Twenty-year-old Melbourne man Matthew Chambers is a part-time actor and comedian who enjoys meeting new people and making them laugh. Matthew is also one of Australia’s first friends for rent.
Friendship for hire is one of the newest web trends thanks to the rentafriend website which has recently expanded to Australia after launching in the US in 2010.
The website lists more than 300,000 profiles of people worldwide offering their services as rented friends and charging between $10 to $50 for their company.
Rent a friends are available for activities such as movies, showing newcomers around town, coffee or dinner, introducing people to their favourite hobbies, going to the theatre or concerts or acting as gym buddies.
What they don’t do is offer any sexual or escort services.
The rentafriend site founder, Scott Rosenbaum insists that the site is strictly platonic and any members who overstep the boundaries are barred from the site.
So far Mr Chambers, who says he would charge only about $10 an hour, because he is also keen to make new friends, has had no requests for his company. The Australian section of the site is only a few months old and it seems the concept is yet to catch on here.
Sydney accounts manager, Carla Cinque, 25, has had several invitations to movies and dinner, but was unable to accept the offers because of previous engagements.
Ms Cinque joined the site as a way to make some extra money, and to meet new people. She charges $30 an hour and describes herself as social and outgoing.
She came to Australia from Italy four years ago and says she understands the difficulty of finding new friends in a strange country.
“I know that paying for friendship is not ideal, but we live in a different world these days. One of the women who contacted me was very shy and wanted to be shown around the city because she had just moved here. I’m happy to help people out in this way, and who knows, we might end up being real friends,” Ms Cinque said.
It’s free to post a profile, with a photo and contact details on the rentafriend website and all earnings are kept by the individual. To find a friend, users must sign up for a membership, which costs $26 a month, or $74 for a year.
The idea of renting a friend is widespread in Japan where lonely professionals hire fake spouses, family members, best men, bridesmaids and funeral guests to boost numbers or avoid losing face over gaps in the family tree.
Fake uncles are hired to attend school sports day for kids, professionals hire a wife for important business dinners and retrenched workers hire fake bosses.
Brisbane woman, Vivica Viola, came up with the idea of offering her services as a best friend three years ago and set up a website to promote herself. For a $100 per month Ms Viola will chat on the phone, correspond by email and letter, send thoughtful cards and gifts and provide support and solace.
The entrepreneurial 42-year-old, who says she is excellent friendship material, also offers a second and third-best friend option for lower monthly payments.
Ms Viola is also looking to start a rent-an-enemy service for those who would like some more drama in their lives. For a regular fee her service will send you hate mail, kidnap threats and stalking emails and texts.
Anne Hollonds, the national spokesperson for Relationships Australia says the notion of a friend rental service was simply a means to cash in on human need.
“There is a lot of loneliness in the community,” Ms Hollonds said. “But the problem is masked by our digital connections; the emailing, texting and chat we do online. We may have a lot of contacts, but few real friends.”
Many factors have increased individual isolation and made finding and maintaining friendships more difficult. There are now more single households in Australia than ever before, people have less contact with their neighborhood and community because they are spending more time working, and the population is more mobile than ever before, moving for work or due to family breakdown or divorce.
Ms Hollonds said the emergence of rent-a-friend services was a further sign that we have become de-skilled at the art of friendship.
She suggested people hoping to increase their friendships first consider the way they behave to see if they were unconsciously put up barriers to friendship.
“It can be as easy as telling people you are busy all the time, so they assume you have a full life and don’t want more invitations or friendships.”
Joining social or sports groups, making the effort to be open and friendly and to go out socially rather than sitting alone at home were other ways to increase your social circle.