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Let's Get Personal

It's not always easy sitting down to write a Personals Ad for yourself. This writer went to six different professionals for help. And the results were stunning--and surprising.

By Dara Colwell

AS A "SINGLE PERSON," I have frequently trawled for a mate in all the stock places: bars, bookstores, supermarkets, evening classes and yes, even a Sharks game. But despite my best efforts, the results have been grim. Let's just put it this way: I'm still looking.

While I've never taken out an ad in the "personals," I've flipped through them like everyone else. More often than not, I've been amused and left it at that. But lately I've been thinking that perhaps I should try something outside of my standard socializing routine (which isn't working).

Now, if there is a true art to dating then the truest reflection of that craft lies in writing a personal ad: How does a person attract someone's attention in 50 words or less? Which convenient labels to attach to your personality? And how, exactly, does one accentuate "assets" without sounding like a conceited wreck? It's a tall order, so I enlisted the help of several professionals, none of them strangers to the art of spin. And to make it even more interesting, I decided to make it a competition.

Who could write me an ad that would yield the best results?

Among the wordsmiths (six in all) were the high-tech communications consultant Marti Colwell--better known as My Mother; Wendy Satterlund of Orloff & Williams advertising agency; and Craig Newmark, the bespectacled brains behind the Bay Area's popular listings website, craigslist.org. I wanted a gay man to write one, so I contacted Jim Boin, editor of Out Now! magazine, and I favored a psychologist who understands men and women in Silicon Valley, so I went to psychologist Jama Clark, author of What the Hell Do Women Really Want?

I met with each one individually. After combing through my vital statistics--height, hair, religion, personality traits, individual perks and quirks--each "author" wrote a separate personal ad tailored to their impressions of me. Once the ads were collected, I posted them in the personals section on craigslist.org, which, according to Newmark, receives nearly 800,000 hits a week. Then, oscillating between great bursts of trepidation, excitement, anxiety and fits of nail biting, I waited for the responses to roll in. When they did, I was pleasantly surprised.

Here, in no particular order, are the ads and the results they yielded. I've listed the number of responses generated by each ad, and also what I consider to be the quality of the responses on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being top-notch--an überdate.

Better than a NYT Crossword Puzzle

    A Dorothy Parker wannabe looking for someone to challenge me. Me: world traveler, language student, and amateur chef; attractive and sociable, thirtysomething. You: real values not portfolio values, a man with more than a 9-5 life to offer. Coffee? Cognac? Meet me at 8.

    Written by Jim Boin,
    editor of Out Now! magazine.

Total Responses: 15

Having a gay man write a personal ad for me was a dream come true. Although this ad received the fewest responses, it was one of my favorites. Boin managed to capture the essence of our hour-long interview--I felt it was definitely "me." Of course, the reference to Dorothy Parker, a well-known writer/raconteur during America's Prohibition years, appealed to those with more literary tastes. Sharp and incredibly urban, Parker was famous for sayings like "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses" and "One more drink and I'll be under the host."

Still, some brave and ignorant fellows tried saying "howdy," having no idea who Dorothy Parker was. "I am supposed to be looking for a place to live, but I need a break," one guy wrote. "I have included some generic roommate information so you can get a flavor of what I am like." I passed on this one. Another guy, the owner of a Harley-Davidson (and for some reason, there seem to be a lot of them out there scanning the personals), was much more flamboyant. "I travel whenever I have the urge and go anywhere I please," he wrote boldly. But what appealed to me more than his Harley was his philosophy on life. "I make it, I spend it. There aren't any luggage racks on funeral limousines."

Artsy Wordsmith

    If an attractive, bright and witty woman with a wonderful accent sounds intriguing, read on. I'm 33, a writer who loves music, and I've lived abroad for more than ten years.

    I'm curious about life, outgoing and value experiences over things. My friends find me loyal and ready to discuss anything--from politics to entertainment. I love to travel, have a great sense of humor and am also a bit bohemian.

    You are 30-38, smart, attractive and secure. You may like technology but are definitely not a geek. If you have an interest in travel, photography, enjoy dancing and having fun, let's trade emails and photos.

    Written by Marti,
    my mother

Total Responses: 27

My mother's ad was incredibly sweet. As a public relations writer who typically punches out copy for several high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, she surprised me with this burst of motherly softness. I expected an aggressive, sleek ad targeting a focused market, but what I got was something honest and straightforward. The honesty apparently appealed to the men who replied, and the ad garnered a quality response over quantity. Leave it to a mom to be sure the right kinds of guys call ...

For obvious reasons, this ad drew photographers, songwriters and other creative types who liked to muse with words. One 47-year-old, whose claim to fame is that he's a published songwriter for Journey, sent me the words to a love song he wrote back in 1991. There was a gentleman who had just gotten laid off from his dotcom job--evidently he received the news on his cell phone while shopping at Macy's. Aside from enjoying the wonders of chocolate, he had started attending the Unitarian Church. "Stranger things have occurred," he wrote.

One browser attached his photograph, noting the photo didn't do him justice. This made me laugh because the majority of men who sent in pictures seemingly grabbed any old shot off their dresser and tacked it on. Photos fell into two distinct camps: guys in front of monuments (cultured) and guys engaging in sports (active.) There were guys in Washington, D.C., guys on the beach, guys trekking up the Himalayas and wind-swept guys on sailboats. I'm sure this active, sports-minded stance appeals to other men, but I would have simply preferred a guy who brushed his hair. Still, photos were often a conversation starter. "How, exactly, did you tie that cravat?" I wrote to one writer in his tux.

Anais Nin?

    Well, possibly for the right guy. I'm a writer, British (great accent), 33, more East Coast than laid-back, more like San Francisco than San Jose. Not feeling needy at all, looking for good companionship more than something long-term, but that'd be great if it happened. I like my space, and need you to respect that even if we fall madly in love.

    I like to get out now and then, whether that's bowling, dancing, movies or dinner.

    Be aware that I might judge you by your music collection and would like you to have a lively sense of humor, to be well-traveled and well-read.

    A friend helping me write this tells me that I'm smart and attractive, and he's wondering why he's helping me write this rather than suggesting dinner.

    You'll have to decide for yourself. Your photo gets mine.

    Written by Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.com

Total Responses: 32

Craig and I discussed literature over lunch, so I wasn't surprised he included Anais Nin. Nin, the infamous French diarist who chronicled her sexual exploits and wrote erotica for a living, had an ongoing affair with author Henry Miller. Again, the literary reference elicited some great responses. "Henry Miller was a chronic dishwasher, apparently Anais noticed this quite frequently," one guy wrote. Another suitor, stumped by Nin's identity, tried to fit her in anyway. "I recently read the book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and I'm sure that this Anais Nin person came up there." I immediately hit the delete button.

Nin's reputation definitely spiced up the responses. One man, a 34-year-old saxophonist, told me that making love to a sensual, willing woman was a gift. "Athletic women turn me on! Please be height/weight proportionate," he requested. Another 34-year-old, who produced online sports content, told me the Anais Nin angle was "way hot" and there were many hooded references to "kissing," "seduction" and "exploring bodies."

As for music, I am a vinyl junkie who tends to make certain qualifications on the basis of a CD collection. I was provided with artists and genres and told to judge: P.J. Harvey, the Clash, Mazzy Star, viola sonatas, Galactic, Haydn. One guy dryly wrote, "You like to go bowling and you might judge me by my music collection?"

The English accent, which I acquired from living for 10 years abroad in the U.K., is probably my most salient feature and biggest selling point. Many guys admitted they were "suckers for it." Of course, as a dedicated Anglophile, I agree that it's sexy. So much the better for a conversation starter, but I repeatedly had to tell callers that I wasn't from London, which, apparently, is the only city left in England.

Lady Liberty

    Let's get straight to the point:

    Me: SWF, 33, sleek, chic, intelligent, FUN, NY-attitude, fit; likes conversation, stimulation, sarcasm, in the city, creative folk, COFFEE (thank god it's legal...)

    You: SWM, attractive, witty, mature, open-minded, professional; make me laugh/think/dance, like work but prefer play, enjoy the rain.

    Interested? Send me an email and let's have an espresso.

    Written by me

Total Responses: 24

I originally posted this ad as "Funny Girl," with the tag "Nice Jewish boys win Brownie Points." But when 99 percent of the responses were from Jewish men old enough to be my father, I cheated and decided to change it. It's not that I wouldn't love to have a Jewish boyfriend, it's just that I envisioned one that looked more like Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys than, say, an aging Barry Manilow. Several mensches, divorced lawyers and matzoh-ball lovers wrote in. The most endearing was one who told me he was a "nice Jewish boy, but not too nice."

I had a healthy dose of articulate responses and an Italian following due to the espresso reference, but far less quantity than the other ads. I wasn't that surprised--I believe in a good dose of self-deprecation. Admittedly, coffee and having a great sense of humor are about as important to me as water and breathing. I tried to boil down my essence, but I guess Starbucks is changing the landscape.

I see London, I see France...

    British beauty, 33, brown hair, hazel eyes--radiant. Slim build, sunny smile. Berkeley grad with a bohemian bent. Creative and cosmopolitan.

    Unpretentious, hip and happy. I'm passionate about politics, music, exploring new worlds and other views. I'm well traveled and love language; let's talk tech or Czech--either way, my accent will make you smile. If you are a professional man with a sense of humor and adventure, let's chat, shall we?

    Written by Wendy Satterlund,
    Orloff & Williams

Total Responses: 96

This was the Power Personal. Satterlund's ad efficiently tapped the marketplace and garnered more than 80 responses--52 on the first night alone. This woman deserves a raise. Satterlund grilled me for two hours, making me cover every aspect of my life. As a spin professional, she promoted me like a product, primed for play. The results were phenomenal.

I heard from a wine broker, who invited me to his course at the Learning Annex, several New York transplants, savvy globetrotters, lawyers, software engineers and multilingual enthusiasts. Most cooed about my British accent, but one sarcastic browser wasn't impressed. "I see London, I see France, I see money flying out of my pants," he wrote, claiming I was high maintenance. Another quipped, "Why do I think this is going to turn into another porno website? Is this another variation on the 'looking for a cunning linguist' theme?"

One 37-year-old divorced Little League coach really struck a chord with me when he admitted he had never answered a personals ad in his life. "You're getting me as a personals virgin," he said. While I didn't find him attractive, I loved his honesty. Another email scared me right off. "Have you ever been told you're just 'too much'? That you're too smart, too driven, too well-educated, too cerebral or too intense?" the writer, an entertainment attorney, said. While his email smacked of loneliness--the reason most of us seek a significant other--it was definitely "too much."

I actually went on dates with two guys who answered this ad, but the sparks weren't there. I struggled through the conversation, touching on important social issues--and even refrigerators--but it was hard work. It was disappointing, but what's for sale isn't always what you get.

Leggy Minx

    A slender 33 yo leggy minx with a brain for linguistics and a bod for sincere men appears ... Got a bigger vocabulary than your hard drive? Cosmopolitan or traveled like me--lateral thinker with wicked humor IQ? Want a family sometime b4 you die? ... dealbreakerpause .... Culturally Jewish or at least that smart (I'm only .5) Buff or tall is nice but the ability to give is much more essential. I promise to appreciate you just the way you are if you are my guy who can laugh. It might be us--the chance of a lifetime.

    Written by Jama Clark,
    author of What the Hell Do Women Really Want?

Total Responses: 35

This was the crème de la crème of ads. Dr. Clark, a marriage and family therapist, has witnessed the evolution of personals over the last few decades. Clark studied evolutionary psychology and is known for her candor. "Most men respond to words that indicate a woman is slender," she tells me. "Men don't relate to 'svelte.' You've got to think of a powerful trigger." And that is how Clark decided on "leggy minx," a combination that sent most men yelping to their dictionaries.

"Being a bit of a pedant, I had to double check the definition of minx," wrote one extremely entertaining man, who described his stomach as a "six pack that's been wrapped in a blanket." Another wit quipped, "l love smart women. I assume that when you said 'Culturally Jewish or at least that smart (I'm only half)' you meant half-Jewish, rather than half-smart."

Most men told me I was the woman of their dreams, being Jewish was a plus and even the mention of children wasn't a deterrent. Although the majority tended to be in their early 40s (something I personally consider a little "too old"), I was far from being bored. I found these responses exciting and funny, and there was something about the word "minx" that made men frisky and ready to step up to the challenge. "As for those legs ... are they the long slender kind, or the sexy, athletic type?" one man, who grew up in the entertainment industry and claimed to be "entertaining," wrote, "I prefer the latter myself, though, really, it makes little difference as long as there's only two of them."

IF, AS THE LATE JOURNALIST and British politician Woodrow Wyatt once said, "A man falls in love through his eyes, a woman through her ears," is true, then answering a personal ad offers a great challenge. At least initially. But with dating, as with all things, we always take our chances.

Now, having given personal ads a whirl, I've learned--if nothing else--that it's an effective strategy for identifying the prospective mating pool. Like so many single women in the Bay Area, I have often assumed that all the nice men I meet are either gay or taken. But a world of eager, heterosexual potential partners has suddenly appeared. And, what's more, they are a clever, inventive and playful bunch.

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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