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'Rene Russo' wants real Harvard man

August 03, 2003|DAVID SHAW

I realize that we live in a celebrity culture. I also realize that finding dates through personal ads is no longer the sole province of undesirable singles desperate for company and underground newspapers desperate for revenue. Not long ago, the New York Times ran this Page 1 headline: "Online Dating Sheds Its Stigma as"

But it never occurred to me that these two contemporary cultural phenomena would find their conjoined apotheosis -- would, in effect, marry each other -- in the pages of the alumni magazine published by the country's most prestigious institution of higher learning, Harvard University. There it was, though, amid the personal ads on Page 97 of my wife's copy of the July-August issue:

"Toned, alluring, slim brunette with great looks, presence and real radiance. Sexy, elegant, wholesome girl-next-door. Imagine Sela Ward with a touch of Kate Jackson and a dash of Jaclyn Smith."

Sela Ward? Kate Jackson? Jaclyn Smith?

The ad went on in that self-congratulatory vein for 75 more words -- and there were more than a dozen other ads that also invoked Hollywood names as the ultimate enticement.

One "divorced physician" spoke of herself as having the "stunning, passionate eyes of Rene Russo." Another woman -- a "supernatural cook" who said she loved both "skinny-dipping" and classical music -- described herself as resembling "Andie MacDowell or [a] long-stemmed apricot rose." And a "tall, blond ... model-slim" widow suggested that readers "imagine a combo Uma Thurman and Princess Di."

Although women dominate the singles ads, men angling for dates with Harvard alums were not immune to using Hollywood as a lure. One fellow said he had "chiseled features, dynamic blue eyes, infectious smile ... and a touch of Russell Crowe."

Claims of beauty, charm, intellect, sensuality and an interest in everything from anthropology to ziti have long been part of the game in personal ads. But while one does not have to be a Harvard alum to advertise in the alumni magazine, everyone who subscribes is an alum, and I would have thought that date- and mate-seekers trying to appeal to this elite, intellectual audience would liken themselves to great statesmen, writers, artists, Supreme Court justices -- well, OK, not Supreme Court Justices. I guess even the president of the Harvard Law Review wouldn't expect to attract the man of her dreams if she said she had Sandra Day O'Connor's hair and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legs.

The 'Sophia Loren type'

Am I being unfair? Is it unrealistic of me to expect Ivy Leaguers to be immune to the ubiquity of our celebrity culture?

I don't think so. When I checked the classified ads in several recent issues of the Yale alumni magazine, I found few personals -- and only one that mentioned a movie star (a self-styled "Sophia Loren type" claimed to have "stunning, head-turning good looks ... and a sweet heart," not to mention a "tamed wild streak").

"We just don't get many of those kinds of advertisements, and the ones we do run get very limited response," says Barbara Durland, the marketing director for the Yale magazine.

Hmmm. I called Cathy Chute, the publisher of Harvard magazine. She attributed the differences in the content and quantity of the ads largely to the respective sizes of the magazines: "Our circulation is 220,000. [Yale's is 71,000.] We also have the largest personals section of any alumni magazine."

That section is quite lucrative. At $4.75 a word, Chute says the personals bring the magazine $80,000 to $90,000 a year. But why should a bigger audience and more personals necessarily lead to ads that sound as if they'd been written by a Hollywood publicist who'd eaten one too many magic mushrooms? After all, the rest of the current issue of Harvard magazine is what you'd expect -- scholarly articles on ocean research, on "Who Built the Pyramids?," on the prospects for democracy in Iraq, and on "the implications for modern America" of the Salem witch trials.

Some alumni are discomfited by -- or at least dubious about -- the Harvard-Hollywood personals.

" 'A more mature Meg Ryan,' 'A more feminine Annette Bening,' " one such alum wrote in a letter to the editor. "Mountain ranges of good endowment, acres of high cheekbones, black holes of 'aqua' eyes. Where were all these drop-dead-gorgeous babes when I was at Harvard?

Well, it turns out there is a ghostwriter.

Susan Fox estimates that she's written more than 1,000 personals ads in Harvard magazine -- and many more in other magazines. She charges $125 an hour for what she says is usually at least a three- or four-hour job of interviewing the client-advertiser, analyzing those answers and writing the ad.

Fox -- a former psychologist, radio producer and freelance writer -- founded Personals Work in Boston in 1992 after meeting her own future husband through a personals ad she wrote for Boston magazine.

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