The Uber for Gentleman Companions

A new San Francisco startup promises “what women really want.” Which is, apparently, a model-hot guy to do their bidding. A ManServant.

By Julieanne Smolinski
Photographs by Peter Bohler

I am eating nachos on a cloudy day at Oakland’s Coliseum in a field box behind first base, when the extremely handsome man I am with offers to give me a massage.

“Massaged while eating nachos” would be a pretty decent afternoon for anybody, but for two things:

1. We had just watched a randy older couple in matching Rollie Fingers jerseys gamely explore one another’s bodies in the seats in front of us, encouraged by the supportive hoots of the loudly day-drunk Athletics fans.

2. Because I am paying for the extremely handsome man’s company.

A glob of nacho cheese falls off of a nacho I am holding and onto my knee. The handsome man takes a clean, white hand towel out of his bag and wipes the cheese off my leg with a smile.

“Oopsie,” he says.

I decline the massage.

“ManServants” are not hookers. They are not escorts. They are not gigolos.

Dalal Khajah and Josephine Wai Lin — the two women behind the freshly launched, completely real San Francisco business that sends attractive men to do the bidding of (mostly) female clients for an hourly rate — would emphatically like you to know this.

“The Ladies” of ManServants (not my embroidery —“The ladies” is their shared email address) emphatically wanted me to know this when they made nervy, cautious arrangements for me to experience their “signature service” in the American citadel of sex work and absurd technological enterprise.

The splash page of the company’s website promises “WHAT WOMEN REALLY WANT,” operating under the premise that while men would like to pay a woman to take her clothes off at a party, women would like to pay a man to come to a party and be nice to them.

Though the men are available for a host of events, they are primarily intended to act as all-purpose-but-That-One entertainment for groups of women who want to spice up a girls’ night or hen party with some hard-core courtesy. Women, asserts ManServants, don’t actually want the female analogue of the bachelor party stripper. That stuff — the gyrating and the grinding and the ambient possibility of ejaculation — is men stuff.

“It’s not a stripper who gets naked and rubs his greasy body all over you,” the site reassures or disappoints, depending on your idea of a good time. “It’s a ManServant: a gentleman who treats you like a queen. Book one for a bachelorette party or any gathering to be your personal photographer, bartender, bodyguard, and butler all in one.”

The start-up, which is currently available only in San Francisco, feels equally motivated by the wedding industrial complex and a long night of flavored vodka: At its core, it’s Uber for good-looking men you can order around.

I’d heard about ManServants over the summer when its wildly over-the-top video trailer lobbed a saucy pinecone at social media’s spotty wasp nest. It showed attractive women with perfect blowouts being attended to by a mostly white cadre of model-hot guys.

One ManServant wheels a baby carriage for a woman in a cocktail gown. Another emerges from a pool in a tuxedo to refill a gorgeous woman’s champagne glass while the kind of music plays that you might hear in a hotel lobby and think, “Whoa, people in this building are probably having sex.”

Tech Twitter responded rationally to the ManServants promo by eating its own head. Several blogs provided incredulity and outrage in both male and female flavors. There were many comments made in comments sections by people who write comments in comments sections. Comments like, “No women are going to use this” or “Women don’t need to pay for attention” or “Okay, no *hot* women will use this.”

“But do they FUCK you?” everybody seemed to want to know.

No. Not according to the literature.

So if I have this straight (and I don’t know that I do), the idea is to provide a group of classy high-femme straight girls with a fully clothed, light-submissive Chippendale. A stripper who doesn’t strip.

Khajah and Wai Lin both have advertising backgrounds, so some of the copy on their site is surprising in its schizophrenic, Manichean approach to female sexuality.

Beneath the repeated oath that women don’t want to leer at a man’s body or see his penis is the promise that you can pick the exact kind of man’s body that you won’t leering at: “Blonde to brunette, James Bond to Middle-Earth, if your type lives to serve, we’ve got him,” they promise. Well, great. I’ve always wanted to not fuck James Bond.

The sum total seems less cheeky and fun than forbidding and legally problematic. ManServants are supposed to address you as “My lady” and respond to your demands with “As you wish.” As part of the “Standard Service,” your ManServant must also act as “a bodyguard” and “human shield against douchebags.” I’m the daughter of a personal-injury lawyer, so all I could think of is that if my ManServant decks an unlikely interloper during our chaste rendezvous, there’s no way I’m not going down for it.

When it first gained internet notoriety, a lot of people thought ManServants was a spoof or hoax. And, conceptually, it is almost paradoxically retrograde. Yes, okay: I concede that some women may not want a set of oily testicles jingle-jangled in their faces before their big day. But what woman really wants a man to “always remain two steps ahead so she may gracefully make an entrance” or be sent “as a gift to a lady friend’s cubicle, so she’ll have a personal assistant for the day to do her bidding.” Personally, I would rather have the testicles in my face — or drink a large glass of lead paint.

Choosing your ManServant is not the salacious exercise you might imagine, and feels a lot like ordering online from a large corporate pizza chain. I was hoping there would be some kind of lookbook for the men, so I could feel like a Reagan-era skeeze picking out a “girlfriend experience.” Alas, The Ladies choose the man who will be at your service, from their small stable of non-stitutes, via a fairly standard internet form.

In fact, you don’t get to see any pictures at all — you only get to specify hair color, facial hair preference, age, and body type. I found the last category particularly lacking in diversity: your choices are “Lean,” “Toned,” and “Jacked.” I prefer a physique in the range from “just now sort of giving up” to “fanatical devotion to the outdated food pyramid.”

However, lest you worry that there is not ample opportunity for the discomfort of ordering up a human being to obey you via the internet, never fear: You can also give him whatever name you want, and enumerate any crazy things you might want him to do via a special requests section.

Don’t get too excited, though, as suggested special requests include “feeds you grapes while fanning you,” and not, say, “defecates on a glass coffee table while you lie underneath furiously masturbating.”

An email from The Ladies with suggestions for my outings included one where a ManServant would “blast Beyoncé” while I walked “the hipster streets of San Francisco.” There were also a picnic, a piano bar, and a gasoline-huffingly tone-deaf trip to Whole Foods with a “sassy” ManServant who would “selectively pick out all the best organic produce, take kale shots with you, and throw an impromptu photo-shoot with the best-looking fruits.” Do you think they mean… GAY?

Feeling like a sultan appraising a rich harem of mannequins, I settled on two ManServant experiences: a fancy girl’s night on the town, and an afternoon baseball game in deeply non-sexual Oakland.

I meet a friend at a hotel bar about an hour before we’re supposed to meet Theodore Roosevelt — which is what I named my first ManServant.

This is because the ManServant form encouraged me to “get creative.” Accordingly, I have specified that my ManServant should be a brilliant expert in local history who also believes in ghosts.

Theodore is meeting us at the Tonga Room, a touristy tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel that I chose both for the absurdity of meeting a fake escort in a tiki bar and for the fact that our drinks will come served in bowls.

I am as nervous as a person who is meeting an actual hooker. So I’m relieved when my friend Isa shows up carrying a gigantic vase and smelling vaguely of sauerkraut and ground beef.

“What’s this?” I ask of the vase.

She tells me that it’s a present for me. Her Cuban grandma recently died and they’re trying to get rid of all her stuff. I explain to Isa that I flew in from Los Angeles with only a weekend bag and cannot accept a two-foot-tall piece of pointy beveled glass. Isa says that’s fine, on our way to the Tonga Room she can stick it in her trunk, which, she admits, is mostly full of sauerkraut and ground beef.

Isa is here at the behest of Josephine and Dalal. The co-founders fretted more or less constantly about whether or not I was going to imply that you could in any way fuck or fondle or otherwise molest their staff — so they asked repeatedly if I wouldn’t mind bringing a few of my local girlfriends with me on the two totally-on-the-up-and-up cheerful servitude excursions we planned for my coverage. I guess it would be a bit like having a party clown come to your house just for you, but it did not escape me that the attractive men were being protected from being alone with me.

My only local “girlfriend” is Isa. We briefly attended a Cleveland-area Catholic school together. As a teenager, Isa was an asexual X-Files obsessive who loathed showering. The last time I had seen her, she had blossomed into an asexual X-Files obsessive who loathed showering.

As we exchange a little small talk, it emerges that since I last saw her, Isa has moved out of her car and into her uncle’s garage. She is working as a tutor for wealthy unpleasant children, which we both agree is an exciting step. Isa’s sexuality has always been a bit of question mark for me, as she dresses kind of like a cross between a confident dad on a tropical vacation and a color-blind lesbian. Today, it’s cargo shorts and a paisley top with an aquamarine scarf wrapped around her neck.

“And this is what you do now?” she asks.

“Yes,” I said.

“This is real weird,” she says, and we head up the hill toward her car with the large vase.

Theodore Roosevelt has flowers.

The Ladies seem to have interpreted my (admittedly not that funny) requests as a demand for historical role-play. After our initial fumbling introductions and handshakes, it becomes clear that my ManServant intends to stay in character as the 26th president. For the three hours he’s on the clock with me.

He is blond-ish, built-ish, and would be declared empirically “very handsome” by an unbiased panel of attractiveness judges. He wears a suit and tie. The overall look is more American Psycho than Rough Rider, and he speaks with a slight twang I can’t place.

ManServants are supposed to compliment you every 15 minutes, and he tells us right out of the gate that we look “beautiful.” I look like a sebum-glazed donut after a day of travel, and Isa had to stop and rest on the way up the hill to the Fairmont just in order to deal with her sweating situation.

We sit down, and he tacitly deals with our hygiene by offering us some amenities he’s brought along in a bag: some Purell and a tiny fan. After our introductions and a brief history of hauntings in the area, he goes off to get some water, but not before he tells us again how great we look. For a minute, I get the appeal of prostitutes, and I get it deeply.

When he returns, I order a round of mai tais (nothing for him, he says firmly), and we pass perhaps the most awkward minutes of my life while he attempts to recount the first episode of the Ken Burns Roosevelts documentary, in the first person.

I am not being figurative here, because he later explains to me that he was going to watch the whole thing in dutiful Meisnerian preparation, but only got through the first hour or so, and fudged a little bit by scanning the Wikipedia page.

But before the fourth wall breaks, we spend a good 20 minutes in a fashion not unlike this:

Theodore Roosevelt: So how are you ladies doing tonight?

Me: Good. And yourself?

Theodore Roosevelt: I am not very good because my wife, Alice, recently died in childbirth.

I nod and nod and drink rum out of a fake coconut and listen to a live band play “She Bangs” and think about all of the friends who knew I was doing this and encouraged me to ignore The Ladies and journalistic integrity and really try to fuck one of these platonic feelings-hustlers.

But I know from minute one with TR that I’m not going to even flirt with him, because that is exactly where my gendered lack of sexual entitlement comes into play. At some point I thought to myself, this guy is way too hot for me to hit on. And he’s working.

Let us now discuss price, as one does in these situations.

ManServants are not cheap: They cost $125 an hour before assorted extra fees. The base rate does not include anything that you eat or drink, cover charges, or transportation.

While they are paid handsomely (per the website, beginning at $80 an hour), you can’t buy your ManServant booze or snacks or really anything, which is both atypical of the traditional escort experience and deeply unsettling, even if you think of them as cater-waiters with a dash of boyfriend cosplay.

To pay someone to talk to you and compliment you quarter-hourly and provide you with company and not “take care of them” feels borderline negligent, like those high school football players who die of heat stroke because they’re not allowed to have water.

The bottom line is that I was very worried about making this guy pretending to be Theodore Roosevelt uncomfortable.

He offers to show us a few other garish tourist hotspots in the area, and I ignore the anachronism and say sure, just for something to be able to do other than carry on this way. Isa has been struck dumb by this interpersonal Heart of Darkness, and I wish I were in her trunk with the vase.

To give you some idea of my humiliation threshold: The words “bananas Foster” give me hives, because I don’t want to be perceived as a person who invites the public spectacle of a flaming dessert. And here I am spending a night with a guy who is begrudgingly giving me the tableside equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

It is nearly impossible to ask him any questions as a ManServants employee, because he has clearly been told not to break character. He does, however, indicate pretty baldly through half-concealed gestures of exhaustion that he longs to speak candidly. Also, that he wants to go home and drink heavily.

After much prompting from me, he drops the TR act. He still tries to be a garden-variety ManServant, which seems to involve doing a lot of stuff I’d just feel more comfortable doing myself, like ordering drinks and talking to door people. It’s like having an interpreter who speaks the same language as the person you’re talking to. He takes us to a lounge with panoramic city views, and I ask him to watch our table while Isa and I do a loop of the room just to get some relief from the still-mutually-excruciating pageantry.

We hit a few more bars and I attempt lame attempts at interrogating someone whose employment hinges on not answering any of my questions.

I am loathe to speak ill of fake Theodore Roosevelt, but, man, he would not make a very good real hooker. He would not even make a very good Ruby Tuesday waiter on a day he was cranky. He clearly didn’t want to be there.

He also helpfully told me at one point how he’d write this article, as he had some pretty strong ideas about real vs. nonreal journalism — let’s just say the name Hunter S. Thompson was invoked.

“I’m all about being real,” he said, asserting that in the end, I should be real about how uncomfortable I definitely seemed in the company of such male beauty.

Sure, he tried admirably not to betray ManServants to the awkward, smelly press, but he also seemed to have a pretty low threshold for pretending he wasn’t miserable. That’s sort of a must for paid companions of any type, whether you’re doing “girlfriend experience” or sugar-babying, or giving somebody who picked you up under an overpass a hand job.

I’ve never done sex work or private entertainment of any kind, but I think part of doing it is not acting like you’d rather be anyplace else — and possibly dead.

He did, however, offer to take some bros making gross sex talk next to us to task.

“I don’t want you to get into a bar fight,” I said, which was the truth.

“I’m not afraid of those guys, and I can be pretty intimidating with my words,” he said, and I realized that this guy would probably be totally cool with getting into a bar fight. In fact, he seemed like that was the only thing that would save his night.

He looked at his watch. “I like your scarf,” he tells Isa.

There’s an old Twilight Zone episode about a robotic nanny, in which a grieving widower takes his three children to a fun robot boutique, where they gleefully trick out a replacement matriarch like a bunch of coke dealers customizing a Honda. They name her “Grandma.” It’s all very troubling.

Only little Anne (future X-Files guest star Veronica Cartwright) is sensibly wigged out by Grandma and just won’t cotton to her like her extremely dumb siblings, Tom and Karen.

Every time I see it, I wait for the pretty old robot woman’s eyes to transform into a pair of menacing red rhombuses, and her hands, into pinchy, crescent claws. This clearly has to end in Grandma ripping the children limb from limb, beating Tom with parts of Karen as Rod Serling intones some of his menacing flimflam about the supremacy of human love.

But the scary part is: It doesn’t happen. Grandma raises the children to graceful, attractive maturity. She effectively replaces their mother and is even more valuable to them because she will never ever go away or die. When it’s time for the kids to leave the house and go to college, she politely leaves for God knows where.

I felt like Anne when I designed my ManServants and gave them personalities and names. I felt like Anne, but also a little like Tom and Karen.

I hoped that he would make me feel loved and cared for and safe, and then go away forever.

Just try, if you will, to imagine a man ordering a female valet who was hired for her physical attributes and ability to please men via abject subservience and old-timey ideas of gender-specific pleasure, then to stress that this is “not sexual” in any way. It is hard to do.

Sexual or not, there is an element of degradation to ManServants that you’d have to be a complete psychopath not to feel, even if one was just at your bachelorette party and not pretending to be one of the guys from Mount Rushmore.

I became sure of this with my second ManServant, Crash Davis. I named him that after a character in my mother’s second-favorite Kevin Costner baseball movie.

I met him outside the stadium, feeling hungover from the previous night’s sugary cocktails and pure emotional exertion. (After Isa got back in her car to ferry the vase back to Oakland, I went back to my hotel, crawled in my bed, and lay there, staring up at the ceiling and thinking about the pretty non-hooker who didn’t even pretend to like me.)

Crash was a cute guy with a small, neat fro and beautiful sleeve tattoos. He wore a bow tie and sweetly admitted that he was not a huge baseball fan. He had the impish-but-dutiful service-industry-professional mien of a wedding bartender who’s supposed to be stingy with a pour but instead winks as he pours your rosé to a precarious meniscus. He also had a Ninja Turtles backpack.

When we settled into our seats, I gave Crash my debit card and told him to take his time getting nachos and whatever he wanted. When he came back with only the nachos, we chatted amiably and like two people more or less resembling humans. He didn’t really try to “my lady” me or do the chivalry thing too hard, because — and I say this with the highest respect — he seemed very self-aware and sane and able to “read the room.”

I asked him a little about ManServanting, and he was pleasant and forthcoming without spilling too many beans. He said he’d mostly just kind of acted as a valet to respectful parties of showered, pleasant women. I asked point-blank if, in the short time ManServants had been available, he’d ever been made to feel uncomfortable on the job.

“I’m mostly just afraid of being asked to sing,” he said, and admitted that he and another ManServant had stayed up all night before a job learning Disney songs on YouTube in order to accommodate a client’s request.

After an hour, Crash and I were enjoying the kind of easy silences of a couple who have been together much longer. At one point, to my extreme relief, he bought himself a Coke. Our section won free coupons for some kind of local sausage and we high-fived. I started to relax a little, until later, when he offered the massage.

“Oh no,” I said, suddenly embarrassed again.

“It’s part of the service,” he shrugged.

I am someone who loves handsome men and polite men and impolite men and sex and massages and baseball and spending money. I am just a shitty, shitty john.

One of my favorite facts about women that men who don’t like them love to throw around is that they’d love to be a woman who just wants to get laid because things would be so easy.

You’d just stroll into a bar, any bar, and no matter how overweight you were or how unfeminine your haircut was, somebody would fuck you. I cherish this myth. I love to picture bursting into a bar and demanding “Who’s gonna fuck mama?” in an Eddie Vedder voice. “Where’s my free sex?”

I’m sure there are some women who are delighted by the idea of getting affection from a man who will never, ever be inside them, for $125 an hour. I do not know that woman, but I am willing to concede that she may yet exist.

I don’t know what women want.

This story was written by Julieanne Smolinski, edited by Madison Kahn, fact-checked by Kyla Jones, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi, with photographs by Peter Bohler for Matter.