It is a Thursday night in Soho. Groups of friends mill about on the pavements, people spill out of pubs, two men kiss under a neon sex-shop sign. In this grid of streets, among the rainbow flags and lingerie shops, free love still reigns. But in a bar on Wardour Street, things are rather more restrained. Punters stand around in twos and threes, resolutely single sex, refusing to mingle. There’s something of the school disco about it.
I am here by invitation of Social Concierge, one of the new wave of dating apps that promises a lot more than Tinder. Nana Wereko-Brobby, a glamorous thirtysomething, founded Social Concierge a few years ago. The premise is simple: it’s basically a private members’ club in the form of an app. Obviously, you have to be single to apply. Other than that, they select members based on education, charm and — of course — attractiveness. Every applicant is vetted personally by a dedicated membership secretary. They’re pretty rigorous: I suspect that if I didn’t happen to be 28 and scrub up tolerably well, no amount of promised publicity would have blagged me in. Members are in their twenties and thirties — professional, confident and good-looking.
Social Concierge organises weekly parties in swanky central London locations: Tramp, Mahiki, Quaglino’s. There are cocktail evenings and big fancy balls for Halloween and Valentine’s Day. There are also Social Concierge holidays, which I imagine to be like a grown-up version of the classic post A-levels Sloane group trip to Cornwall or Croatia. Everything is done very tastefully: the app is beautifully designed and easy to use; staff sign off emails with ‘lots of love’; dress codes are adhered to. Membership also gets you weekend access to the House of St Barnabas — the charming club in Soho Square — and Library Club on St Martin’s Lane. This month, the service launched in New York with a party for 250 Manhattanites, and last year saw the first Social Concierge wedding.
Another app offering a similar service is Inner Circle. Again, you have to apply (and pay) to join it. I can’t help but suspect the process is a little less meticulous than for Social Concierge; it’s all done through the app — there’s no face-to-face interview — and you don’t have to give any information away that you don’t want to. I gain access on the strength of a few (heavily filtered) photographs. Inner Circle also arranges parties at the likes of Beaufort House in Chelsea, Bunga Bunga in Covent Garden and the Century Club. It’s international, with events in Berlin, Barcelona and Zurich as well as London, Paris and New York. The main difference from Social Concierge is that on the Inner Circle app you can see all of the other members, and strike up conversations based on listed interests, photos or mutual Facebook friends.
The Holy Grail of this new high-end wave of dating apps is Raya. I fail to gain access — despite a cringe-inducing email to the PR — but know a bit about it. You can only get in if you are proposed by existing members, and it’s all done through Instagram. The more followers you have, the likelier you are to be allowed in. It’s for ‘creatives’: friends who have entered the hallowed online doors have spotted actors, models and musicians on the books. ‘It’s the sort of people you’d see at Soho House, but be too scared to go up to,’ says one friend. ‘But it’s also really embarrassing; everyone on it thinks they’re someone special.’ Raya doesn’t organise events, but the high calibre of its clientele ensures that it has a central spotlight on the stage of online dating.
Back at the Social Concierge party in Soho, introductions are being made. Wereko-Brobby and her staff all wear blousy fabric flower brooches and waft through the crowd like glamorous Cupids. They warmly welcome everyone, and are quick with a smile and a handshake. The introductions are rather formal, like the bit in Bridget Jones where she tries to remember to ‘introduce people with thoughtful details’. But it helps break the ice, and stops people who have come alone from standing gooseberry-like for too long. I have rather spinelessly brought a friend; Wereko-Brobby steers two men in our direction and we start to chat. One is tall, fair, Teutonic–looking. He turns out to be German, the sort of Eurotrash, my friend says, that has stag heads in the hall and wears a signet ring. The other is shorter, plumper and a lot more fun. They both, inevitably, work in finance. We make small talk for a few minutes, then make our excuses and slip off to the bar. By now, though, we feel a bit braver — brave enough to scan the crowds, rather than loitering in the corner with our heads down.
There are more women than men — around a 60:40 ratio. The women are uniformly gorgeous: glossy, blow-dried hair, smart little cocktail dresses in navy or cream, lipstick and high heels. They nurse glasses of white wine and laugh nervously, a little too loudly. The men are more varied — some are impossibly handsome, almost suspiciously so. I suspect they have been drafted in to boost the average. Others are less alarmingly good-looking and consequently much more approachable. And after a couple of drinks, as the embarrassment begins to wear off, approaching loses its terrible power to frighten. I realise I can say hello to anyone and they won’t think I’m peculiar. In fact, saying hello is the whole point.
We natter away, talking to anybody and everybody. The girls work in marketing or PR, the men in finance or at start-ups. Everyone is friendly and warm, relieved to have someone to talk to. It feels oddly liberating, like being freed from the shackles of English restraint.
The next week I go to an Inner Circle party in Chelsea. It is much the same scene: pretty girls, confident men, naff chat-up lines and lots of shy giggling. But this time I am prepared. Me and my friend don’t waste any time at the beginning lurking by ourselves, but dive straight into talking to strangers.
By the end of the night I am grinning at everyone in the street. It makes you realise how insulated we are most of the time — that we think anyone who smiles on the Tube is a freak or a pervert. If a stranger tries to strike up a conversation in ordinary life, our instinct is to get away as quickly as possible. It’s difficult to overcome this impulse, but talking to people you don’t know is incredibly rewarding.
So I haven’t fallen in love. But I have had two fantastic nights out, meeting people I wouldn’t ordinarily have come across. I have made new friends and solidified old friendships. I have realised how great it is to be bold enough to introduce yourself. I have been reminded that in the end everyone is just a human being, looking for some fun and some companionship. And I have laughed a lot. Because as long as you can laugh at the absurdity of it all, you can retain a humanity and humility that makes you more attractive than any lipstick.