Matches made in Manhattan

Wealthy clients pay Lisa Clampitt thousands of dollars to spend the evening with models, Playboy bunnies and other curvy sirens. But it's all perfectly legal.

By Stephanie Lehmann

Published October 2, 2002 7:37PM (EDT)

Are you a wealthy, dynamic guy who needs help getting dates? Are you a beautiful, dynamic woman looking for a relationship? VIP Life is a dating service that bills itself as "A Way of Life," and the ultimate goal for most of the members is marriage. But it's only men who have to pay to belong to this club, which provides unlimited access to more than 200 gorgeous women -- many of them actresses and models -- who have passed the inspection of matchmaker Lisa Clampitt.

When I met with Clampitt to talk about VIP Life, I was half expecting someone like Sydney Biddle Barrows, or maybe Heidi Fleiss before prison. But Clampitt is neither. This enterprising, attractive, divorced 38-year-old brunette is a graduate of NYU and University of Michigan. She worked for 13 years as a pediatric social worker counseling parents of hospitalized children who were sick or traumatized. The emotional burden took its toll and now she's peddling storybook romance.

Or is it anti-romance? No man wants to be desired just for his money. And no woman wants to be loved just for her looks. But what little girl doesn't fantasize about growing up beautiful and snaring a loaded man? And what red-blooded man doesn't lust for a sex kitten he can call his own?

I can't help but think of the 1953 movie "How to Marry a Millionaire" with Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. Monroe's character announces, as the three models lounge on the terrace of their Upper East Side apartment: "I want to marry a Rockefeller."

"Which one?" asks Betty Grable.

"I don't care," says Monroe.

The threesome has to go to the trouble of subletting fancy digs, financing it by selling every scrap of furniture, and pretending to be rich until they can snare a wealthy husband. And then they all end up marrying for love anyway.

But that scenario is pretty consistent with the stories we girls grow up with. Cinderella. "Beauty and the Beast." "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." "Sabrina." "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The Material Girl. It's great to marry someone with money, the story goes, but only if you really love him.

But this is for real. And the women don't have to pretend to have money or even pay a thing to be in Clampitt's service. It's the men who put up the money -- $10,000 to $20,000 a year -- lump sum, in advance, credit cards accepted. Benefits of the club include image consultation, invitations to special events, personal shopping services, concierge services and access to exclusive nightclubs, restaurants, parties, private jets, yachts and villas.

When I blanch at the fees, Clampitt reassures me that no one is going to scrape together the last $10,000 in his bank account to join. Of the 60 men who are currently members, she says, "It's going to be something he can afford, and he can be a part of this comfortably."

"If they live in London," she continues, "they're not going to use all the events." So these men can opt for the $10,000 basic membership and then can pay for everything else as they choose.

To be a member, the bachelors first have to interview with Clampitt and be deemed appropriate for her service. "We don't screen in terms of saying you have to have $5 million in the bank. But the men are expected to maintain a certain lifestyle." They have to be, she says, "high-quality, dynamic people."

VIP Life, only in existence since February, has just moved into a new loft on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. A couple of times a month Clampitt, who prides herself on her parties, holds happy hours in the loft. The space is surprisingly unostentatious: Urban Outfitters chic, with leopard-skin fluffy pillows on a black leather sofa, silver and gold shimmery curtains, and black-and-white artsy/sexy photographs on the wall. "We light candles and it's intimate and fun. People don't want to leave."

In addition to the parties, VIP Life nurtures a network of "in the know" contacts. So if a client decides he wants to go to "The Producers" that night and get into Nobu for dinner -- places usually impossible to penetrate on short notice -- "we make that happen." She nurtures relationships with people connected to the hot parties and can get her clients on the guest list. "Not just to be in the background," she says. "He'll get the VIP room, the bottle service." And, of course, the girl to keep him company.

The client, by the way, still pays for the restaurant check, the show, the private jet. And what they do "behind closed doors" is completely up to the two consenting adults.

Clampitt plans larger, more upscale happenings for her clients. "We're going to have a large event at Sotheby's which will be over 100 people, and a huge masquerade party in October."

Which brings me to how VIP Life came to be. Lisa Clampitt's own past has a fairy tale-like quality. It involves an "amazing, charismatic" father, an "old-fashioned, traditional '50s" mother and a rags-to-riches, back to rags, and maybe back to riches again story.

Her father, Robert Clampitt, was a rebellious high school dropout who reformed himself all the way to Harvard. He went on to become a Wall Street lawyer, moved on to embrace liberal politics and campaigned heavily for the Kennedy administration.

Clampitt says her parents "always had parties ever since I could remember" in their Greenwich Village house; "even after they separated, my father always had dinner parties." She grew up knowing the uptown socialite scene, "the Harvard Club, the museums," and she was also comfortable downtown. "I'm more of an East Village bar person -- I used to go to CBGBs."

In 1975 her father founded a nonprofit organization called Children's Express, which was dedicated to giving kids and teenagers a voice through journalism. It was a 13-year-old Children's Express reporter who famously cornered Dan Quayle with the question of whether a girl raped by her father should be able to get an abortion. The nonprofit, which went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, was Robert Clampitt's passion. It also sapped his financial resources.

After his sudden death from a heart attack in 1996, Lisa Clampitt made it her business to rescue her father's failing nonprofit, which at one point was $2.4 million in debt. She'd already left social work for matchmaking and was working for another high-end dating service. A client bugged her to start up her own dating service with him as a partner. "I said the only way I would go into business with him was if he gave me a substantial chunk of money for my nonprofit." He agreed.

And so VIP Life was born. Children's Express was revamped and revived as Children's Pressline. Now, more than half the budget is funded by profits from VIP Life. The event at Sotheby's and the masquerade party double as fundraisers for Children's Pressline. To the clients of VIP Life, however, none of that is relevant. They're just trying to find a beautiful girl.

And what about the women? Does this whole thing work for them? They do get to go to all these parties. And they get the chance to meet rich and successful guys who might just want to get married. But it's not exactly the most liberating scenario. Madonna may have enjoyed pretending to be Marilyn when she sang "Material Girl" and hired men to dangle jewelry in her face. But in real life, she made her own fortune, got away from bad boy Sean Penn, and single-mothered her first child with her personal trainer. Now it seems she's in a marriage of "equals" (even if she and Guy do make flop films together).

And, of course, Marilyn Monroe couldn't actually survive being Marilyn Monroe.

Clampitt admits that some women can be skeptical about joining up, with the implications of "gold digger" that inevitably come to mind.

"At first it was really difficult to find women. It took a while to make a reputation." Thanks to word of mouth she says they're now "on a roll."

I ask Clampitt if the women really do have to be good-looking.

"Yeah," she says, "they are beautiful."

I persist, trying to see how rigidly she sticks to this. After all, we all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"If someone came in and was incredibly overweight," she says, "this might not be the service for her. Partially because the men are very health-conscious. I don't have any overweight men either. They're very into lifestyle and health."

"So," I ask, "if an overweight man wanted to sign up, you would turn him away?"

"I don't have the short fat balding man," she says. Then she relents a bit. "If he was amazing, like a Danny DeVito came in, and he was great and dynamic and fun and I thought he was a cool guy, sure, I would take him."

Then does she give the women the same flexibility?

"If a woman came in and she was a little overweight but she was the most amazing dynamic woman who was sexy, I would invite her to a party, sure." Something about how she added that "sure," made me think that she wasn't quite so sure. "Men want an attractive woman," she asserts. "Because men are much more visual than women are."

"A lot of women," she continues, "are so driven in the male world. Especially in New York. They forget the connection to femininity or who a woman is. Which is, you know, nurturing and communicative by nature." Clampitt encourages the women -- even the executives and lawyers -- to wear "great little cocktail dresses to a party and feel sexy and attractive and be communicative."

"And," she adds, "you definitely can't come in here and say, 'I want a rich man.'"

I ask, as delicately as possible, what Clampitt thinks of Anna Nicole Smith, the zaftig gold digger du jour and widow of billionaire J. Howard Marshall, an oil tycoon. Their early dates were incredibly romantic: the 86-year-old in his wheelchair liked to visit her when she was working as a topless dancer at a strip club in Houston. She won almost $800 million in a recent court battle and starred in her own reality show.

"I think," Clampitt says, "that's a whole different thing." She acknowledges that when people hear about her service, that's what they think it is, which is "so wrong." She allows that she does not want to judge Smith or her choices, but does not think the ex-dancer, Playboy model and actress would be someone she would be "gung-ho" about having in her service. But you never know, she adds. She might be "an amazing person."

Clampitt says she isn't looking for the typical "bimbo-y type" woman unless she has a "really cool side to her, an artistic side. You've got to have something other than looks."

Clampitt says her oldest man right now is in his mid-50s and she would not have a problem fixing him up with a woman in her 20s if she thought they would make a great match. "That's fine. I don't have an age issue at all."

So if the woman was older than the man? "Rule of thumb, men will want to date women an average of five years younger." So she looks for women in their 20s and early 30s so the men can experience "five years of fun and then have kids."

Since the service is so new, perhaps it's a little premature to look for successful pairings in the permanent department. But Clampitt says she has brought one couple together. "She was going to move to L.A. for her acting career, and now she's moving to Boston to get married."

This couple doesn't want people to know how they met. But I can see how it could be hard for anyone in this world to make a love connection. Just because you're successful in the boardroom doesn't mean you can make it in the bedroom. Picking stocks is not like picking a woman. What's a lonely (rich) guy to do? Sit at home alone every night watching "The Bachelor" or "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" wishing some game show host would fix him up with a bottle blonde?

At the end of the interview, I ask if I can take a look at the women in her book. Clampitt produces two huge metal-bound binders of professionally done head shots and full-body portraits. The women are indeed beautiful. Even the executives and lawyers and the English-as-a-second-language teacher look hot. And there are a lot of, dare I say, slutty pictures in there too, with little blond chicks scantily dressed and posed to show off lots of tits and ass (she pages more quickly past those). And I even catch a glimpse of a Playboy insignia on the margin of a head shot. High-quality dynamic individuals, indeed!

I'm not saying that many of the women aren't smart, intelligent, complex people who might make excellent mothers, soul mates, equals and partners in life. Even the Playboy bunny. But they certainly aren't presented that way. Which brings me to my million-dollar question: If this really is a relationship-oriented operation, why do the women have to be presented like merchandise in a catalog?

It's a mystery. As psychoanalyst Michael Bader says in his book "Arousal," "women often derive power through being the object of desire, while men derive it from being the one doing the desiring." There's no sense trying to predict what will make a man and a woman interested in each other.

But one thing is clear. By creating this company, the daughter has succeeded where the father had failed. Clampitt has ingeniously put herself in touch with a huge source of men whose money can end up financing Children's Pressline. "It's great and altruistic to be a social worker," she says, "but the power is in who you know and the connections to money." And she has found a way to carry on her father's legacy without "begging on the street."

Sometimes, she jokes, "I almost feel like I have 60 boyfriends." But she would never become personally involved with her clients. "Because of my social-work background, I'm very careful to create a safe environment for people. If I were like 'hey, big boy' it would crack the safety barrier." She laments, however, that she needs "one of me for me."

I'm afraid, though, that the dynamic Lisa Clampitt would not be an appropriate candidate for her service. Working 12-hour days, seven days a week as president of two companies isn't most men's notion of femininity. It's hard to imagine her photo in that book. Hard to picture her with a submissive, flirtatious smile that tells the men that she is for sale. And, of course, that she will really love him.

Stephanie Lehmann

Stephanie Lehmann is a playwright living in New York. Her first novel, "Thoughts While Having Sex," will be published in January 2003.

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