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Love God From Hell : The Man Who Brought You Videodating Hates to Date, Loves to Taunt and Has Himself Been Unlucky in Love. Would You Buy a Relationship From Jeffrey Ullman?

January 16, 1994|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer. Her last article for the magazine was about gang-member-turned-hot-author "Monster" Kody Scott, "Making Monster Huge."

The big man with the heart-shaped cuff links sits in his spacious Encino office, a "Get-a-Woman-Flames-of-Desire" candle on his desk, a rubbing of Rudolph Valentino's headstone on his wall and two middle-aged businessmen in his clutches. The men have come to ask Jeffrey Ullman, the king of videodating, about buying a franchise. They have yellow legal pads on their laps, tassels on their loafers. Zany they aren't.

But Ullman, founder of the world's largest singles introduction service, can't help himself. Midway through a discussion of royalties and fees, he lets a phone call from his publicist divert him from the business at hand to a favorite topic: aphrodisiacs. He launches into a rapid-fire rant, pacing the room as he prattles on about ginseng syrup, bone marrow jelly and chestnuts steeped in Muscadet.

"According to the no-nonsense Elizabethans, chestnuts--being flatulent--incite Venus," Ullman says, reading gleefully from a love potion cookbook. "I never heard of gas getting your rocks off! That's a good one!"

His guests swap terrified looks. And then, suddenly, Ullman's back on track. Las Vegas, he tells the businessmen, is on the smaller side, but it's ripe for the business of love. Salt Lake City, too. They're big on marriage in Utah. Plunk a franchise in there, Ullman says, hire a few Mormons and you'll never look back.

"Any virgin area left in New Jersey?" asks one of the men, much relieved to be discussing the commercial, not the carnal, side of passion.

"Nope," says Ullman happily, biting into a turkey sandwich as he sketches out the geographical sweep of his growing empire, Great Expectations. But there's always Honolulu or Charlotte, he says. With the right management team, even Oklahoma City could be a gold mine.

The men seem impressed. It looks as if Ullman has sold them on taking video-assisted coupling into the heartland. He talked tough and refused to bargain. He spoke their language--the lexicon of the bottom line. But even as he cements the connection, he is compelled to test it one more time.

Reaching into his desk drawer, he pulls out two foil-wrapped packets.

"Condom?" he asks.

YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD OF JEFFREY ULLMAN, BUT CHANCES ARE you've gotten his mail. "Where do You Go To Meet Quality Single People Like Yourself?" asks one Great Expectations direct-mail letter, which touts the merits of choosing a mate via videotape. "No more uncomfortable blind dates," the mailer promises. "No more wasted time in singles bars. No more losers."

Ullman is the man behind the pitch, which he has sent out 500 million times during the past decade. At 44, he leads the videodating industry, which he pioneered in his native Los Angeles in 1976. He and his franchisees own 45 Great Expectations Centres in the United States and one in Mexico. His company, which claims to have more than 150,000 members, takes credit for thousands of marriages and grosses about $65 million a year.

In 18 years, Ullman's invention has done more than change the way some heterosexuals get lucky. For better or worse, it has become an integral part of American culture. And Ullman, a fast-talking, self-described "social-change activist," is a big reason why.

Ullman preaches the gospel of self-improvement, and he has a knack for turning almost any trend to his advantage. Feminism? It's made dating confusing, he says, all the more reason that singles need high-tech help. Yuppie materialism? People who work all the time, he says, need an efficient way to meet. AIDS? Casual sex is out, he says, marriage is in.

"I'm going to marry America," he says. "Why not?"

That's where Great Expectations comes in. Ullman says losers become winners simply by joining. Great Expectations members don't all find mates, he acknowledges. But at least they surmount what Ullman calls the biggest obstacle, "coming forward and saying, 'I'm ready.' " And at about $2,000 per three-year membership, that makes him a big winner as well.

Ullman has become a millionaire by following his own advice. He never tries, he says, he does. He has little patience for weakness. He balks at timidity. He is an "emotional provocateur," he says, whose "involving confrontational" style forces people to realize their opportunities. But the self-anointed Love God has a problem. His in-your-face ethic has helped build a thriving business. And at times, it has also made him insufferable.

Ullman is a goofus. Once, when he needed to borrow $300,000, he wore a clear plastic tie filled with shredded dollar bills to a meeting with a banker. Another time, just for fun, he bit into a fake blood capsule and began frothing at the mouth and screaming. The nurses at the blood bank where he pulled this stunt are still talking about it, he says.

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