- - Monday, August 15, 2011

Lacy Meyer strutted into a crowded Indianapolis bar with her client, Brandon Bowen, and scanned for single women.

Once she found her targets — three middle-aged women sitting in a corner — she approached and delivered the first opening line that popped into her head.

“Hey, I’ve got a crazy question for you,” she ventured confidently, though inside her heart was pounding. “My buddy and I are trying to find the age of a python he just got for his daughter. Anybody know how to tell the age of a snake?”

The women responded as Ms. Meyer had hoped. They chuckled, said “no” and started peppering Brandon about his love of reptiles.

Ms. Meyer felt her body relax. Her client was in. After weeks of training, she finally had become a professional wing woman.

As single men turn increasingly to online dating and social networking sites to meet women, they’re getting a little rusty. Their in-person pickup techniques — iffy under the best of circumstances — are susceptible as never before to atrophy.

Enter the wing woman.

Professional wing women, a modern twist on the wing man, facilitate conversation with women whom their male clients otherwise might not approach. For a fee, they pose as platonic friends, living, breathing proof that their “buddy” is cooler than he seems. Successful wing women will land their clients a date as well as some extra confidence.

Wing woman companies are popping up across the country in places such as Boston, Chicago and New York, giving men hope and women the opportunity to make an extra buck. The jobs can pay well — some women earn up to $50 per hour — but they are not easy to land.

Women must often have the right looks and social skills to be serious candidates. Training can be intense, and turnover is high. Even after hiring wing women, company owners won’t hesitate to dismiss their employee barflies if they fail to make the grade.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Jamie Thompson, a part-time wing woman based in Los Angeles. “You are out there being paid to help the guy get the girl, and that is a very outcome-driven scenario. If the guy’s not ready or there aren’t the right girls out there, it’s hard.”

Some women are more naturally suited to the role than others, recruiters say. In Craigslist ads or on scouting missions at bars, they seek women with certain characteristics: extroversion, attractiveness, social intuition, confidence and, perhaps most important, the ability to put their client’s interests before their own.

“You have to find the right personality,” said Kevin Emmons, marketing director at Miss Pivot, the Indianapolis-based company where Ms. Meyer was recently hired. “In the beginning, we had a bunch of promotional girls who wanted to do this, but it turns out they are very good at getting value for themselves — not good at getting value for our clients.”

Once recruiters find women with the right traits, there is often a trial run. Before Chicago Wingwoman owner Dennis Jeanpierre makes any final hiring decisions, for example, he will ask recruits to serve as his wing woman for the evening.

“We may go to a couple venues in the night,” he said. “If they’re not getting it, I’ll advise them, I’ll give them pointers. It’s like every job interview — you’re not going to hire every candidate.”

At Miss Pivot in Indianapolis, wing women who pass initial auditions are expected to master courses on body language, conversation starters and basic psychology. Even the most gifted socialites, Mr. Emmons says, can use a few pointers.

“A lot of what we’re doing is explaining the basics,” Mr. Emmons said. Wing women “have to be really good at reading people and understanding how social dynamics work. … We get a lot of people who think they would be the best matchmakers in the world, and they freeze really bad. They lock up. Or they get nervous tics.”

The basics, according to wing woman recruiters, are fairly universal. To have any chance of scoring a guy a date, they say, a woman needs a treasure trove of opening lines, a sense of event-appropriate attire, and the ability to play to their clients’ strengths. They also need to feel comfortable taking control of the conversation when it’s hitting a lull, have an easy rapport with women, and have a basic ability to determine whether other women would rather be chatting with their client or tossing a Corona back with friends.

Wing woman companies want to keep their clients comfortable. Since their clients are diverse, they tend to hire wing women of different ages and professions. Most do the work as part-time gigs to supplement other income. Companies typically pay per hour — anywhere from $20 to $50 — and often will pay their veteran wing women more than newcomers.

Ms. Meyer, a 27-year-old actress, thought she would give it a try after a friend suggested she would be good at it.

“At first, I thought, ‘This is going to be some weird, creepy dating thing,’ ” she said. “But it’s been neat so far. There’s so much to learn, and what I’m learning is really helping me in my personal relationships.”

Mr. Bowen, Ms. Meyer’s first client, insists she made an excellent debut in the bar a few weeks back. His pride made him feel slightly uncomfortable about their first outing, he said, but Ms. Meyer’s outgoing personality and friendliness put him at ease.

Mr. Bowen, 34, says his only moment of doubt came when Ms. Meyer delivered the line about his daughter’s python.

“The first time she said that, I was like, ‘Wow, really?’ But it worked,” he said. “I was really surprised that women responded to an opener like that. … As an experience, the evening was a real eye-opener. I guess you can almost talk about anything to a complete stranger.”

Yep, they call it conversation, guys.

Try it yourself sometime.

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