Alex Milone* is shirtless, as usual. Running his hand through his tousled brown locks, he belts out the lyrics to the song “Riptide” on FaceTime as his roommate strums the ukulele beside him. They live on a boat off Pier 39 in San Francisco, near the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist district.
With his impish grin, easy demeanor and Ken-doll looks, 25-year-old Milone is everything the ManServants video promised he would be.
Part entertainers, part eye candy, these on-demand male entertainers called ManServants are meant to be a classier option than male strippers for a bachelorette party or other event. Clients can pay $125 per hour to “rent” a ManServant to make drinks, give massages, lead party games, listen to attendees and otherwise charm the hostess and her friends (or — on occasion — the host and his friends).
The company has raised an undisclosed amount of seed money to develop a mobile app for ordering up good-looking guys in (or out of) suits.
A YouTube commercial for the San Francisco-based dudes-on-demand service went viral a year ago, hitting more than half a million views after it was picked up by the Guardian, Time, the San Francisco Chronicle, GQ, the Globe and Mail, Cosmo, Huffington Post, Refinery29, Racked and an array of tech publications and local news shows.
In the video, a handsome lothario in a tux released a flock of doves as a woman arrived at a party. Looking like a sexy Secret Service operative, another tux-clad stud held a parasol over a lady’s head as she strolled down the street. A third beefcake bobbed in a pool, his pecs visible through his completely drenched suit as he refilled the champagne flute of a suntanning woman.
When it launched, ManServants could be booked within a few hours of an event, so the service was quickly dubbed “The Uber of Hot Dudes,” “San Francisco’s weirdest new startup,” and indelible proof of a tech bubble. Re/code reporter Liz Gannes tried to order one for her series on the instant gratification economy and was stuck on the wait list. Many assumed that the company was a parody or a prank.
But what looked like a joke a year ago is now a business with a presence in three cities and more than 60 ManServants like Milone on its contractor payroll. The company’s founders, both women, say the company is about to turn the corner on profitability.
“We call it chivalry in the age of Beyoncé,” said ManServants co-founder Josephine Wai Lin, 32, who started ManServants with her 26-year-old co-founder Dalal Khajah. They came up with the concept over a cigarette break at work; they were both copy editors at a digital advertising agency in San Francisco.
Many of their friends were getting married, and Wai Lin and Khajah attended their fair share of bachelorette parties with the requisite awkward stripper show. They wanted hot male assistants to show up instead — someone to pamper them, pour drinks and play party games instead of blasting the boom box and shimmying in a man-thong.
A professional videographer friend offered to help them test the idea by producing a ManServants commercial. When the ad spread virally across the Web, Wai Lin and Khajah quit their day jobs and started building the company in San Francisco, eventually growing the business to Los Angeles and New York.
“When we launched the video, we got over 100 emails from production companies wanting to develop a reality TV show following ManServants,” Wai Lin said on a recent call with Re/code. When asked whether the show was in development, she said she couldn’t discuss it.
To book a ManServant, people go to the website, a lush affair in blacks and golds that looks like a promotional page for an exclusive New York City club. Customers are prompted with a list of options — hire a ManServant at sporting events so he can wait on the restroom line for you, or during a girl’s night out so he can shoo away douchebags.
The clients pick the date, event address and time — unlike in the early days, reservations now need to be made 24 hours in advance. When the mobile app launches, the founders hope to return the service to its truly “on demand” roots with bookings in a few hours.
On the site, customers check a box telling the ManServant whether to arrive with flowers (an extra $40 fee). They get to make up the fake “name” for their fella, which he’ll go by for the entire evening (the men are forbidden from revealing their real names, occupations or identities to the clients). Customers even decide whether they want a “butler” to wait quietly on the sidelines for direction or a “showman” who will “get the party turned up.”
As a business, ManServants is by no means a runaway success. Wai Lin wouldn’t give numbers of events booked, but she said that he company has served roughly 1,000 individuals, and that each party had been attended by four to 20 people. Run the math, and that’s roughly 100 events in a year — not exactly Uber numbers.
But the company’s real revenue hasn’t come from the smaller bachelorette parties or birthday events. Big corporate clients — Hollywood parties and red-carpet events — are the ones that bring in the cash.
Clusters of ManServants went to screenings of “Magic Mike XXL” across the nation, escorted moms at the premiere of the Bravo scripted series “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” and floated around at Cosmopolitan Magazine’s 50th birthday party. They’re trained beforehand, learning to do event stunts like creating a “Wall of Compliments” in which fellows form two lines and shower the person who walks between them with praise. Another is the “Photo Booth,” where they hoist someone up, sideways, for a photo opportunity.
Wai Lin and Khajah want to build ManServants into a national brand to rival Chippendales. For them, it’s a feminist mission.
“Male strippers are a hand-me-down fantasy from men,” Wai Lin said. “Did you know Chippendales was invented by a man who was dating a Playboy of the Year, and he raped her and shot her?” It’s a true and not entirely surprising story, given that the Chippendales brand reeks of cheese and skeez.
ManServants has its own problems. It’s inventing a new kind of business — never an easy task. Thanks to Channing Tatum and his bros, the public at large understands the male-stripper business, but what the hell is a “ManServant” and what do you do with one?
The boat-dwelling, shirt-shunning Milone said he saw the confusion firsthand at some of the events he worked. “We show up, and a third of the party understands who we are — they know about ManServants. A third don’t have any idea what the fuck we are. And a third thinks we’re an escort service,” he said. “You’re not being paid to be there for sex, but I could always feel a very strong sexual energy.”
Malone claims he’s never bedded a client — but some of them have put the moves on him, most memorably at a 70-year-old’s birthday party. “Four of the women who were her friends were like, ‘You’ve got to get on this girl,'” Malone said.
These days, the ManServants’ site is crystal clear: No hanky-panky. ManServants are trained to keep their clothes on, and clients are warned that the service doesn’t come with sex on the side.
Milone was one of ManServants’ earliest recruits; he joined after watching that viral video. He was trying to start his own company at the time, and saw the side gig as a weird kind of personal development. “It feeds my ego,” Milone said, without an ounce of self-consciousness. “It’s hard for me to accept that chicks actually like me sometimes.”
Little flashes of nervousness — a quick shoulder shrug, a lip bite — peeked through his bravado as he regaled me with tales of on-demand servitude.
Malone made almost $400 at the 70-year-old’s birthday party, which was his first gig. Not exactly the hot young bachelorettes he might have hoped for when he signed up. “One of us was massaging her feet while the other one was spoon-feeding her dessert,” he recalled. “This went on for four-and-a-half hours.”
He has done a few other ManServants gigs since then — a birthday party for a twentysomething and a baby shower for a thirtysomething — but he hasn’t kept it up regularly, because he couldn’t get over his confidence issues.
ManServants offers a gender role reversal, both for the men working the jobs and the women who pay for them. New recruits are trained to be attentive and accommodating to women’s needs, predicting what they want before they want it — stereotypically a woman’s role in a romantic relationship.
Have the clients been drinking a lot of alcohol? Snag water bottles to hydrate them before they ask. Are they feeling left out of the festivities? Chat them up to keep them company. Bored? Read them Shakespeare sonnets or offer to do push-ups with them on your back (the men tell me that the latter is a frequent request).
Potential recruits do online training on emotional intelligence, answering questions about what a woman might be thinking or feeling based on photos. They also have to brainstorm compliments, showing that they can flatter ladies on the fly.
Many of the ManServants are also in the entertainment industry, so the job is a natural extension of their interests and skills. In San Francisco, they get the startup founders and fine-arts performers; in Los Angeles, the comedians and actors; and in New York, the “Adonises” — models right off the high-fashion runway. When booking, women select their top three choices from a smorgasbord of pictures. ManServants keeps an eye on the ebbs and flows of what women desire.
“They want lumbersexuals and silver foxes,” Wai Lin said, rattling off recent requests. “Man-buns are very big these days. We should develop a man-bun extension that the guys can put in. The Kardashians started a bit of a trend in their taste, because we have a lot of requests for dark gentlemen. We try to stay away from stereotypical ‘Latin lover,’ even though our clients might say that. We never want to objectify our guys.”
Despite Wai Lin’s protests, objectification is inevitably part of the experience. Unlike grease-monkey steroid-pumped male strippers, there are no unattractive ManServants. Every single one of them could’ve walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
Many complain that if the genders were reversed, ManServants would likely be pilloried for sexism. “Can you imagine,” the typical complaint goes, “a company called ‘LadyServants’ offering up hot women to wait on men?” That’s so valid, because “Hooters” isn’t a thing.
Anyway, the ManServants I spoke with said the objectification was part of the fun. “There’s no risk for the women involved, and it was awesome to see that expressed,” Milone said. “They felt comfortable, they’re bossing you around, they’re appreciating you as a man more fully.”
Another ManServant I spoke with, Jamie Michaels*, 26, agreed with Milone. “You have to be comfortable with getting hit on,” he said. “You show up all dolled up in the suit, you know what’s going on.”
I surreptitiously Google Michaels as we talk by phone. With sharp cheekbones and kind eyes, he looks like a Disney prince who stepped out of the animated world and into real life.
For the last year, Michaels has spent nearly every Saturday entertaining at a bachelorette party or girl’s night out for ManServants. Like Milone, he has had his share of weird encounters.
There was that time he modeled the lingerie that a bride-to-be received from her friends — putting the bras and G-strings on over his suit. Another time, he helped a drunk bachelorette party reenact the famous scene from “Dirty Dancing” where Johnny Castle lifts Baby in the air. It all went well until the bride-to-be made the leap. “I saw everyone’s faces, like, ‘No no no!’ And I look up, and she wasn’t wearing underwear,” Michaels remembered.
He sees the work as a big lesson on the female psyche. It has helped him romantically, he said, because he’s learned how to listen and pay attention to body cues. “I’m pretty vulnerable on dates now,” Michaels said. “I’m more in tune with that side of me.”
* Name changed to protect identity.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.