8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
EAT, PAY, LOVE
A new app let women charge for a night out. Will dating join
the on-demand economy?
Emily Yo ead e
Tara* had struck gold. After spending a lazy Saturday afternoon
browsing through the dating app she was currently
experimenting with, she hit it off with a nice-sounding guy, and
the two exchanged real names and numbers. She found herself
Googling Stuart*, a Brit living in Amsterdam. He worked at a startup; he was
visiting New York on business. "I was like, oh, he’s kind of cute…"
Neither had plans that night, so they started figuring out where they could meet
up for a drink. When Tara suggested a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Stuart
was into it: "Okay cool, my hotel is super close to there," he messaged back.
The mention of the hotel gave Tara pause, and she asked him what exactly he
had in mind. "We can go back after and have some fun," he said.
Tara hesitated. This guy seemed nice and normal and safe and she was down
for a fun night out with a visiting stranger, but she drew a hard line when it
came to sex on the first date. "I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t know who you’ve met
[on this app], but I’m not going to fuck you, I’m sorry,’" she says. Her match was
taken aback. "Oh," he responded. "I thought that was the expectation."
These kinds of conflicting agendas will be familiar to anyone who’s done much
Tindering or Bumbling or OkCupiding, where one person’s one-night stand is
another person’s chance at finding The One. But Tara wasn’t using any of these
apps. This was Ohlala, and Stuart had already agreed to pay Tara $600 for their
The Ohlala headquarters are located on a sleepy block in the Prenzlauer Berg
neighborhood of Berlin, in an old prewar building one block from where the
Wall once stood. Though you wouldn’t know it from walking down the pin-dropquiet
residential street, the neighborhood has become home to several startups
including SoundCloud, which has an office a couple floors down from Ohlala.
When I arrive, there’s a mood of weary intensity among the eight or so team
members present. Pia Poppenreiter, the company’s CEO, stands and greets me
with a rushed hug. "You picked a great day to visit," she says, in a voice that
suggests more cigarettes than hours of sleep. "Search ‘hashtag escortgate’ on
Twitter." I do so as we step out to the balcony and she lights up a Marlboro Red.
A pink Ohlala banner tied to the railing billows silently behind her.
Launched in August 2015, Ohlala is a web-based app that facilitates what it
calls "instant paid dating." Male users post offers for dates, consisting of a time,
a duration, and how much money they’re willing to pay — a typical offer is from
1–4 hours at an average price of $300. While the request is up, women can
decide whether or not they’d like that person to be able to contact them.
Crucially, women are not visible to men before they initiate conversation — it’s
the inverse of the backpage listings to which it’s often compared. Here, the
buyers must come forward first. From there, the couple can chat and discuss
the whens and wheres of their impending dates, as well as a payment method
and their boundaries, if they so please. (In-app payment is currently in the
works, the team tells me.) When the terms are agreed upon, the chat is logged,
and presumably both parties are incentivized to show up. Though its ondemand
model has earned Ohlala the label "Uber for escorts," the company
insists it isn’t an escort agency, or even operating in the adult entertainment
AS I SCROLLED
I STARTED TO PIECE
As I scrolled through the largely German #escortgate hashtag, one Bing
translation at a time, I started to piece together an unraveling scandal. That
week Berlin had been host to the NOAH Conference, an invite-only event
comparable to Code Conference or Disrupt back in the States. According to
multiple reports, the gala party two nights earlier had been characterized by a
high number of "attractive, glamorously dressed women" who flirted
aggressively with the male attendees and handed out business cards. It was
concluded that these women were escorts, and that they had come to the party
at the behest of Ohlala. Several women were rumored to be carrying credit
8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
Glued to her Twitter feed as we sit on the deck, Poppenreiter dismisses the
credit card part, at least, as "ridiculous." But, she says, "It’s true, to some extent.
We did invite people [to the NOAH party], but it was more my friends." Her allfemale
guerrilla marketing team were dressed up, sure; it was a party, after all.
Several in the group were Ohlala users, but Poppenreiter puts those numbers
in the low single digits. Poppenreiter herself did not join them. "I was
exhausted, I was at the conference the whole day."
There’s no question the group was pulling off a stunt. A leaked Facebook
invitation for the party-within-a-party encouraged invitees to "grab a drink and
mingle with men who crave the finer things in life." A publicity stunt involving a
controversial app doesn’t sound like the stuff of trending topics, until you
consider NOAH’s abysmal female attendance rate — at this year’s event, only
11 out of its 108 speakers were women. The presence of escorts at the evening
events have long been a wink-wink assumption. By symbolically associating
themselves with these women, Ohlala’s party crashers made the company a
scapegoat for these rumors. But they also got people’s attention.
Poppenreiter had already released a statement earlier in the day in response to
the outcry, apologizing for letting things "get out of hand." But part of me can’t
help but wonder if this was exactly what she had planned.
According to Poppenreiter, Ohlala seeks to improve upon two perceived flaws
that Tinder and other dating apps often fall into. First, the in-app chats that go
nowhere — or worse, promising matches who ghost on you. As more resultsoriented
users of Tinder or OkCupid can attest, if you’ve logged on with the
objective to meet up with someone that night, you can often be left frustrated.
With Ohlala, everyone wants something, and everyone’s on a tight schedule.
8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
OHLALA ISN’T REALLY
AN "UBER FOR ESCORTS,"
IT’S A TASKRABBIT FOR
And then there’s expectation management. People use Tinder or OkCupid for
everything from NSA hookups to long-term relationship hunting, but there’s a
high likelihood that you and the person you’re courting electronically might not
be on the same page, even if both of you put "casual dating" in your "looking
for" field. The chat stage of Ohlala prompts you to be up front and clear about
what you want. If you are definitely not open to having sex on your date, you
can establish that there. If you want to bring a third, you can propose that as
well. Either way, the goal is to get exactly what you want that night.
Getting exactly what you want as quickly as possible is the general goal of
countless other startups. But because the "what" in this situation isn’t cars or
bánh mì but human companions, Ohlala, and other apps that facilitate paid
dating, are most easily understood in terms of sex work. This isn’t a huge
roadblock in Germany, where the app first launched, and where sex work is
legal. But in February of this year, Ohlala crossed the Atlantic and launched in
New York City, where not only are the laws different, but social interface is as
well. Sure, sex workers and escorts can find plenty of work here, but it remains
to be seen if we’re comfortable calling that "dating."
In Poppenreiter’s vision, Ohlala is an app for any woman who thinks she ought
to be compensated for her time and efforts when she goes out with someone. It
seeks to turn leisure time — a precious, dwindling commodity — into billable
hours. In that sense, Poppenreiter’s right: her app isn’t really an "Uber for
escorts." It’s a TaskRabbit for emotional labor. Perhaps that makes it more
radical than anything else — with its tasteful design and young, hip founder,
Ohlala suggests a world in which there’s no "kind of woman" who sells her time
and affection, because every woman could be that kind of woman.
8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
P ia Poppenreiter is hardly a stranger to provocation. The first time I
met her was at an Ohlala party at SXSW, where she held court
while inviting guests to draw interpretive vaginas on sketch pads
distributed around the bar. ("You are going to come. Let us tell
you when," the pastel-pink party invitation read.) But the second time we meet,
I barely recognize her. In her casually conservative street clothes — chambray
button-down, messy updo — she looks more like a J.Crew model or Lauren
Conrad acolyte than the bawdy Berlin cybermadam whose name elicits youcan’t-
be-serious emoji eyebrow raises on German Twitter (in German
"Poppenreiter" can roughly translate to "fuck rider").
Poppenreiter was born in Schauersberg, Austria, a town of about 5,000 people,
and the kind of village where everyone knows your name and your business.
She originally came to Berlin for grad school to study business ethics after a
year of working in finance in Frankfurt. She was in between jobs, and out at
night with some friends, when she noticed sex workers looking for customers
on the icy-cold streets. It was 2013, apps like Seamless and Handy were
starting to introduce an on-demand lifestyle to the modern city-dweller and the
whole process of waiting around on street corners struck her as rather
impractical. She struck up a conversation with the women and got the idea for
her first startup.
SEX WORKERS WAITING
AROUND ON STREET
CORNERS STRUCK HER
AS RATHER IMPRACTICAL
Peppr is a service that functions like a smart backpage, allowing escorts and
prostitutes to list their services, prices, and photos in a searchable, locationspecific
interface. Payment is processed through the app, and clients and
"Pepprs" can negotiate the specifics in the in-app chat. Poppenreiter
researched her user base relentlessly, spending months in Berlin’s streets and
brothels talking to sex workers and figuring out what her potential customers
When it launched in Germany in April 2014, Peppr was met with scandalized
headlines from around the world, and a huge amount of buzz. But only months
later, Poppenreiter was backing out of the company. "I was overwhelmed being
the CEO," she says. "I had no experience as such." The viral storm and influx of
users to the tiny startup proved to be a mixed blessing. "We weren’t ready, as a
team, as a product, nothing."
Shortly after stepping down she was back out there, mixing it up at an Axel
Springer networking event. It was there that she met Torsten Stüber, a computer
science researcher turned startup founder who would become the CTO of
Ohlala. His artificial intelligence company was floundering, and he was looking
for his next move.
When Pia showed up at the party, whispers spread — Oh, that’s the Peppr
woman. That’s the founder of the prostitution app. Stüber himself had never
heard of her or Peppr before. "I said, ‘What? Someone’s doing this?’" He was a
little wary of her at first, but they got to talking, and something clicked. "I said
from the very first day we met that we would be great co-founders,"
Poppenreiter says, in a "told you so" kind of voice. This was late 2014. By
March 2015, less than a year after Peppr’s launch, the two had started work on
At first glance, Ohlala could just be seen as Peppr with a different color
scheme. But the ways in which it differs are telling. For one, there is no way for
women to pay for dates with men, or for same-sex dates to occur. (I ask several
times about when that upgrade can be expected; each time the response is
"eventually.") There’s the aforementioned female-initiated communication
process. But what Pia would probably consider its biggest innovation is its time
limit. Each open date request only lasts 21 minutes; once a couple starts
chatting they have one hour to decide whether or not to go on a date. Using it
was a panic-inducing experience, even when I was only looking for male users
to interview for this piece. (Which was largely unsuccessful: "Lol! Seriously!
This is just like any other dating app. Nothing special," said one user to my
OUR MOST URGENT
NEEDS ARE USUALLY
DRIVEN BY EITHER
The time limit doesn’t help Ohlala’s "totally not a sex app" claims. We are
humans; our most urgent, time-sensitive needs are usually driven by either
hunger or horniness. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which I’d only give
someone 21 minutes to decide whether or not to have a stimulating
conversation with me over a nice Chianti. But other people are perhaps more
likely to be drawn in by the promise of such instantaneous interaction, with or
without sex — people who are (or consider themselves to be) very busy, very
important, and very impatient.
Poppenreiter isn’t a terribly patient person, which can be a helpful trait in the
startup world. She literally cut her losses when she sensed Peppr wouldn’t pan
out. When Ohlala expanded to New York City, it was a similarly impulsive
development. "We were a very small team at that time, I think just six or seven
8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
people," Stüber says. "And we said that we wanted to be done within two
months — going to a new continent, filing a new corporation, checking the
The legal situation, of course, is less permissive in New York than in Berlin. But
the cultural situation is really what Poppenreiter is trying to disrupt, despite the
fact that the team did no substantial market research before coming to the
States. During our conversation she’s careful not to use words like "escort" or
"sex worker" when describing the women who might use Ohlala (the app’s
website states in no uncertain terms that escorts are "not welcome" to use the
service). Everything about the site’s tasteful pastels screams "This is normal!
This is for you, normal girl! We’re all normal! We all charge money for dates!"
But no matter how much Poppenreiter may be trying to redefine our attitudes
around paid dating, in the United States, what she’s selling exists in the same
legal loophole as escort agencies. Charging money for a date is still charging
money for a date, whether it’s your sole source of income or not, and it’s hard to
unseat centuries of religious and moral baggage that come with the American
Dream. You can tell yourself you’re just a resourceful girl looking to offset the
cost of cab fare and a personal trainer, but in the eyes of the law, you may as
well be a hooker.
T ara is not a hooker. Nor is she an escort. She’s a matchmaker, as
it so happens, specializing in the "sugar dating" niche. She found
out about Ohlala in the course professional research, and signed
up hoping to use it to find eligible women for her wealthy male
clients to meet. "When I realized I couldn’t," — Ohlala’s structure means that
there’s no way for women to contact other women — "I [thought], well, maybe
I’ll just meet cool guys."
MANY MALE USERS
ASSUME SHE’S AN
ESCORT, AND KICK OFF
THE CHAT BY ASKING
THE CHAT BY ASKING
FOR NUDE PHOTOS
When I talk to her, on a balmy afternoon in Manhattan's Bryant Park, she just
finished lunch at Koi. She sports oversized Prada sunglasses and a patent
leather Chanel bag. She’s an animated, mile-a-minute talker — it’s easy to
imagine her being great on first dates. She’s just been using Ohlala for a
couple months, but so far, she says, "It’s more rubbing me the wrong way than
the right way." Many of the male users assume from the jump that she’s an
escort, and kick off the chat by asking for nude photos and specific sex acts.
There’s also a transparency imbalance: Ohlala boasts about its verification
process, but far more women than men bother to add photos (something I can
corroborate, having spent time on both sides of the app’s gender line). "I hate
that guys who have unverified profiles will say ‘I need you to send more
pictures. I need to see what you look like,’" Tara says.
Which leads to another issue. Tara’s black, and she’s experienced a fair amount
of prejudice on the site — and in a more blatant way than she’s experienced on
Tinder. "I don’t think it’s racism," she says of most guys’ behavior. "The racism
comes when they’re hateful. They’re not hateful, they just don’t know, and they
don’t say it right." One potential suitor, after ending their chat abruptly, came
back to apologize — he didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just that he didn’t like
Tara appreciates Ohlala’s underlying philosophy, but in practice she’s found it
to be much more dicey. "They say to you, as a woman you have all the power,
you can either accept or deny something. You lead the conversation, you only
agree to what you accept." But it’s hard to feel like you have all that power and
agency Ohlala promotes when a gray silhouette is hounding you for nudes.
"Guys will go, ‘Well look at the site you’re on. Obviously I expect this.’ I’m like,
‘You know what? You’re right!’ I just leave the chat. Because what can I say?"
Poppenreiter prefers the term "paid date" to describe what Ohlala provides its
users. She claims the reason for this is as philosophical as it is legal: "You can’t
use an old word for a new idea," she’s said to me, and at least a dozen other
publications she talked to during the app’s US launch.
THE IDEA OF PAID
DATING IS HARDLY NEW
But the idea of paid dating is hardly new. And if it is, it’s just as new as the idea
of dating itself. In her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira
Weigel explains how dating as we know it today rose up around the turn of the
century as a working class practicality — a way for urban singles living in
cramped family apartments and boarding houses to get out and spend their
wages while enjoying a little romance. (Middle and upper class singles were
relegated to the practice of "calling" — a formalized form of courtship largely
conducted under the watchful eye of a parent.) But the market was far from
equal: "Despite the record numbers of women entering the workforce, the belief
remained widespread that they were working not to support themselves but
only to supplement the earnings of fathers or husbands," Weigel writes.
"Employers used this misconception as an excuse to pay women far less than
they paid men." Less than half as much, on average — which meant when it
came to spending money on leisure, women did not have nearly as much
financial freedom as men did. Accepting dates with men primarily as a way to
get out of the boarding house for the evening was very common among the
textile workers and seamstresses of New York City.
Wage equality in the United States has slowly crept toward parity over the
course of the last century, but when it comes to the big bucks, men still vastly
outpace women. According to a report this year, only one out of five CEOs in
the US is female, and only 12 percent of the world’s board seats are occupied
by women. The numbers for women of color drop even more precipitously. At
the same time, female-targeted consumer culture has only intensified since the
turn of the millennium, along with our growing access to the lives of the rich
and / or famous via tabloid journalism and social media. We always were aware
that there were people who had better, more expensive things than we did, but
now images of them stream past our eyes every day. Maybe this serves as
inspiration for some to work harder for that next raise, but the fast track to the
high life as portrayed by the Kardashians (or whatever affluent lifestyle porn
floats your boat) is to "date up." Having a relationship with someone you might
not otherwise pursue, the thinking goes, is a small price to pay for your material
Sites like Seeking Arrangement have profited off these appetites, and helped
perpetuate the notion that rich men want to date gorgeous young women, and
gorgeous young women want to stay in five-star hotels and wear Celine.
Brandon Wade, founder of SeekingArrangement, has become somewhat of a
mogul in the field of transactional dating, having launched a network of
compensated dating sites. In many ways, he’s the anti-Pia — his sites are
unapologetically marketed toward male users ("The odds are in your favor," the
landing page proclaims while boasting its 4–1 baby-to-daddy ratio), and his
business model is built on a prescriptive life philosophy in which women only
need to be plied with gifts and money in order to "expand their horizons" when
it comes to which men they’re willing to date.
"AS YOU TREND TOWARD
APPROACH TO DATING, IT
DOES BECOME LESS
In 2007, he launched WhatsYourPrice, a more cut-and-dry version of
SeekingArrangement, predicated on the idea that everyone has a dollar
amount at which they’d be willing to give someone a chance on a "first date."
It’s the most clear existing competitor to Ohlala, in that its daters deal in cash,
not the ambiguous promise of "gifts." A first date is the beginning and end of its
immediate goals. But nearly a decade later, its membership remains about onefifth
the size of SeekingArrangement’s, Wade says. "Primarily because it can be
argued that a sugar daddy is just a wealthy and successful boyfriend who’s
willing to be generous towards you." An ongoing "arrangement" provides
enough ambiguity that both parties can choose to unsee the monetary
exchange at the center of it. The clearly labeled price tags on the users of
WhatsYourPrice, and now Ohlala, are harder to ignore. "As you trend toward the
more transactional approach to dating, it does become less acceptable," says
In a way, this means that its users really have to want to do what they’re there to
do. One of Ohlala’s selling points is its strict policy regarding no-shows — that’s
one way it preserves its "instant" and "on-demand" selling points. But if a female
user suddenly gets a bad vibe from her date, must she still show up at the risk
of getting kicked off the service? And if she does show up, how does she
guarantee payment if her date deems the evening unsatisfactory? In the end,
what’s on demand, and who’s demanding? Ohlala may put more power in the
hands of women when it comes to vetting dates, but the only people who are
finding dates on demand are the men. Women are first and foremost finding
I t’s tough to be a female entrepreneur. Perhaps that’s why the people
who are most upset by Pia’s escortgate stunt were those who felt
their work was most invalidated by it — her female peers. "Being a
founder myself it was obvious to me that [they] were not founders,
nor investors but girls that were invited for entertainment purposes," read one
woman’s account of the NOAH party.
Back at Ohlala HQ, this is what Poppenreiter still can’t get over — what she
calls a "double-moral" within the tech industry, especially in Berlin. "People say,
‘Oh my god, those girls, they wore skirts and high heels; they’re hookers.’" She
says, "Okay, so, if you’re wearing a skirt, and if you’re wearing makeup, then
you’re a hooker?" She turns back to her feed, and laughs bitterly when she
reads a quote from a female entrepreneur who attended the party. "Crazy —
women saying ‘I’m glad I wore a business outfit so no one would mistake me for
an escort.’" (As it happens, many female entrepreneurs were mistaken for
escorts by their male peers, when Poppenreiter reads this she laughs again,
this time with a little more schadenfreude — "Oh man, now I wish I would have
been there," she says.)
FROM A DIFFERENT
SCHOOL OF THOUGHT
THAN MANY OF HER
8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge
Suffice to say, Poppenreiter comes from a different school of thought than many
of her fellow female founders. "I always say, I’m a woman, and I’m a woman in
tech. And I don’t want to dress like —" she stops short. "I was wearing a black
dress on the first day I attended NOAH, because I want to be a woman in a
male-dominated environment. I don’t want to dress like a guy." And yet, she
rejects much of the female tech community — their meetups and initiatives and
representation quotas, which she considers reverse discrimination. "I think
women in the startup community are so aggressive about their points, and I
don’t think that’s the way to create the greatest amount of change in the
shortest period of time," she says. "What I want to do is be an excellent CEO,
and accomplish that myself, and then be a role model because I accomplished
That Ohlala’s founder is a woman — and that she’s hired a staff that’s over 50
percent female (an anomaly in tech) certainly helps with public perception. But
it’s also a double-edged sword, and Poppenreiter is continually fighting to be
taken seriously as both a CEO and a disruptor of the still largely feminineencoded
dating industry, especially at events like NOAH. Not that she’d ever let
on as much. "Pia experiences this every day; I don’t, because I sit here when
Pia goes to events," Stüber says. "And she does not talk about this, because
Pia is [busy] proving that she’s really good at what she’s doing. So it doesn’t
A few days later, Poppenreiter posts a follow-up statement, this time on her
Facebook page. "We could spend time discussing how unfair the world is and
how we disagree with the tendencies of a [formerly] heavily male influenced
industry," she writes with barely concealed disdain. "You choose. And I will roll
up my sleeves and go back to work now."
The work pays off; just a few days after #escortgate, marketing director Lindsay
Buescher says she estimates signups have increased by 700 percent.
During my conversation with Tara, a homeless man approaches, looking
distraught enough that neither of us can ignore him. He’s lost his wallet and his
ID, he says, and he’s just looking for money for food and to travel back home.
We each hand him a dollar; he thanks us and moves on.
As soon as the man’s out of earshot, Tara tells me about a video she watched
that weekend, about a homeless man who seduced women for shelter. "He’d
go to Walgreens and Duane Reade, and just freshen up using [hair gel.] He
would go bar hopping, and he would sleep with girls, and he was like,
‘Depending on how good I fucked them, I could stay a three-day weekend.’"
"IF I CAN GET PAID TO
JUST GO ON A DATE AND
JUST BE MY LOUD,
CRAZY, FUN SELF, WHY
The hustle is real, and Tara has few illusions about it, which is why she had few
qualms about signing up for Ohlala. "People will let you exploit them to a
certain extent, and they’re okay with it," she says. "I thought, if I can get paid to
just go on a date and just be my loud, crazy, fun self, why not?"
And yet, almost despite herself, she thinks she may have found someone she
really likes. Stuart? From Amsterdam? After getting over the initial
miscommunication hump, they ended up going out anyway, with the
understanding that sex was not on the table. She still got her $600, too — he
PayPal’d her, and, like a true gentleman, waited to make sure she received the
transaction before saying goodnight. "He was like, ‘Just know this is for your
"He’s actually really cool," she says. "He’s someone that I’d right swipe on
Tinder anyway, so it was totally okay." Their date turned into a few hours of bar
hopping, and ended with a little bit of making out.
"Sometimes it’s nice," Tara says. "I’m single now. It’s nice sometimes, to be in
the company of a guy that I’m attracted to and see where it goes."
"I’m 100 percent certain I’ll fuck him," she says, with an ear-to-ear grin. "I like
But throughout our conversation, she vacillates wildly on whether or not the
feeling is mutual. They still text, but Stuart has a wife and kids — even on their
first (relatively) chaste date, he expressed doubts about straying from his
marriage. The money only clouds the issue further. Perhaps, she says, she
would have been open to sleeping with him after the night went so well if they
had met any other way. But she couldn’t trust herself in that transactional
space. "I’d feel like… well, did I only do it because you gave me money? I don’t
For this, and the reasons she’s already expressed, she’s probably deleting her
Ohlala account. In the meantime, if she wants to set up another date with
Stuart, she has his number. He’s supposed to be in town later that month, and
they’ve even discussed plans for a second date (Smorgasburg!). And because
she likes him so much, she’s lowered her fee — just $300 this time.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.