London - Abra Conway Keene, 27, is attractive, owns her own flat in London, and has a successful career as a fashion buyer.
Her job takes her to glamorous parties and glittering destinations from Mauritius to Milan but, until 18 months ago, she had to do it all alone.
After one failed long-term relationship and numerous unsuccessful dates, she was desperate to find Mr Right.
So desperate, in fact, that she decided to spend all her savings on the search.
‘I was fed up with speaking to random men in bars and trawling dating sites only to find men who were simply interested in sex. I wanted to meet someone special.’
So Abra paid £15,000 to a high-end introduction agency. And, in her case, money did buy love, as just four months after Abra parted with her savings, her matchmaker introduced her to Dan, a management consultant.
A year on, they are planning to move in together and have discussed marriage.
‘Of course, I would much rather be £15,000 better off and have met Dan through work or friends, but life just wasn’t panning out that way,’ says Abra.
‘My two older sisters are married with babies, and my friends are getting engaged - seeing them so happy just reinforced my desire for a husband and children.
‘I wasn’t prepared to leave it to chance. My job meant I simply didn’t have the time to devote to finding a man.
‘People have asked what the rush is, given that I’m only in my 20s, but finding the right man takes time and I didn’t want to suddenly panic in a decade.’
Paying for a professional Cupid may sound like the ultimate indulgence, but Abra is far from alone.
Despite the recession, dating agencies for the well-heeled are booming. Long working hours coupled with anxiety about leaving it too late to settle down are driving legions of singletons to their doors.
Former event manager Daniel Andre, 38, is chief executive of one such agency, Elect Club, in Mayfair, London. He says its membership has doubled this year (the ratio of women to men is 55:45).
‘It used to be seen as taboo to hire help to find love but, now, using a dating ‘headhunter’ is a status symbol. It has the same cachet as a personal trainer,’ he explains.
‘Our members are successful professionals of all ages - we’ve even got a few famous faces. They don’t have time to meet people the usual ways and don’t want the indiscretion of putting a profile on dating sites. That’s where we come in.’
Elect’s fees start at £10,000 (plus VAT) per year, which includes a face-to-face consultation with a trained matchmaker. For an extra £5,000, the company will search for suitors at business and social events.
‘The people we approach cold are often surprised at first, but quickly become curious and excited,’ says Daniel.
Knightsbridge-based Seventy Thirty has similarly high annual fees, from £9,500 for basic matchmaking, to an eye-watering £50,000 for a global search. Despite this, boss Lemarc Thomas says membership has trebled in the past two years.
He believes he gives value for money, guaranteeing at least eight introductions in 12 months, and says nine out of ten people find a relationship within that time - though there is no money-back guarantee if you don’t find ‘the one’. Many women admit they use introduction agencies because they don’t want to ‘marry down’ in terms of background, education or earning potential.
Abra says these were key considerations for her. She grew up in leafy Hertfordshire, the middle child of five girls, and studied biomedical engineering at Manchester University.
‘I’m intelligent and ambitious, but have strong family values and wanted a man who was on the same page,’ says Abra, whose parents, a housewife and a construction company owner, have been married for 40 years. ‘Mom met Dad at school and has never worked, but it’s different for my generation. I wasn’t seeking a millionaire, just a man with similar values.’
She had dates with four members before meeting Dan in June 2011. At his suggestion, their first date was at London Zoo. ‘We talked very easily about everything from our families to our careers and everything in between.’
Now, a year on, Abra says they are both convinced they’ve found the one. ‘Dan and I are certain this relationship is for ever. We’re great friends, we help each other out and we stick together.’
Singer Amy Lewis found Mr Right after signing up to Seventy Thirty two years ago. She had given herself five years to meet a man when she hit 30. ‘I’m good-looking, intelligent and have a great career but the one thing I lack is free time,’ says Amy, 34, the daughter of two financiers, grew up in Somerset.
‘I’ve always wanted marriage and children but I put my career first,’ adds Amy, who has performed in West End shows and lives in a £1.5 million penthouse in West London.
‘As work took off, the chance to meet suitable men dwindled. Friends set me up, but it always seemed to be with lower-earning men - sound technicians and musicians. That was fine until they saw my home and realised how much I earned. They’d feel intimidated and the dynamic of the relationship shifted.’
After eight months, £15,000 and a handful of unsuccessful dates with six pleasant, educated men, she met Oxford graduate Jason, 39, who works in the City. ‘We hit it off immediately. His career consumes his life, but he wanted to meet someone special. We’ve been together just over a year and are so happy.’
But pricey matchmaking services don’t always pay off. Some disgruntled members accuse them of not delivering the goods. However, relationship expert and counsellor Diana Parkinson believes that might be due to unrealistic expectations.
‘Introduction agencies meet a modern need,’ she says. ‘But if you’re going to invest a lot of money, you need to make changes in your life, too. You need to make time to build a relationship.’
Natasha Greenhalgh, 37, admits she had to adjust her expectations when, six months into a year-long, £20,000 membership with an agency, her search had yielded five disappointing dates.
‘I’d invested so much money that I expected each date to be my Mr Darcy and, when he wasn’t, I’d go home deflated,’ says Natasha, a stockbroker from Wilmslow, Cheshire. ‘If my heart didn’t leap instantly when meeting a man, I’d dismiss him. I didn’t consider that it could be worth having a few dates to get to know him.
‘With hindsight, there were men who I may well have been able to build a relationship with had I been more open-minded.’ A heated conversation with the agency’s boss helped convince Natasha it was her, not them, at fault. She admits she ‘let rip’, venting her frustration that for £20,000 she expected the one to fall into her lap.
‘I was convinced the agency weren’t hooking me up with the right guys,’ she adds. ‘The owner gently but firmly pointed out they were matching me with exactly the professional, sporty men I’d specified, but I wasn’t giving any of them a chance.
‘My matchmaker booked me in with one of the psychologists he employs and only then did I step back, lose the desperation and start giving dates a chance, which in turn meant I relaxed and showed a more appealing side of my personality.’
Five months later, having made it to a third date with Tom, 38, a chartered surveyor, she felt the flutter she’d been longing for. Now, 18 months on, they are planning their wedding for next spring.
‘Some may sneer at me for paying to find love,’ she concludes, ‘but why not? I’m not going to apologise for being proactive. Some people spend on handbags or cars, I chose to spend it on my happiness.’
Abra agrees: ‘I am not ashamed that I invested in my love life. It was a massive risk but it has paid off and I’ve already highly recommended this path to love to friends and colleagues.’ - Daily Mail
* Some names have been changed.