Soon after meeting Ladan Radafshar for what was a very brief interaction, she began appearing everywhere in my life.
It first happened when I mentioned her to my best friend, who remembered meeting her years ago at a party. Within days, her face popped up on the Instagram feed of one of my college classmates. Weeks later, during a haircut, I quickly discovered the two of us see the same stylist and frequent the same bars. This is the stuff of Old Portland, I know, but I find it interesting that Radafshar’s career objective is to embrace the burgeoning persona of the city we both inhabit: Portland as tech haven, Portland as millennial mecca, Portland as modern metropolis full of modern people.
Radafshar is the founder of FernDate, a local branding service geared toward those looking for love online. Using a background in Nike’s marketing department and a degree in psychology, Radafshar makes a living curating clients’ pictures and profiles while helping them navigate apps and sites like Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, and Match.com. Finding the term “matchmaking” outdated, Radafshar prefers “personal branding for online dating sites.”
It’s clear why Radafshar finds her role both advisory and creative. Clients approach Radafshar with the age-old dilemma of trouble with relationships and chronic datelessness (the vast majority of her clients are cisgender and straight, and tend to be somewhere in their late 20s to 40s). For a considerable fee, determined on a client-by-client basis, Radafshar provides a consultation, oversees a makeover, coordinates a photo shoot, and works with an associate to copyedit the profile content for each individual client. She operates on the assumption that bad luck in dating is ultimately circumstantial and essentially due to a certain degree of technological illiteracy. On the welcome page of Fern’s highly stylized website, an omniscient serif font boldly declares to its viewer: It’s Not You, It’s Your Profile.
Though I am wholly skeptical of online dating and its ever-growing demand among today’s singles, the prospect of channeling one’s brand is precisely what fascinates me about Radafshar’s business model. We are now in an era when a person’s app blurb and the quality of their photographs dictate social currency. But is this entirely new, or just an antiquated practice reinterpreted through a modern lens? Radafshar herself says, “The old matchmaking concept and idea is dead.” While that may be true, part of me still likes to imagine Radafshar meeting her clients with her head wrapped in a shawl, like the character of Yente in Fiddler on the Roof.
For as long as the concept of matrimony has been pertinent to mankind, so has the demand for matchmaking. There are stories of matchmakers in the Old Testament and accounts of Greek promnestria, women who acted as liaisons between families in their marriage negotiations. The first matchmaking agencies appeared in Western Europe in the 17th century and were sectioned off according to religion, but would soon see secularity, as people began being paired off according to class and economic status. This practice continued well into the 20th century, but as norms surrounding courtship changed, so did the matchmaking process. Pairing off became less associated with marriage and more connected with sexual liberation, and the need for one person or agency to arrange a match dwindled as young people explored a certain degree of independence.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of this idea with the hit show Blind Date, where contestants vied for the attention of a single gal or guy. And before the advent of the internet, companies like It’s Just Lunch and Master Matchmakers began popping up as a way for singles to meet potential partners after being scrutinized by a team of professionals.
Then, as expected, computers began doing the work.
In 1995, Match.com became the first online dating site, attracting millions of members in the span of a few years. Radafshar became one such member in 2006—mostly out of curiosity—when the concept of online dating was still novel.
“Freaks and geeks were supposedly the only people on there,” she says, “people who could never find a date in real life, and there was a major stigma.”
Radafshar made a few dates with men she met online and even met a long-term boyfriend through Match, but it was not until her mid-20s, when sites like OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, ChristianMingle, and JDate began gaining traction in the realm of what was socially acceptable. As more and more of her friends joined these sites, Radafshar noticed she had a knack for helping them find dates by tweaking a sentence in their profile or choosing a picture that seemed more suitable. She had a certain Midas touch when it came to her friends’ romantic lives, and began thinking about the ways in which she could develop a business out of this talent.
With a small chunk of inheritance, Radafshar created a website and a business model while following various entrepreneurial avenues in Portland. She applied for and was awarded a grant geared toward women-owned businesses and used the money to keep Fern afloat while taking courses in the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. After finalizing a model, building a network of likeminded business owners, and putting finishing touches on the site, FernDate launched in February 2016.
Since then, Radafshar’s client base has grown significantly, a result she attributes to her five-star Yelp reviews and the power of word of mouth. It also can’t hurt that the concept of personalized branding for dating sites, while predictable, is nevertheless in the very early stages of becoming systematized.
“I haven’t yet found anyone who is incorporating dating platforms in the matchmaking process,” Radafshar asserts. With a cursory Google search, one can’t help but agree.
The demand for the kind of service that Fern offers, however, is indicative of a larger online trend. Otherwise ordinary individuals have propelled themselves into the role of “influencers” while social media seems to take up more and more of our emotional, intellectual, and economic space. Portland is its own unique microcosm of this trend, now known as the Silicon Forest—home to Intel employees, Silicon Valley transplants, and a vast array of startup companies focused on the booming tech market. Besides close proximity to California’s tech culture, the Pacific Northwest offers an aesthetic ideal for those who aim to convey a desirable lifestyle with one click of their camera. Various Portland-based photographers, travel writers, food critics, and brand strategists have drawn thousands of followers by simply posting perfectly curated pictures of their eggs, babies, and Eames chairs. These elements of relative local culture have attracted young people to visit and move here in droves, and FernDate is precisely the nexus where the impact of technology meets the individual.
Radafshar herself arrived here from Berkeley more than seven years ago and is thus familiar with rapidly changing urban and cultural landscapes. A first-generation American born to a French mother and Iranian father, she grew up in various parts of the Midwest and Northeast, and spent three years after college teaching English in Barcelona, where she set up a timid friend with an attractive server at a Spanish café. The two have been happily married for several years now and are raising a son somewhere in Middle America. That match happened at a time when online dating was still relatively new and something reserved for divorcées and agoraphobics. But Radafshar saw a need for something, and seized an opportunity to help others help themselves, recognizing that, for some, our self-worth as individuals would become undeniably wrapped up in our online persona.
Participating in any form of connection via the internet is to submit to an avatar—an idea of ourselves that we create, ever vulnerable to others’ snap judgments of us. In fact, Radafshar’s process is, in essence, a virtual makeover of her client’s social media profiles. Like any good matchmaker, she aims to accentuate people’s attractive qualities, in a romantic capacity and otherwise, while maintaining the integrity of their character. This requires optimism about strangers that I frankly don’t possess.
“Everyone has something about themselves that is pretty awesome,” Radafshar assures me with a smile, “so my job is about showcasing the things that someone else will be interested in hearing, the things that are kind of unique. It’s about highlighting certain elements.”
But what to make of the lowlights? Radafshar is not in the business of biting off more than she can chew, and thus employs a somewhat stringent screening process for those seeking out her guidance.
In fact, Radafshar’s process is, in essence, a virtual makeover of her client’s social media profiles. Like any good matchmaker, she aims to accentuate people’s attractive qualities, in a romantic capacity and otherwise, while maintaining the integrity of their character.
“I don’t take everyone,” she claims, “because if I feel like my service is not going to work for them, then I don’t take them on. It’s a bit of a high price tag; I don’t want them to spend the money and not get results.”
She is not likely to take on a client for whom she can’t guarantee even a smidgen of positive response, nor is she interested in helping clients who are not forthright about their romantic agenda (read: old men looking for tips on how to sleep with 20-year-olds). And, as an honest salesperson would, she wants to maintain genuine confidence in the product she is putting out into the world.
“I have come to think of myself as a gatekeeper,” she says. This does not mean, however, that she’s opposed to doing business with someone who might not otherwise fall in line with her personal values. For instance, during the election, Radafshar worked closely with a Trump supporter to find him a church-going gal, revamping his profile in search of a nice, conservative wife—ostensibly to go and bear his Trump-supporting progeny. And it’s not uncommon that Radafshar is forced to subtly relay basic tenets of modern feminism to newly single clients who have been out of the dating scene for a long stretch of time. In one of her site’s blog posts, she perkily answers the question, “If my date wants to pitch in, does that mean she doesn’t like me?”
Confusion and frustration tend to be the catalysts for Fern’s clientele to seek Radafshar’s advice.
“I don’t really know what the rules are,” says Jon, a 40-year-old Fern client who’s been working with Radafshar since January. [Note: I’ve changed the names of her clients to protect their anonymity.]
Never married but a self-proclaimed “veteran of the dating scene,” Jon has noticed incremental changes in the way people generally approach dating. He remembers a time when meeting at a bar resulted in exchanging landline numbers and even speaks of OkCupid as an artifact of a bygone era.
“Now it’s the app thing,” he says, somewhat dejectedly, describing a certain difficulty in making a good virtual impression with such little time and space.
He sought out Fern’s services most notably for the professional, “candid” photos that Radafshar and her photographers, Raimee and Candace, stage. This is the stronghold of Radafshar’s approach: She can convey the unique and attractive qualities of one’s physical appearance, personality, and lifestyle in the span of just a few images. In fact, she has a near-mathematical equation for which photos to include and where to put them within the series of swipes.
Clients tend to be satisfied with their pictures and quite a few will upgrade their service in order to receive style advice from Radafshar. Elaine, 52, recently enlisted Radafshar for dating advice and has often ended up hearing strong opinions about her shoe choices. A successful, self-possessed, and attractive filmmaker, Elaine had difficulty understanding why she was getting little to no response to her dating profiles and resorted to a Fern consultation with some reservations. She had previously had lukewarm responses from local branding services and was not entirely sure she wanted to invest in taking advice from someone substantially younger than herself. So far, however, she is impressed with her photographs and attributes a newfound confidence in part to Radafshar’s influence.
“I think she’s trying to encourage more sides of me,” Elaine tells me over the phone. “Now when I go out with a friend, I try and look a little nicer. And you know, I think that’s good. I’m more out in the world and feeling better about myself.”
And the thing I’ve been most skeptical about—a certain element of inauthenticity when it comes to personal rebranding—is, in fact, the thing for which my interviewees unanimously applaud Radafshar.
“I don’t think she’s trying to change me... I don’t think that’s her M.O.,” Elaine continues, “I think she’s just trying to get me to be the best me I can be.”
This was echoed in my conversation with Sara, a 37-year-old tech manager who had been unsuccessful with services like It’s Just Lunch and Master Matchmaker in the past. She has seen immense improvement in the response to her online profile since working with Radafshar for the last month.
“Once you’ve sat down with her, she truly grabs at certain things about yourself,” Sara tells me. “She really pulls it out of you and knows which questions to ask.”
It’s clear that Radafshar’s services extend beyond a superficial navigation of dating apps and into the realm of genuine self-improvement.
“If anything,” Sara continues, “she gets you really excited about the process—even if it’s scary and, at times, miserable.”
So perhaps I should imagine Radafshar less as a yenta and more like the hypothetical offspring of the therapist from The Sopranos and the hosts of TLC’s What Not to Wear.
I recently got out of the most serious relationship I’ve ever been in, and the last time I was single, Tinder wasn’t yet a household name. Sure, I dabbled when the app first came out and went on the occasional OkCupid date, but the majority of my romantic encounters involved casual sex with people I met at bars whose attractiveness ran corollary to my drunkenness.
I’ve told myself that I’ll abstain from relationships until I can fix the reasons why I fail so miserably at them—which may have something to do with my tendency to be hypercritical of my partner and possess a general mistrust of the institution of marriage. Nevertheless, I’m a serial monogamist and a helpless romantic, and I still want to meet someone’s eyes from across the room—without the presence of an expert or a smartphone.
Eventually, however, I’m sure to find myself bored and lonely on a Saturday night with a bottle of wine and a good wi-fi connection. If and when I decide to take the plunge into the endless pool of swipes, I wonder how much Radafshar’s voice will echo in my head.
How would she encourage me to present myself? Would she make my possessiveness look cute and my poverty look bohemian? Would she tell me to include “cries a lot” in the list of my hobbies? Would she know not to photograph me from the left side or that I don’t look good in hats?
I’d like to think that as a vivacious and reasonably attractive woman, I won’t need help finding love the next time I go searching for it. I’ve never been confident in the unspontaneity of algorithms and I’m not entirely sure I’d want Radafshar’s help in submitting to them. But it’s possible she would tell me something I don’t already know.
Maybe she would see something in me that I can’t.