Michael Sophocles clicks into the lies of e-dating
The former contestant on BBC1's hit reality show The Apprentice investigates why so many people are less than honest when they date online - and reveals a few home truths of his own
Finding love in the 21st century can be a tricky business. With longer working hours and more hectic lifestyles, it is easy to feel despondent about the prospect of discovering your soulmate. But rather than despairing, millions of us have turned to online dating.
Yet for many, the temptation to be a little creative with the truth can lead to comic and sometimes dangerous results. You may claim to be a stunner with an amazing personality - even if the rest of the (non-virtual) world sees you as Plain Jane or Grim Jim.
The truth is, online dating profiles are a haven of dishonesty. Fabrications can range from minor oversights to major lies on everything from appearance to profession, wealth and personal quirks.
Thirty-three-year-old Matthew - like all those interviewed, he preferred not to use his real name - recalls a disastrous date with a rather delusional woman. "I met Julie after viewing her profile on an internet dating site. Her profile picture showed a very attractive, young, slim woman and obviously I was very excited about the prospect of our first date.
"Upon arrival at our meeting point, I was approached by a plump, impossibly ugly-looking dwarf. It turns out the photo which she had submitted for her profile picture had been taken nine years prior to our meeting. I spent about 30 minutes with her out of politeness, and then hot-footed it out of the bar - it was a complete and utter nightmare."
Sarah, a 37-year-old management consultant from Sussex, has also encountered similar problems.
"Although someone may look like Prince Charming online, they often have pungent body odour and bad breath in the flesh! Also, one guy I met had stated his height as 5ft 10in. He clearly measured himself while standing on a Yellow Pages - he barely reached my elbow."
Why do people feel the need to be economical with the truth on dating sites? Maybe our narcissistic society is to blame. Jason, an investment banker and online dater, admits to fabricating parts of his profile in order to gain more hits from women.
"It's fair to say that the description of my appearance is a tad on the optimistic side," he confesses. "Why did I do it? To make myself more attractive to the opposite sex, of course. It gives me a real ego boost when women message me online - it's an instant confidence-booster. The idea of women worshipping me makes me feel comfortable in my own skin. Even if I realise that I'm a fantasist."
Natalie, a teacher from Belsize Park in North-West London, agrees. "My profile picture was airbrushed and Photoshopped, and it really doesn't look much like me. But having men interested in me online makes me feel special, and so I don't see anything wrong with twisting reality slightly - as long as you don't take things too far."
There appear to be gender trends when it comes to the types of lies told. Men admit to lying about their appearance regularly, whereas women tend to lie more about their career and hobbies.
So why is this? Are men more concerned with physical attractiveness and women with being interesting? Maybe so. The sexes are often looking for different outcomes from online dating, and this is reflected in the lies they tell. Women are less concerned with physicality - many state that their reasons for using these sites are to find love, a serious relationship or a husband. Some women I spoke to admitted to lying about their profession and interests so as to appear more intriguing in order to hook a suitable partner.
After looking up 29-year-old Louise's profile, I could see why she would have no need to embellish her looks. She was, however, "getting on", in her words, and wanted to meet someone special before her biological clock ran its course.
She said: "I am a good-looking woman who can walk into a bar and attract a man. But it always seems to be a one-night affair. I started to get a complex about what I could offer a man, other than sex. I always wanted a man who could protect me and look after me, and after dating online for a few months I decided that I would be more desirable if I made myself appear more cultured and sophisticated. So I changed websites and then changed my job from hairdresser to salon-owner with a degree from university."
But the strategy did not pay off. "I did go out on one date with a lawyer who seemed interested, and we chatted for ages online before he took me out. He was really cute and had money, so I thought, why not? But it was awkward, because he kept questioning me about my business. In the end I think he knew I was fibbing, and although we went out again, there was no attraction."
So was it counterproductive? "Most definitely. Because people find you out for who you are in the end anyway."
We men, on the other hand, appear to live in a fantasy world when it comes to our appearance. In fact, it would seem that some men have been creating an alter online ego for themselves worthy of Clark Kent and Superman. Are we simply delusional, or is there a darker, more sinister aspect to this deception?
Some of the men I spoke to admitted to being shy in real life and lacking the confidence to approach women, and it is this insecurity that prompted them to pretend to be something they are not. Said one man who preferred to remain anonymous: "I'm 30, but I use a picture from when I was 21. I look more appealing, I guess.
"Whenever I am arranging a date online with a girl, I have a game plan to tell her the truth before I meet her - but I always seem to lose my nerve. And then inevitably they are disappointed. It makes me sad that I can't break out of the cycle."
Online dating can provide the ideal opportunity for someone who lacks self-confidence to twist reality slightly and thus improve their chances. But not all men's intentions are so wholesome. Some of those using online dating websites are in steady relationships. They have no intention of meeting women in real life, and are using these services for something much seedier - cybersex, the sending of explicit messages describing a sexual experience.
Many online daters are beginning to use webcams in order to view their potential suitor face to face before meeting them in person. This way, they can be sure of their date's physical appearance.
Jewish dating website JDate, among others, also offers safety tips to members. Advice includes asking plenty of questions online before taking the relationship into the real world, and staying alert for inconsistencies in stories and details.
I understand why people lie about certain things in order to get ahead. People feel that they need to pretend or hide behind a curtain in order to attract. And believe me, I have done my fair share of pretending in order to have my wicked way.
I empathise with the plight of people who take this route. But, in my experience, the majority of those who find love online tend to be those who are truthful and can laugh at themselves and their idiosyncrasies - people who are comfortable with the cards that they were dealt.
Dating websites boast many success stories - increasing numbers of their connections are ending in engagement and marriage. As long as you are mature and intuitive, the online dating world can provide many opportunities to meet similar minded people. There is an element of risk, but you might be one of the lucky ones.
But don't pretend to be something you're not - it's not kosher.