In a not-so-secret double life, Jennifer Morrison is simply "Jennifer," platonic friend for hire.
The reservation-taker at a popular Las Vegas restaurant has accepted cash to show an introverted, out-of-town computer programmer around the Pinball Hall of Fame and the Bellagio's famous dancing fountains.
A bored grandmother visiting family from the Midwest hired her for an afternoon movie. A stay-at-home mom who was new to the area paid her to come on over to do some scrapbooking. Morrison, 31, met a traveling businessman at the airport with a folder of research he requested on things to do and helped him rent a car.
It's all because of a new arrival to the Web-fueled, rent-an-everything revolution — Rentafriend.com.
"You look at a site like this and think, 'Oh, they must all be escorts or it's a dating site or something,'" said Morrison, a mother of a 2-year-old who signed on with the blessing of her husband. "When I first saw it I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was kind of sad that people have to do this."
While Morrison is happy to meet new people and make a little extra money, charging $20 to $30 an hour, she's not the only one to think lonely thoughts about the 7-month-old service modeled on similar, hugely successful sites in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
In a world where friend is a verb and you may never meet some of yours from Facebook in real life, where research indicates chronic loneliness can lead to depression, suicide, high blood pressure and viral infections, where roughly 20 percent of all people — 60 million in the United States alone — say they feel lonely at any given moment, is renting a friend a solution or stopgap?
"The real question is, is it solving anyone's problems? My first reaction was to roll my eyes, but it may in fact help people meet others and get back into circulation. If it's used as a substitute for meaningful face-to-face relationships, it's not going to work," said John T. Cacioppo, a social neuroscience researcher and co-author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Interaction."
Pick your pal
Rentafriend receives 100,000 unique views every month and has nearly 2,000 members who pay $24.95 a month, or $69.95, a year for a login and password so they can peruse the photos and profiles of 167,000-plus possible pals.
Christopher Barton, 31, of Boulder City, Nev., first tried Rentafriend about six months ago during a business trip training clients for an online university. Living on the road, he hates to eat alone in restaurants and wants to make the most of his downtime.
"I'm in different cities all the time," he said. "You kind of get a tour guide to a certain extent."
He chooses young, attractive women because "I'd just feel weird paying to go out with a guy." A rent-a-pal in Chicago took him to a fun, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that he never would have found himself. In New Orleans, he and another rental hit Cafe du Monde in the French Market and Jackson Square.
Started by Scott Rosenbaum in Stewartsville, N.J., a former marketer for dating websites, Rentafriend has some competition from offline services that will make platonic matches for a fee, like Rentalocalfriend.com for travelers. The difference, he said, is Rentafriend allows the renter to make a pick, negotiating the cost and making arrangements one-on-one through e-mail or phone calls.
"People e-mail me all the time about it. Is it legal? Is it really platonic? There's no 100 percent way to be sure, but we have zero tolerance if a friend says they were solicited. There's no second chance," Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum's site, like those in Japan, has people renting for lots of different reasons. Two students rented parents to meet with college officials after they were caught drinking on campus. A woman once hired a college girl to visit her mother in a nursing home three days a week after she moved away.
"In Japan and China, they're more cultural because having a full family is so important," he said. "It's common to rent a fill-in family member for a wedding, like a father figure or someone to stand in as an important uncle to give a toast."
Lack of close bonds
Rosenbaum's site is set up for search by ZIP code. His rentals skew young, with most ranging from 20 to 35, though there are plenty in their 40s and 50s. Hourly fees range from $10 to a rare $150, usually between $20 and $50.
"When you look at the profiles, there's tons of things people want to do," said Barton, who's an actor on the side. "You can kind of pick and choose and find a profile of somebody who's into what you're into. It's a better kind of experience than going around by yourself."
Morrison mentions her husband and child in her Rentafriend profile and offers that she dances Tahitian style and hip hop. "If you need someone to work out with or just hang out I am your girl. I'm pretty peppy and bubbly if you just need a smile and I have lived a life of someone twice my age if you need an ear and some advice."
She has a full-time job but Rentafriend has helped her earn a little extra. "I'm trying to save more. We'd like to buy a house and just put money away. I treat it like a business, but it isn't my profession."
Ori Brafman, co-author with brother Rom of the new book "Click: The Magic of Instant Connections," said the concept "seems really tragic, kind of surreally tragic" in ways that sex services don't because it symbolizes the worst kind of social isolation.
"The danger isn't Rentafriend per se, but rather what it symbolizes," he said. "We purchase fleeting replacements because, as a society, we lack those close, meaningful bonds that our so essential. "
Does Barton consider himself lonely? Not really. He has buddies, doesn't have a girlfriend and isn't using Rentafriend to find one.
"If I did have a girlfriend, she'd probably want to know what was going on," he said. "I'd use it a little less probably, or maybe I'd start paying guys."