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A man you can count on

The perfect man exists - and he's for hire. James Sherwood on a new professional 'walking' service
In The Nineties, having a man on your arm may sound as archaic a concept as dance cards and chaperons. Surely, women no longer need an escort for even the most rigid occasions. The increasing number of successful single women and divorcees should make the single woman an acceptable addition to any guest list. Instead, she's still often treated a bit like the mad woman in the attic.

This social dilemma prompted Marlene Austen to create A Man On Your Arm. Launched in the national press this week, the agency provides a male escort for the same price as the hire of a ball gown (pounds 150). Under a picture of a Helen Mirren-style model runs the slogan: "I needed something to complement my outfit... I chose Tom."

The first professional "walking" service to appear in the British press, Austen advertised in three main publications: a national Sunday newspaper, Executive Woman magazine and the lesbian glossy Diva. "I wanted to distance myself from the existing 'escort services' and sleazy connotations of dating and sex," she says. "It's a very practical, necessary service. The men are for your arm, not your bed."

Austen, 57, is shrewd with an impish sense of humour. Once the director of a recruitment agency, A Man On Your Arm was a natural business progression. "They work on the same principle. You are matchmaking the client to the perfect candidate. Of course, you have to be a good judge of character and have great intuition. Intuition made me the successful businesswoman I am," she says.

Based in London's West End, Austen personally chose her stable of 25 walkers. "I advertised in the men's glossies, but most of my boys came through recommendations. You'd be surprised how many men are interested." She takes "her boys" out to dinner at The Ivy or La Caprice to test their table manners and conversation.

More than 50 men have been rejected by Austen's rigorous elimination process. "A couple of my guys I treat like a good martini - I'd send them anywhere, any place, any time. But then again, I could meet a man with model good looks, impeccable manners and he's a boring old fart. One man knew all the right people but he never listened. It is essential for a walker to be a good listener."

Editor of Executive Woman Angela Giveon says, "Women who buy my magazine won't want a pretty boy with a nice bum as an escort. If he's escorting a high-powered businesswoman to a Chamber of Commerce dinner, a walker can't let her down with bad manners and dull conversation." Unless a woman wants to earn the nickname Mrs Robinson, she will steer clear of toy-boy, gigolo types.

The youngest walker is 25 and the oldest is pushing 60. Austen has already signed up two Barons and a Count. Fortysomething star of Austen's stable is publisher John Yonge. Previously a professional walker, he claims he doesn't do it for the money. "I like the excitement and adventure," he says. "You are guaranteed an interesting night and have no idea what it holds in store. My most fascinating assignment was with a married lady who wanted me to take her to a party which her husband was attending with his mistress." Yonge isn't known as "The man who made husbands jealous" in walking circles for nothing.

Walking has long been accepted in high society. Princess Margaret was first introduced to Roddy Llewellyn when he was asked to make up the numbers at a Scottish house-party. Now she's regularly escorted by Ned Ryan. Fashion designers like Bruce Oldfield walk clients like Susan Sangster, Marie Helvin and Princess Diana, while the ubiquitous Christopher Biggins is always on the arm of Joan Collins. Other popular consorts are interior designer Nicky Haslam, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, couturier Tomasz Starziewski and entertainer Ned Sherrin.

"The whole concept really came from America when W magazine celebrated and satirised the phenomenon," says Tatler editor Jane Procter. "Style- bible W's social pages are filled weekly with what Tom Wolfe calls the 'Social X-Rays' (too rich and too thin). Women like Mercedes Kellog, Nan Kempner, Anne Bass and Susan Gutfreund - whose husbands are too busy making billions of dollars to attend costume balls at The Met - step out with designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene.

"In a perfect marriage of the social and commercial, the designers walk the X-Rays who wear their latest collection. The walker has to be amusing company, know the other guests and understand the social rules. It's no good borrowing a good-looking friend because tongues will wag. But most women know at least two men they could call on in their hour of need." As a commercial enterprise, Procter is more sceptical. "Walkers are definitely not something you would ever pay for."

Austen anticipated the criticism that the service is for lonely women without male friends to escort them. Paying for a date may seem like admitting defeat. "As a divorcee myself, I understand how a woman may feel when she no longer automatically has a partner to escort her. She feels embarrassed and mortified. Her self-esteem would suffer more if she simply declined invitations until they stopped coming through the letter box," says Austen.

Celestria Noel, social editor of Harpers & Queen's Jennifer's Diary says, "There is a definite need for professional walkers. I would dispute the fact that every woman has a host of eligible males to call on. What if she is on business or has to attend a special function?"

Noel invariably goes on work appointments alone. "It works better for me and there's a lot to be said for the confidence it gives you. I wouldn't dream of taking an escort to a dinner party. The hostess has made up her numbers and will have accounted for any single women. But for public events such as film premieres and working lunches, I think a professional walker is appropriate."

Possibly the most controversial aspect of Austen's business is her targeting of the lesbian market. When Sophie Ward took her girlfriend to the Evita premiere, she practically knocked Madonna off the front pages. This kind of visibility is surely what lesbians aspire to in public as well as private.

"It does seem to be a concept from the Fifties," says Diva marketing director Kim Watson. "But after meeting Marlene, all my questions were answered and I do believe there is a necessity for discretion when dealing with unenlightened business contacts. Many professional lesbians are closeted at work. It is sad but true."

Of course, all women should feel comfortable and confident in any social situation. This is, after all, the decade of Girl Power. But, unfortunately, it is also an era where chivalry is practically dead, and single, eligible, straight men are thin on the ground.

Contact A Man On Your Arm on 0171 437 5580.