In the corner of the ‘Penthouse Lounge’ of a club in downtown New York, a petite 25-year-old stands casually near a bar while a make-up artist applies green body paint to her bare breasts and stomach. The effect is presumably meant to pass for a bustier. It seems fitting for a party with the theme ‘Masquerade Ball’.
I’ve come along to the New York Sugar Daddy convention – a buzzing dating event held in the centre of town, where sugar daddies (successful, rich single men) have come in search of sugar babes (young attractive women seeking men with money to lavish on them). Tonight there are 900 excited guests, mainly 60- to 70-year-old men and 20- to 35-year-old women. They stand at opposite ends of the room surveying each other while sipping vintage champagne. The objective is clear: to walk away with what’s known as an ‘arrangement’.
The concept of an older man financially providing for a beautiful woman is hardly novel. But with the divorce rate hovering around 50 per cent in NYC and the economy still uncertain, it seems that, for some, a night like this in a room full of like-minded people is time well invested. Tickets are $65, but women have to reach strict aesthetic standards, with ‘elegant and appropriate’ grooming and dress. But let’s not beat about the bush: this is less Sex and the City, more Jersey Shore.
Charlie, a slick 69-year-old businessman from Ohio, hands two pretty 25-year-old brunettes in tight dresses glasses of champagne, which they grasp appreciatively. After cooing her gratitude, one turns to me and says, ‘He’s so amazing. He acts like he’s sooo young.’
Charlie confesses he prefers the sugar-daddy lifestyle to the more traditional one he inhabited previously. ‘I’ve been through two divorces,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve decided that when it comes to my social and sensual side, I’d rather rent than buy.’ The women he now dates tend to be attractive and between 30 and 40 years younger than him.
‘I’m successful, but I’m not a multimillionaire,’ he says. ‘With many girls, you can get away with gifting them about $300 or $400 each time you see them, which might be once a month, plus dinner.’ For that, he gets the company and presumably sexual companionship (if this is agreed in advance) of a glamorous, wrinkle-free young woman. Although, of course, the age difference can present problems.
‘I was seeing a 27-year-old and, after a year, she decided she wanted a baby. I told her there wasn’t anything on the site where we met that mentioned pregnancy.’ With a rueful smile he adds: ‘It split us up. She ended up getting pregnant by her old boyfriend.’
The experience clearly didn’t sour Charlie, though. He’s a regular attendee at these events.
For a generation of women raised to believe we should provide for ourselves and then marry for love, the sugar-daddy concept may look totally outdated. But in an economy that has forced most New York women I know to work exhaustive hours just to make ends meet, there is certainly an appetite for millionaire hunting.
‘I think this convention is reflective of how there are still numerous inequalities between the sexes, even though women have made enormous strides,’ says New York-based marriage and family therapist Dr Paul Hokemeyer. ‘It’s sad that women in New York society still feel they need to be around strong, successful, rich men in order to have status. But that’s the way it is for some.’
The sugar-daddy scene has gone from strength to strength since the recession began, agrees Alan ‘Action’ Schneider, the 50-year-old Bronx-born event planner who organised tonight’s party, one of 50 sugar-daddy parties he’s planned across the country over the past three years. ‘Successful men of a certain age coming out of a divorce want a straightforward relationship with a woman who doesn’t make too many demands on their precious time,’ he says. ‘Women are also saddled with bigger debts than ever, and their parents can’t afford to pay for them after they graduate any more. If they want a certain standard of life they have a choice: spend 15 hours a day working their ass off – or find somebody who can help them out.’
Allison is a 25-year-old blonde beauty therapist from Long Island. From behind a sequined gold mask she says she’d like to meet a millionaire. The challenge, of course, is finding one who’s also attractive. ‘It’s cool if you can get the whole package – the guy you’re attracted to who also has money.’ She glances to her right – where an extremely tanned, balding, sixtysomething man wearing an open-collared shirt and tinted glasses walks by – and then adds, ‘But it’s very difficult for me if I’m not attracted to the person.’
Although there are many sugar-daddy websites, perhaps one of the reasons so many women turn out to these events in the flesh is, crucially, to suss out who’s pretending to be more of a sugar daddy than he actually is. ‘At the parties, you get to see who’s embellishing and trying to be something he’s not,’ says Kim, a thirtysomething fashion stylist who says she’s looking for investors for her business. Later, she can be seen dancing against a sweaty guy in a suit. If this is investor recruitment, it’s certainly creative.
For sugar babe Carla, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The 37-year-old joined the international dating website SugarDaddy.com a little over a year ago. ‘I’ve dated rich men and poor men,’ says the Colombian-born former car-insurance-franchise owner, between air kisses to various men who walk by. ‘I was always looking for a high-level relationship – someone smart and successful who I could connect with on a higher level.’
Through the site Carla met a handsome South American-Italian wealth manager called Sergio. Unusually for a sugar daddy, Sergio is actually six years her junior. The pair met eight months ago through the Sugar Daddy site after he joined in search of a woman he could spend his growing fortune on. Their arrangement sounds pleasant: ‘He’s taken me on vacation – to the Bahamas and Costa Rica,’ she says. ‘And he takes me shopping. I’m there whenever he needs me.’ Because she owned her own insurance business for seven years she often accompanies him on business trips, advising him on both finance and marketing. ‘He likes me for my business sense and because I look good in pink,’ she adds.
Sergio admits he found traditional dating too claustrophobic and time-consuming alongside his job. ‘I used to have to hear a lot of, “Where are you? Where are we going tonight? What are we doing this weekend? Where have you been?”’ he says. Carla, he explains, never does that. ‘She’s very smart, very fun and very sweet and undemanding,’ he says. ‘I get pleasure and a lot of fun. Plus, we have great conversations – and my clients all love her.’
He bristles when I ask if his clients know he has a ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement. ‘They don’t care,’ he says. ‘It’s my life and my money.’
Carla seems outwardly relaxed about the fact that their relationship must be taken one day at a time, although she admits she finds it hard not to want to make plans for the future with Sergio. ‘It’s definitely challenging,’ she admits. ‘You have to be strong and independent all the time. Sergio likes that I give him his space and don’t get jealous if he dates other girls. But I’m confident. I know that I’m a good catch, too, and I don’t need to date around. I’m happy with Sergio.’ How about a ‘normal’ relationship or marriage? ‘I would like that,’ she concedes, ‘but I didn’t meet anyone else who was giving me more, emotionally, before Sergio. This way, I appreciate what he wants to give me right now.’
It appears that ‘proper’ relationships can, and do, blossom. An affable, extremely tall strip-club owner, who goes by the name Big John, tells me that after a lifetime of sugar-daddy arrangements, he has settled down. Tonight he’s just here to catch up with old friends and business acquaintances rather than ‘shop around’ for another girl. ‘Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and want to be in something real,’ he says. Just as I’m about to congratulate Big John on his maturity, he adds with a wink that his girlfriend is half his age. ‘I like being in a proper relationship, but there’s no doubt about it: it’s harder work and more stress. Arrangements are so much easier. You come to an event, discuss the terms with a girl you like and that’s it.’
There is certainly an honesty at these events that is arguably absent at regular dating events, where couples skirt around the bigger issues of salaries and exclusivity. And yet plenty of obfuscation goes on here. This party has many different titles because not all the attendees were comfortable admitting they’d attend a sugar-daddy event. ‘One invite said it was a charity benefit, another said it was a masquerade party, another said that it was an event for millionaires,’ explains Rosa, an event publicist, who adds that ten per cent of proceeds go to a cancer charity.
As the night ends, one drunken man has to be escorted out by his friend, dancing becomes decidedly dirty, and couples are entwined in corners. Attractive girls who I heard shun certain men earlier in the evening are with the same men at tables, snogging.
This is when Schneider’s parents show up, providing a surprising insight into his background. They are an adorable older couple who introduce themselves as Gloria and ‘Stan the Man’. They endearingly finish each other’s sentences and tell me that they’ve been together since college. ‘We’re so proud of our son. He loves people. He’s very social. He loves children,’ Gloria says. ‘We love what he’s done here. It’s just gals meeting guys and guys meeting gals and forming lovely relationships. It’s all very upfront and real.’ She gives me a wide smile. I look around the room and notice one of the 25-year-old women from earlier in the evening dancing with a short, balding man in his sixties. I can’t help wondering just how many ‘real’ or fulfilling relationships can really be cultivated on a night like this.