In Praise of Love: An Interview with Amy Van Doran
by Meredith Graves
Amy Van Doran was born to be a leader of misfits.
“I guess I’ve always gone for the people who are more secretly amazing, that are more shy,” she explains. “I’ve always been the person that takes on the shy kid and helps them come out of their shell, because it’s never been difficult for me to be outgoing- I don’t really think before I talk.”
Over coffee at the Oracle Club in Long Island City, the pocket-sized, fluorescent orange-haired Van Doran unravels the mysteries of love and matchmaking, which for her started in second grade. She would write anonymous letters to the popular boys her misfit girlfriends had crushes on and arrange surprise meetings at the local mall.
“Our parents would drop us off, and we’d all be in the middle of the mall, and everyone would be standing there and they didn’t know why. We were all very awkward, and I would pick which boy would talk to which girl. It would always backfire because kids are mean to each other, and my friends were the weirdos. The boys thought the popular girls would be there, but instead I had the girls that were special in a less obvious way.”
Now in her twenties, Van Doran runs The Modern Love Club, a riotously successful matchmaking business based in New York City. At any given time she has about sixteen clients, though she has a Rolodex of nearly five thousand potential matches that she’s interviewed personally, one at a time, for about an hour each. “It’s amazing if they happen to be a match with one of these sixteen amazing people that I’ve kind of curated as my source of inspiration, my love muses, people that really inspire me, who are ready to find their counterpart.”
Being listed in the Rolodex is free, which Amy sees as a special attribute to her business that other matchmakers might not have. “The only reason I’ve been successful is because I didn’t have any competitors. There was never like, a person that wanted to curate people’s love lives, who thought of it like an art, who was trying to break the algorithm or the old model- matchmakers for rich dudes and, typically, twenty year old models. It’s usually an exchange of youth for money, and that construct makes me really ill.”
To this day, Van Doren still aligns herself and her services with people who “let their freak flag fly,” but now she’s working with millionaires. It’s difficult to imagine that millionaires have trouble getting dates, but because her base of operations is in New York City, Amy knows why that is — -it all comes down to the numbers. “Thirty-four, it’s a terrible number. The guys that come into my office, if they want children, will not date over thirty-four. But if they don’t want kids, they won’t date under forty five, because they feel the women are still holding out.”
Van Doran considers herself to be a feminist matchmaker. She feels that online dating has hindered men’s ability to clearly understand what’s actually going on around them. “Guys who go online, they see all these women on all these sites and they think it’s like, ‘next, next, next’ and it looks like there’s a bottomless resource of beautiful women. But what they don’t understand is these beautiful nines or tens that are smart and lovely and classy, those girls aren’t interested in them. They’re unsuccessful because they’re not being reasonable, they’re not going for what they can actually get.”
At this moment, the majority of her clients are women — -about sixty percent, by her estimate — -which runs contrary to the money-for-youth model on which so many matchmakers operate. According to Van Doran, it’s actually because her clients — -women she describes as “wildly successful, cool, well-developed…running companies, making culture, fashion designers, CEOs — -at the top of the pyramid” have extraordinarily high standards. “Every single woman that comes in says, “I need a guy who’s masculine, who picks up the check, who is more traditionally alpha hetero-normative,” but if we’re liberated feminists, then why are we limiting our scope of what we can think of as romantically feasible to this binary?”
She chalks this up to a concept I hear her explain several different ways over the course of our conversation: defense mechanisms. “When people say, ‘It’s so hard to date in New York,’ that’s because they’re throwing up a defense mechanism by having this idea of what their love should look like. We do not know what love looks like, we don’t know what magic looks like, we don’t know what God looks like, and what’s special is when it’s unexpected and makes your world bigger. I would never want to reduce my experience with love to what I could imagine, because I think it should be the collective imagination of two people. It’s much bigger.”
So what about matchmaking, which brings in the imagination of a third person? One thinker operating in a mode that’s antithetical to matchmaking is French philosopher Alain Badiou. In his book, In Praise Of Love, he discusses falling in love in terms of ‘the Event’ — -the moment where a location intersects with an action and changes your idea of what’s possible. Badiou hates dating sites, because he thinks they eliminated risk. He says you’re more likely to fall in love at protests or at the grocery store, and that revealing your information to a website or matchmaker to assert compatibility before ever meeting someone takes away the element of risk necessary to make real love happen. So I asked Amy if matchmaking is the anti-event.
“I grapple with that. Who am I to say what love is supposed to look like? For me, I hate to say it, but I have all these theories and things I work with and all these complex interview processes and I’ve been working with life coaching, psychology, Meyers-Briggs, and people are going in brain scanners and there’s all this science, but at the end of the day, all I can say is, “This person is amazing, and this person is amazing” and it’s almost like taking two characters in your head — -like in acting — -and thinking, would they enjoy each other? Would this person enhance the other person’s life? Without having any expectation for them falling in love. I think that whenever people have expectations, it won’t work. I like to curate magic, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with curating things.”
It seems there’s a major difference between a matchmaker, then, and sites like OKCupid, which both Badiou and Amy agree are too safe; Badiou because of the elimination of risk, Amy because she feels people can use the excuse of ‘too many choices’ as a defense mechanism. One digital matchmaking device she defends a bit is Tinder: she thinks it’s good for women. “Tinder’s great because people only have to say, “oh, that person looks interesting,” and they want to meet them. There’s lots of terrible things about Tinder, but it has empowered women that were using dating sites where they had to lie about their age. Now they don’t have to have that conversation, because there are no algorithms on Tinder.”
While Amy doesn’t use much of this math in her day-to-day work, she knows a lot about it thanks to her hero: Helen Fisher, the pioneering scientist in the area of human relationships. “Helen Fisher is my fucking queen,” she raves, “She does all the algorithms for Match.com, eHarmony and Sparkology. She’s the only expert on this in the scientific world, as far as I know.” She explains to me in brutal detail the four personality types according to Fisher, and their correlative relationship to human hormones. It makes perfect sense.
The first thing this primal research into biology seems to explain is the idea of love at first sight. “Helen Fisher says that she can look at a person and tell who has high testosterone, who has high estrogen by the way it manifests in their face. Whenever you’re making these snap judgments, there’s a language of chemicals that you’re analyzing by looking at a person’s face.”
So I ask Amy about Craigslist, specifically the Missed Connections. When someone falls in love with a stranger on a train, the post they end up making is usually about their hair color, what band’s shirt they were wearing, physical characteristics that were noticeable enough to make the poster go out searching for that person after the fact. If biology is that strong, why don’t more people just go for it?
“I think that we’re afraid. We’ve been castrated by our technology. Our feelers of “oh, I can talk to a person in real time and this is my moment to talk to them” — -People no longer have that. People don’t have that skill set any more. I see people sitting at bars next to people using Tinder, when there’s a dude right next to you. Talk to him.”
But even in face-to-face interactions, that real-life risk is implicit. We talk about the potential lying, manipulation, infidelity, the possibility of rape and assault. Falling in love at all is a risk. I ask Amy what it feels like to run a business where the client’s eventual result could be existential crisis, heartbreak, or pain.
“I think it’s ok to be vulnerable and it’s ok to be hurt, and that’s what makes us better and that’s what makes us evolve. And yeah, your heart’s supposed to be fucking ripped out, and then you get back on. When we love our dogs, we know that one day they’re going to die. It’s going to happen and yet we still do it, and that’s what love, to me, is. It’s going to fucking end. Every single relationship ends. We do it and we keep going forward.”
She pauses. “That’s what it’s like to be a human being: to be vulnerable, and keep this gaping hole where the heart is, to do the work of staying open, not being informed by your past, not shutting down.”
So many of us are already shutting down or off, though. We’ve all been through crap relationships, stuff we never thought we’d bounce back from. We all have defense mechanisms firmly in place. And not all of us can afford a professional matchmaker to help when meeting people seems like an insurmountable task. But Van Doran, the consummate listener who regularly counsels friends and strangers alike with useful love advice, seems to have figured out a functional alternative that anyone with enough practice can muster.
“Just be open. Magic can happen and you don’t know how it’s going to happen. You have to be open to receiving the event when the event happens. First of all, every man I’ve ever dated, I’ve seen on the street and approached and been like, ‘Yo.’ And I kind of go in with the attitude of, ‘you’re welcome.’ Like, I’m amazing, I have my shit together, I’m going to make your life awesome. Before I even talk to them, in my head I’m like, hey, you’re welcome. Also ‘walkabouts.’ Go and walk about slowly and if someone is open to wanting to interact in real time, not saying casual encounters or missed connections or ‘I’ll catch that later,’ but ‘I’m here, we exist in this moment, let’s see where this can go right now’- well, I literally met three boys yesterday.”
Well, what if someone — -someone, that is, who totally, definitely isn’t me — -knows all that, but is still absolutely terrified?
“You just do it,” she states plainly. “You fake it ’til you make it, lovingly. But it’s a muscle, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Maybe the first stranger you talk to, that’s gonna be a fuckin’ mess. It’s fine. The thing is, people know who they’re into. Even if you fuck up horribly, it’s romantic and charming if you like the person, so you can’t really go wrong. You’re just opening to possibility.”
It doesn’t seem that easy, but Amy asserts again, “You just do it. If you really authentically want to meet somebody and you can get out of your own way, then it’s like when your leg’s asleep and you make yourself stand up. You might fall over but like, eventually your leg will wake up.”
You fake it ’til you make it.