'I'd been in a secure job in personnel for 10 years, and when I handed in my notice, my family and friends thought I'd gone bananas. But this is what I'd always really wanted to do. It's my baby.' Five years later, the Windsor-based agency, with its 1,800 members, claims to be the UK's largest.
Initial publicity stressed Sara Eden's 'beautiful people' image; its youthful members were just too attractive and too busy being high-fliers to find a mate. Anyone eyeing them up at a party would assume they were already fixed up.
'Some female journalists got rather carried away when they came to our launch party and spotted some glamorous and well-known faces (who'd agreed to come provided their names weren't mentioned) and couldn't believe they were single-and-looking,' says Karen.
'We certainly do have clients who are very attractive indeed - and that can be intimidating at an glance - but you don't have to look like Kim Basinger or Tom Cruise to join.' Sara Eden caters for the professional and managerial classes but there are age limits - 20-45 for women, 25-55 for men. Everyone pays pounds 500 membership. 'We're a younger agency catering for - yuppies wouldn't be the right word - let's say more trendy types.'
Karen, who is single, good-looking, and endowed with blonde hair long enough to sit on, says that if she wasn't so busy with work and didn't have a steady relationship, she would use an agency such as Sara Eden herself.
'It's such a sensible thing to do and takes the stigma out of approaching someone because everyone is here for the same reason. For instance, we're getting men who would have laughed a few years ago if they'd been told they would ever approach an introduction agency. But because their friends have done it - most of our clients are referrals - they no longer see it as an admission of defeat.'
Most clients want a monogamous relationship, whether or not it leads to marriage. People who are 'switched-on and efficient' in every other area leave intimate relationships to chance, she says. 'We all get a bit soft in the head as far as our lovelives are concerned.'
Although Karen and her five assistants use a computer, she says that the actual matching-up is done from the manual filing system. Unsuitable clients are weeded out on the telephone (which takes care of businessmen who give a hotel address, and weirdos), and the next step is an hour's personal assessment.
Clients must fill in a questionnaire that has been compiled with the help of a psychologist. 'What's your favourite refuge?' for instance, is designed to sort the workaholics from the golf fanatics. Amazingly, some people do write 'work' in answer to this question.
'We watch for body language, too, such as hangdog expressions, sloping shoulders or someone forever putting their hand over their mouth,' says Karen. 'My work background entailed lots of interviewing and recruiting and I've done some psychology courses, too.
'I've a degree in personnel management. My training has given me great insight but I don't believe you can beat gut feeling. Normally I can weigh somebody up as soon as they come up the stairs.' Apart from being able to assess folk quickly and accurately, Karen reckons that she has a talent for making them open up.
Certainly, the office atmosphere at Sara Eden is informal, friendly and upbeat. But not everyone is taken on the books. 'I know I shouldn't, but I really hate it if someone won't look me directly in the eye. And I wouldn't want anyone with excess emotional baggage. We all have experiences - you don't get older without them. As long as you learn from them, put them in a box and move on.
'But if people are very bitter when they come here, it's no good. Maybe they've just come out of a relationship and want to fill the void. But if a member of the opposite sex has just walked out on them, they will only talk about that relationship with the person from our books who takes them out to dinner. And that would be bad for business.' The raw-hearted may be advised to come back another time. The ideal Sara Eden member has lots of friends and no hangups, says Karen, who is a council member of the Association of British Introduction Agencies.
Although clients are assigned to one particular agency contact, the office as a whole swaps notes. 'We regularly discuss our individual clients so that we all feel that we know them. We also encourage clients to keep in close touch, either by telephone or by coming in every couple of months.'
The real success of matchmaking hinges on linking similar aspirations and goals, says Karen. This is more important than age, eye colour, star signs and all the rest. She would never, for example, try to link an artist with the managing director of a computer company or a lawyer. They may be offered introductions instead to a sculptor or television scriptwriter, for example.
Karen, the daughter of a British Airways pilot and a Scots-born secretary, was brought up in Camberley, Surrey. She has had two major serious relationships since she left school, 'going out with a few people in between'. She thinks the ideal relationship is 'when you can both be independent, yet lean on each other when you need to.' She wants, eventually, to combine marriage and motherhood with a career. 'I'm a bit old-fashioned. I think that if I was going to bring children into the world, I would like to be married.'
Good time-management, she hopes, would enable her to combine these roles. She needs very little sleep and in the agency's infancy, she would often leap out of bed in the middle of the night with a new systems idea, drive to the office and get cracking on the computer. She has lots of energy and keeps fit by working out in a gym for an hour, or swimming.
Although she would like to get married, she stresses that she doesn't want to be supported. 'I need to be with someone I really love, but I don't need a man to look after me. Women come here often because they can hear the baby- clock ticking away and I think, in previous generations, they might have settled for second best when they got married. You had to make your bed and lie in it. But women won't put up with the same things nowadays. You can be choosy.'
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