Over the past week or so, two major male celebrities faced some embarrassing headlines. Ben Affleck made the tabloids, not for his current rumored reunion with Jennifer Lopez or any of the myriad dramas that have followed him for decades, but for internet dating mishaps. A woman took to TikTok to reveal that she had matched with Affleck on the app Raya before removing him for fear he was a fake. He replied, revealing he was not, which she shared with the world. Then, another TikTok user went viral for posting a Facetime chat she had with Friends star Matthew Perry, wherein she seemed to be mocking him via a game of 20 Questions. Kate Haralson, who was 19 when she matched with the 51-year-old Perry, told Page Six, said that she ‘did it more for the joke of it, which sounds mean, but I didn’t think anything of it,’, but also lambasted Perry for engaging in such conversations with a much younger woman. Haralson now says she has been removed from Raya.
Internet dating is practically designed to be an awkward experience, a heightened and often hyper-real version of IRL romance. As with all online encounters, dating apps and websites offer an illusion of limitless choice that often conceals the consequences of an unfiltered version of so-called authenticity. It’s not hard to see why many people prefer Tinder, Bumble, and their contemporaries to the perils and pitfalls of blind dates, workplace romances, and sheer chance, even before there was a pandemic. You can find common ground with someone from a safe distance before taking the plunge or seek out no-strings-attached flings without judgment. We do everything else from the comfort of our own homes so why not finding love too?
Raya, founded in 2015, saw this flourishing market and focused on an undeniable gap. What if you’re too well-known to just hit up strangers on the popular apps? Maybe you feel too at risk or are worried that people won’t have the right intentions when they match up with you? With Raya, the rich and famous can find peace of mind for $7.99 a month. To join Raya, users must be referred by an existing member, and then their application is voted on by a membership committee. Submit your own profile and you have about an 8% chance of admission. The basic concept is simple: Weed out the hangers-on, promise the security that comes with exclusivity, and allow the A-Listers to hook up in their own time. It’s a natural extension to the members’ clubs and behind-the-velvet-rope parties that celebrities are accustomed to. But now, things are different. Raya is, shock horror, filling up with ‘normal people.’
It’s surprisingly easy to get someone to pass on a referral code to Raya. DeuxMoi, the wildly popular blind gossip Instagram account, frequently offers fans the chance to swap codes for places like Clubhouse and Raya. Twitter has more than its fair share of users offering strangers an entrance behind those hallowed app gates. It’s all a little bit brazen, but then again, who expected anything else?
I understand that a piece that mostly boils down to ‘won’t somebody please think of the celebrities’ won’t exactly inspire devotion. Still, for anyone who’s been harassed or abused online, or seen themselves become the target of mockery and hate simply for existing on the internet, the breach of trust that has occurred with Raya feels disheartening and horridly predictable. When in the history of this hellscape we spend all our time on has an idea like this worked without a hitch? Business models like this built on exclusivity cannot help but inspire a kind of envy and hunger from the rest of the world. Bragging about how special you are only serves to make a lot of people eager to reveal that you really aren’t. if you’re going to promise something this juicy, who wouldn’t want a peek behind the curtain. And now we know that, for the influencer on the rise to semi-fame, there’s a solid business incentive to be on the app, if only to spill the beans.
Even without the problem of us normals invading the place, Raya had issues. Comedian Nicole Byer admitted that she was waitlisted by Raya for two years and found the platform to be overwhelmingly white. If a hugely successful comedian, actress, and TV host can’t get onto the celebrity dating app but random white TikTokers can, that says more about the company than its users. Once again, this is the pitfall that all business models reliant on so-called exclusivity fall into, from The Wing to Abercrombie and Fitch. It’s a very short leap from exclusivity to all-white desirability.
Can a truly elite dating app like Raya flourish without falling prey to the expected problems of such a platform? It seems as though, if one wanted to make a truly exclusive service for the rich and famous, they would need to do so with utmost secrecy. But how can it be elite and worth bragging about if nobody knows about it? How can you make a big buck from something like this when half its value lies in letting everyone know how special it is? Raya never had a big ad campaign to spread the message, but it didn’t need one when it was such a hot button topic among the gossip world and offering free advertising through sheer curiosity. That becomes a lot less alluring to your target demographic when you know that all eyes are on your love life and there’s a hungry audience ready to mock you for swiping left or right on whoever’s got a TikTok audience in need of a boost.
Really, this is an issue that prevails across all forms of online dating, regardless of how famous or wealthy you are. You take a risk when you put yourself out there, especially when your hope is to find some sort of connection with a stranger. You’re always second-guessing the intentions of the person on the other end, and usually for good reason given how many horror stories we’ve heard over the years. The prospect of a benign slip-up becoming viral fodder should terrify us all, and we are dishearteningly familiar to the specific brand of humiliation offered by social media, especially for already vulnerable demographics. I shudder to think of how many Twitter posts or TikTok videos there are dedicated to denigrating total strangers over failed dates or just because someone wanted to make a mockery of another being. Would that we all had a sliver of the security that Raya promised its users. Then again, look at how that’s turned out.