Dating coach still single -- but hopeful
One afternoon, across a crowded coffee shop, The Professional Dater saw a man she liked. Uncomfortably aware of herself, she grew still, losing her train of thought. She pulled at her sweater, perspiration breaking fast.
“I’m so nervous,” said this woman who makes a living teaching others how to find love.
The Professional Dater, despite all her years of know-how and experience, is neither infallible nor impervious to worry.
She wrote her phone number on a scrap of paper. Just her number. No name. No explanation. When the man in the blue shirt walked by her table, she abruptly turned in her seat and without a word or as much as a lingering gaze, awkwardly planted the paper in his hand.
“You have to try,” she said. “You have to take chances. That’s what I tell my clients.”
Her name is Alma Rubenstein. She is 37 and the founder of The Professional Dater, a Seattle company that offers personal romance consulting. She is a dating coach, matchmaker and advisor on matters of the heart, wardrobe and grooming.
She is a former actress who still occasionally finds work doing television commercials, the latest being an online ad for Norton, the antivirus software company. Once in a while, she receives small royalty checks for a movie in which she had a bit role.
But if you recognize her, it probably is from one of the many reality dating shows she has appeared in, including “The Bachelor” and “Single in L.A.” -- “every cheesy reality dating show known to mankind,” she said, “and I’m still single.”
She is, to those who really know her, much more vulnerable than she appears. They know that she has wounds, some of them deep. (There is a father, for example, who abandoned her as an infant.)
They know that when it comes to her own love life -- her quest for that special Valentine-- her judgment isn’t flawless, and she doesn’t always practice what she preaches.
So, how does she qualify to coach the lovelorn?
She can cite no formal credentials beyond the fact that she studied psychology in college. She is, however, always the romantic and willing to take risks others are not. Her informal credentials seem to be a finely tuned sense of empathy, and a thousand-mile journey of her own tests and failures. And she is persistent.
“Being an actress for 10 years, all the world was rejection. I don’t even hear the word ‘no’ anymore,” she said.
As an industry, her line of work is small and discreet, although anecdotally such services seem to be growing, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the proliferation of online dating services like Match.com, which Rubenstein herself has used.
“I noticed there are tons of online dating services, yet everyone is still staying single,” Rubenstein said. “There was no one to bridge the gap between the people and the services. I provide the education.”
It is not cheap. She charges clients upward of $2,000 for five weeks’ counsel, less if they want a one-day consultation and makeover, what she calls a “kamikaze” session. The work can be intensive and deeply personal. It is not uncommon for tears to be shed and secrets revealed. Bad habits might be broken. New shoes might be purchased. Taking risks is encouraged.
Being single and being The Professional Dater “goes both ways,” said Nawell Huff, another dating coach who works with Rubenstein. “People think, ‘Is she really going to teach me what I need to know?’ But they also think it’s better because we’ll be able to understand what they’re going through.”
Rubenstein hosts speed-dating nights and mixers, and generally leads a life that can be described as a form of hard-line, militant, singles activism: “Always be flirt-ready. Is your car clean? ... Get rid of your ugly clothes. All your clothes should be your good clothes. People are starving to make a connection! Women want men to be direct! Don’t run away from that weird feeling in your stomach, run toward it!” Brian Ford is, in many ways, a typical client. He is 39, recently divorced, a software designer for Microsoft, where he has worked for more than 10 years -- which is why money “was not an issue” in hiring Rubenstein. He didn’t date much before he met his wife, to whom he was married for six years, and hasn’t dated much since. His wardrobe is very Seattle, lots of loose-fitting sweaters and T-shirts in drab colors.
Ford met Rubenstein at a singles event held in a casino called “Leap for Love.” She had a booth there. He was sold within minutes.
“She talked about her own vulnerabilities,” Ford said. “She seemed very down to earth and understanding.”
During their second session, she dissected his personal life, sorting out the unhealthy relationships she thinks he has with his ex-wife, mother, and brother. And she nudged him to tap into his passions beyond work, which he had come to view as stifling and unfulfilling. Within months, he quit his job. It’s a fine line between therapist and date coach. To hire her is to hire someone to be your very honest, proactive best friend for five weeks. She will groom you and dress you and compliment you, criticize you and repair you. And although she cannot guarantee you will then find true love, she will teach you how to optimize the life of being single. (From there, it is up to you, and some make the most of it. Two former clients, both in their 50s, recently got engaged to one another.)
She will teach you, in a sense, how to be her. She is very good at being single. And, as she points out, she is not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
She has been in love twice but has never married. She has made good decisions and bad ones -- more perhaps of the latter. A friend once said of her, on camera, that Rubenstein needs “someone who will give her real-life drama. She can’t handle not having drama; she’ll create it.”
The older man in her life at the moment is Shaker, whose real name is Mark, her business partner, advisor, office manager, father figure, and former client. He came to her three years ago. His wife of almost 30 years had abruptly left him.
He had three grown children, “a shaggy dog and a minivan,” he said. “I was toast.”
Newly single, psychologically tender and emotionally lost, he heard about a woman who offered help in dating and romance. He was so nervous when he met Rubenstein that his hands shook. The unflattering nickname, “Shaking Guy,” was amended quickly to “Shaker,” which has stuck to this day.
From her, he got his confidence back, his wardrobe smartly updated, and his eyes opened to a world of available women.
After his transformation, Shaker, retired owner of a construction firm, invested some money in Rubenstein’s business and offered to help set up her bookkeeping, computer programs, spreadsheets and accounts. His daughter helped set up a database.
“She didn’t have a logical gene in her body,” Shaker said. “I asked her, ‘How many clients do you have? [How] much money do you have?’ She’d have it all in a manila envelope. She’d say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t have time for that.’ The problem with dating in contemporary American society, Rubenstein says, is that men do not approach women and women are not, in her words, user-friendly. In her monthly classes, called Flirting 101, she teaches women to give signals and men to receive them.
“The more women can ‘be the woman,’ the more men can ‘be the man,’ ” she said of a rule she admits she has trouble following. “The amount of confidence people have is ‘SEND,’ ” she said, pantomiming someone pushing a button on a computer keyboard. This includes herself.
“She shuts down when she meets someone she likes,” Huff said. “She acts uninterested. She acts like she doesn’t like him.”
Case in point: Pete Spear, 31. The two met online. Finding out they worked only a few blocks apart, they arranged to meet for coffee.
“She seemed shy and uninterested at first,” he remembered. “We went out again but she still seemed extremely shy ... and didn’t give me any sign that she was interested. She probably wasn’t employing the tools she tells people to use.”
Yes, Rubenstein sometimes pines: “I wish I could go to a dating coach ... I realize I’m an introvert, but not in my work.”
She had a boyfriend when she started the business. They soon broke up and she has since been mostly in the same boat as her clients: Luckless.
But luck can change in a Seattle minute. A few days after she encountered the blue-shirted man in the coffee shop, her phone rang.
The man, whose name was Andrew, left a great message and asked her out.
“He was awesome,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It works!”
About one week later, the news was less cheerful.
“Typical Seattle man,” she wrote in another e-mail. “Needs help pushing the envelope.... Help!”
She chose to err on the side of caution. She knew she had come across a true find -- a tall, fit, attractive, single man in his 40s, never married, a trained chef, a former model, a sharp dresser, a happily single man who really didn’t seem to need any work. He knew wine. And he knew coffee, the beans, the roasting.
Soon he was off to start a coffee shop in San Francisco.
The Professional Dater is still single. But she still has hope.