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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 22nd May 2008

St Valentine's Day Massacre


I should have felt like a rock star and instead I felt like crawling under a rock. I was sitting at the top of a skyscraper in the most glamourous city in the world and for the previous two hours six beautiful women had been giving me their undivided attention. But it was one of the worst experiences of my life.

The fact that I wasn't in the same room as them might have had something to do with it. I was stationed behind a two-way mirror at a market research company on Lexington Avenue trying out the latest technique New Yorkers have come up with to improve their dating prospects. I was being "focus grouped."

The idea is to treat yourself like a product that's not doing as well as it should and get a market research company to "re-brand" you. You assemble a representative sample of the "market" you're aiming at--in my case, good-looking single women between the ages of 23 and 38--and hire a market research consultant to find out where you're going wrong.

The low point came when Hazel Kahan, the consultant I'd hired, asked Candace Bushnell if she'd ever consider going out with me.

"I can't really imagine being with Toby," she replied. "I just can't imagine it at all. He's just, you know, so much like someone I would be friends with and I would never, I could never..."

"You don't think of him as sexual, is what I'm hearing, as a sex person, sexual?" asked Hazel.

"I don't," said Candace.

"I don't think anybody does," said Hazel, summing up. "Would anyone like some more wine?"

Forget the wine, Hazel. How about some hemlock?

My ordeal had begun when I'd read in The New York Times that American men had become so desperate to make themselves more appealing they'd started seeking the help of market research professionals. New York is supposed to be a bachelor's paradise, with hundreds of thousands of single women pursuing a handful of single men, but as those of us who live here know, the reality is somewhat different.

When New York women complain that there's a shortage of men in this town what they mean is there's a shortage of tall, good-looking, unattached, rich men who still have their own hair. As a short, bald, 34-year-old Englishman with no visible means of support, I've never found it particularly easy to pick up women here. Come to think of it, I've never found it easy to pick women up anywhere. When I read that other men in my predicament were getting themselves re-branded, I thought it might be a good idea to follow suit. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

I approached a market research company called Focus Suites on Lexington Avenue who put me in touch with Hazel Kahan. She had already helped one thirtysomething man re-brand himself and she agreed to do the same for me. My job was to find six women who were prepared to sit down and talk about me for two hours. No easy task.

I decided to ask women I knew rather than six complete strangers. This was partly because I thought they'd offer more valuable advice, but mainly because I hoped they wouldn't be too hard on me. I also decided to tell them I'd be watching them from behind a two-way mirror, again in the hope that they wouldn't be too mean. In retrospect, I should have realised that your friends never need much of an excuse to be rude about you.

Hazel began by asking them how they knew me. The first person to answer was Claire Silverman, a 23-year-old illustrator. She was one of only two English girls present, so I thought I could rely on her to be sympathetic.

"I met him years ago in London and he was very drunk," she said. "He was just an idiot."

Strike one.

Next up was Jane Caldwell, a 27-year-old actress. I quite fancied her so I was particularly interested in what she had to say.

"I remember waking up one morning on Shelter Island and Toby was sleeping on the couch at my boyfriend's beach house," she replied. "So I just remember seeing this very obnoxious bald guy sitting on the couch in my living room."

Strike two.

The third to answer was Lucy Clive, a 34-year-old English businesswoman."I guess I met him probably two years ago and he didn't really make much of an impression, actually," she said, "neither good or bad."

Strike three.

I was out, but that didn't stop Lorna Donohoe, a 26-year-old Irish journalist, from kicking me when I was down.

"The first time I saw him he was rolling around the floor of a nightclub with one of my friends," she snickered. "She was desperately trying to get rid of him so she told him she had to use the bathroom and left."

Ouch.

Any illusions I'd had about them going easy on me were shattered within the first five minutes. By treating the whole exercise as a bit of a joke, they'd given themselves a licence to ridicule me. I knew then that the next two hours were going to be brutal. I just didn't know how brutal.

The next item on the agenda was my hair.

"Is he really bald or is it just that his hair's really short?" asked Candace Bushnell.

"He's progressively bald," answered Meg O'Rourke, a 30-year-old art consultant.

"I can never figure it out," said Candace, "because he's got this little fuzz, you know?"

By this stage they had already forgotten that I was sitting behind the two-way mirror. At least I hoped they had. The thought that this was the censored version of what they really thought about me was too much to bear. From time to time, one of them would glance over in my direction and, for a second, I'd think they were looking at me. Then I realised they were just looking at themselves in the mirror.

They then got on to the subject of my apartment which, fortunately, only one of them had seen. Unfortunately, it was Lucy, my condescending English friend

"I was surprised by how clean and tidy it was," she said. "It was really neat and he was houseproud and he was going round saying where he got all the pieces of furniture that he'd bought."

"Was it good furniture?" Hazel asked.

"No," said Lucy, "but I mean it was, you know, carefully thought through."

I made a mental note: If you ever do succeed in picking up a girl in New York, make sure you go back to her place.

Up until this point, the comments had been fairly light-hearted. But Hazel was a trained market research consultant and she was determined to get to the heart of the matter. What were my real shortcomings as a man?

Meg, the art consultant, cut to the chase. "He can't deal with sex," she announced. "He's very oppressed, he can't combine sex with love for somebody."

For some reason, this comment produced a great deal of nodding all round. Candace was particularly impressed. "Meg is the kind of person that Toby should be going out with," she declared. "But Meg senses a deep problem and she doesn't want to go near him."

"It's true," said Meg.

"She see's through him," added Candace.

I felt all the pain of rejection, even though I'd never actually asked Meg out. It was as though a sophisticated group of consumers who were used to shopping at Barneys were being asked how they felt about some generic product from K-Mart.

The climax came when Hazel asked each of them in turn whether they'd ever consider going out with me.

"I certainly find Toby extremely intellectually stimulating," said Lucy, trying to be charitable, "but I guess I don't find him physically interesting."

Candace was more direct. "I never really thought about it," she said. "I always really thought of him as a friend."

"But not thinking about it suggests you're not really interested," Lucy pointed out, somewhat less charitably. "I don't think there's something wrong with him physically..."

There was an awkward silence. The only thing that could be heard was the sound of sobbing coming from the other side of the mirror.

Actually, to be honest, I felt drained at the end rather than upset. It was as though I'd been through a particularly gruelling form of group therapy. It had been so much more intense that I'd anticipated. The point of the exercise, which was to help me improve my dating prospects, had got lost somewhere along the way and, instead, I simply found out what some of my friends really thought of me. I was a frog who might conceivably turn into a prince, but none of them were about to kiss me to find out.

Another mental note: Never eavesdrop on your friends talking about you. You might hear something you shouldn't.

The following day Hazel called to give me her post-mortem. "You're an interesting fruit but they'd rather have you peeled," she said. "They're more interested in the inside than the outside." In other words, they don't fancy me. Yes, thanks, I think I got that.

"If you were an alcoholic beverage then you would be more like a Tequila and less like a cognac," she added. "A cognac is very intimate, romantic and so on, while a Tequila is an outgoing, party, sociable thing."

So how should I re-brand myself? "Show the serious side of yourself," she urged, "show people what you're really about. Round yourself out. You have engaged these women's interest, now you have to show you're interested in them. I don't think people see the vulnerability in you. Women want that, they want the little darkness in men.

"A little less glitz and a little more substance," she concluded. "Show a bit more emotion."

So there it is. I have to become more emotionally correct. At the moment, women perceive me as being a Tequila Slammer but with a little work I could become a Tequila Sunrise. Unfortunately, the women I want to go out with are the kind that drink Slammers. In future, I think I'll stick to more tried-and-tested methods of improving my dating prospects: platform shoes and a hair weave.

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