the dishes.”
You must be willing to leave at midnight, adopt a persona based on whatever the client wants and let the ladies fall in love with you. Company rule prohibits ManServants from using their real names or exchanging contact information with any of their clients.
“The persona is part of what makes the business thrive. It creates that movie star effect. It keeps people coming back. Women tend to fall in love with ManServants like they fall in love with Brad Pitt. They’ll never be able to look them up or text them. They just disappear at midnight like Cinderella.”
It helps to be well educated, but you don’t have to be. Ditto on being up to date with current events, which some ManServants might have to study if it’s important to a client. Basically anything that makes “the lady” swoon.
“Occasionally, there’s this temptation to crack the persona and say, ‘My name isn’t really James Bond.’ That’s the hard part,” Clarkson said. Nothing can shatter the fantasy.
I asked J.G. if being a manservant had messed with his head in some way; if it made it difficult to be real with people when he’s in social or romantic situations.
He said it didn’t, that it helped him loosen up, be more spontaneous and quicker to change things up if they aren’t working out well.
“I can read people quicker now, too,” he said.
“What does your girlfriend think about all this?” I asked.
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.
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