The only comforting thought is that appearance can be as much about presentation as the looks we were born with. Your date may be aesthetically faultless, but it's little consolation if their hair is unwashed, their clothes stained, and their table manners inexcusable.
'If people don't bother about their appearance, the unspoken message is 'How on earth can I bother about anyone else?' ' says Jenny Wood, image consultant for the County Register, a new dating agency created by Heather Heber Percy. It seems that in the image- conscious Nineties, sexual attraction is defined more by good grooming than good looks. For those of us unlucky enough to be born without the natural attributes of film stars, this may be welcome news.
'Not all of the British public are stunning looking,' says Mrs Heber Percy. 'We're helping normal, ordinary people to boost what they already have.' She set up her primary agency, Country Partners, 11 years ago to cater for single people living in isolated areas of the countryside. Now that the business is established with 55 interviewers and a database of 5,000 clients, she wants 'to take a back seat' and concentrate on the County Register, her three-month-old personalised service.
For a fee of pounds 2,500 plus VAT, Mrs Heber Percy - a former Samaritan - will carry out a county- wide search for her clients, hand- picking just one or two candidates. Over the years she has built up a national network of well-connected singles: barristers, university lecturers and doctors. To find out exactly what they are looking for in a relationship, she works rather like a psychologist, questioning her subject at length to build up an in-depth profile.
Members are interviewed by her three times - initially at a London hotel, then at their workplace and finally in their home. She sometimes uses a police graphologist to confirm or clarify a particular personality trait from their handwritten application.
An image adviser can be hired through the service, and a one- hour session costs pounds 200. Consultants will spend a day at the client's house, usually before the first date, imparting sartorial advice and criticism. 'We're very frank. If they are fat, we'll tell them,' says Mrs Heber Percy. 'It's a tricky task, but hopefully people are receptive; to be able to help them, they've got to help us.'
The prospect of inviting a complete stranger into your home to comment candidly on your appearance may sound a little daunting. 'It's not something we would push on people,' stresses Mrs Heber Percy. 'It's only for those who accept the idea that they need to upgrade their image.'
In Ms Wood's experience, clients who request her services are 'at a crossroads, and are not quite sure how to take the next step'. She can offer them direction. 'We don't hold the key to their confidence,' she admits, 'but we do open a window and let people see the possibilities.'
Curious to find out exactly what these possibilities could be, I invited Ms Wood to pass unbiased judgement on my appearance and image. Revealing the contents of your wardrobe makes you feel strangely vulnerable, especially when your adviser resembles a rather glamorous newsreader.
She began the session by holding a range of coloured fabrics against my face. My tone, she revealed, was 'blue and on the cool side', which means my ideal fabrics should be 'sharp and crisp'. She suggested, with utmost diplomacy, that perhaps I should re- evaluate the cut of my clothes, 'to make a bit more of a statement by wearing something dynamic with angular lines'.
I had hoped for a more radical perspective on my sense of style. Instead, I received several encouraging comments and some practical tips on make-up. The conclusion was quite unexciting: I should stick to beige and charcoal, with just a dash of cerise when the occasion required.
Wouldn't beige be a little drab for the first date? 'In that situation, you don't want to knock them dead as you walk though the door,' says Ms Wood. 'I advise nothing too colourful - stick to neutrals. The mistake is to look really stunning - people are looking at you, not your mind-blowing clothes,' she insists.
Katherine (not her real name) is 53 and lives in London. She joined the County Register several weeks ago, and recently consulted one of their advisers. 'I wanted to know if there was anything basically wrong with me,' she explains.
Katherine recalls that she felt very flustered during the session: 'I kept putting my hand through my hair and touching my face.' The consultant discussed her body language, suggesting that she should try to 'be calm, sit back and listen' in a first-date situation. 'She wasn't out to change me, but to help and give confidence,' says Katherine, who found her observations helpful.
Mrs Heber Percy reports that, unsurprisingly, it is nearly always women who seek this sort of image advice, liberally supplemented with kind comments and reassurance. 'Many of them probably spend 20 years bringing up children,' she says. 'They've lost the art of dressing well and making themselves presentable.'
Men, on the other hand, don't seem to find this part of the service necessary. Despite the fact that their own appearance may leave a lot to be desired, their standards are, says Mrs Heber Percy, often too idealistic. 'We all know men are very visual,' she says. 'I do try to tell them to stay flexible and open-minded.'
Women, it seems, are more willing to take criticism and pay for it if it means improving their chances of impressing that special someone. 'They can tell me what sort of clothes to wear or whether I should lose weight - that's absolutely fine,' says Katherine, about to embark on her first date and confident that her body language won't let her down.
The County Register, The Old Cider Mill, Cotts Farm, Cotts Lane, Lugwardine, Hereford HR1 3ND. Telephone 0432 850036
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