Best friend for hire? It's a real thing -- and, participants say, don't judge
By CHERYL STRITZEL MCCARTHY | Chicago Tribune | Published: October 27, 2017
He was 67, a former race-car driver living in a retirement community. She was 23, vibrant and attractive, happy to listen to stories of past glory.
It's not what you think. Her name is Tara, she lives in Los Angeles and she's available to be your best friend -- in a strictly platonic sense -- for $20 an hour through RentAFriend.com. She met the retired race-car driver in an LA coffee shop and conversed for three hours.
Don't judge, says Tara, who's first name is being used for privacy reasons. "You don't know what it would be like for you, in their shoes."
Ever needed a best friend but didn't have one handy? Ever thought of hiring one?
You probably already have, says Rebecca Perlman Coniglio, a licensed clinical social worker with a practice in the New York City area. Consider your hairdresser, the bartender, your housecleaner. The concept of hiring someone for a task but interacting with him or her as a friend has been going on for decades but is more prevalent now, she says. In an ever more electronic world, people are increasingly hungry for contact in person.
Suppliers who work one-on-one with clients in a personal setting know this well. Mary Carlomagno is an organizer who writes and speaks on the topic and just published her novel "Best Friend for Hire" (Post Hill Press, 2017). "Most of the people I work with tell me a lot more than they need to for the job," Carlomagno says, who adds she sometimes feels like a therapist.
One woman emailed her: "Could I talk to you about what I need? I don't know what to do with my life. I lost my job two years ago. I am 70 and still need and want to work."
Another woman hired her to help organize, but it soon became clear the problem was deeper than clutter. "As I was working, her husband began to wander in," Carlomagno says. "Eventually I worked with the two of them, but the wife was less and less in the picture." The wife wanted a baby, but the husband would not clear out the room meant for a nursery.
"He couldn't make room for her," Carlomagno says. "Our final meeting, he called me in not to work but to tell me they'd broken up."
Boyd Sloan, 31, is a private stylist and personal shopper in New York City, with a client list that includes celebrities and politicians. He has permission to shop high-end stores on consignment, taking merchandise into a client's home or hotel for choosing. "We spend lots of one-on-one time during fittings and while shopping. Clients vent about things or spill gossip they've been dying to dish on, but wouldn't dare with women they know." Mistresses, inheritances, thoughts of money laundering -- Sloan has heard it all.
As wealth increases, the number of trusted confidants decreases, Sloan says. "It becomes difficult to find someone to talk to who will simply be an impartial ear. Sometimes clients are lonely or angry and want someone to listen."
In most cases, that's fine with the supplier. "A huge part of my job is about the relationships I form with my clients," Sloan says.
Until it's not. One woman began to call him several times a week. "My job rides a fine line between friend and employee, and I was happy to listen," Sloan says. But when her talk strayed into more serious matters, "I kindly advised that she seek professional help."
Carlomagno is familiar with that scenario. That married couple who hired her to declutter, but wound up with the husband telling her his marital problems? She gently severed her professional connection.
It can work in the other direction too. A customer hired Carlomagno for three work sessions. They became friends, the work ended, but the friendship went on. After a certain point, she says, it has to be one or the other.
"One of those valves has to be turned off. You stay as a friend or you stay as a worker." Don't stay on getting paid by people who just want to talk unless you're a life coach or therapist, she advises.
All this was inspiration for her novel, Carlomagno says. One of her clients even told her, "You're like a best friend, a best friend for hire."
"I use humor, like a best friend would. They need to feel comfortable with me. No judgment! That's key." Another client told Carlomagno, "Honestly, I'd hire you just to hang out with you."
Which circles back to Tara in L.A., who likes her gigs as a friend for hire. She decides which offers she accepts, sets her own schedule and prices, chooses venues, drives herself and gets paid in cash. She and other friends for hire, of both genders, avoid alcohol on the job and don't give out home addresses. She always lets a friend -- a real friend -- know where she's going. "It's easy to judge somebody who'd sign up for this, but that's just silly. There's no judgment; the whole point is to make a human connection."
Tara admits it sounds a little weird, and she hasn't told her parents. She tells potential clients ahead of time, "This is just two friends meeting up, hope that's cool with you." Upon hearing that, some clients drop out. In L.A., she gets requests from out-of-towners coming in who want a tour guide. "We meet up for breakfast, and if everything seems cool, we spend the day together, at the beach or museums. I drive. My rate is $200 for the day, and they cover food and entry fees.
"I get some really random ones. One guy was taking a Russian language course and needed someone to take video of him speaking Russian in different settings. We went to a Russian deli, Russian restaurant, and he spoke to someone on the street.
"Another person asked me to go salsa dancing. He needed to bring a partner to dance class."
But it's usually coffee or maybe dinner. "It's basically company," Tara says. "It's hard to find someone just willing to listen."
There's nothing wrong with getting a friend via hiring, says Coniglio. Some people have limited access to social situations. "You want to talk and be heard. As long as it's not hurting anyone, there's nothing wrong with it. But it's better to strive toward the confidence where you can make a true friend and realize someone would be happy to be your friend for free."