'Arm Candy': One-Night Stun
New York Times
September 27, 1998
THE other night at Saks Fifth Avenue,
Jonathan Farkas, the Alexander's department store heir, was escorting Darah
Sowell, a sometime model, at a glittery party for British designers. Mr.
Farkas, who is a private investor in Manhattan, has a steady girlfriend, but
she wasn't available. He wasn't looking to two-time his steady. He wanted
Ms. Sowell along for another purpose.
Amber Smith and Bill Maher.
And not long ago, a well-known publisher in his 50's called a single woman he
knew slightly and asked her to a benefit dinner for several hundred at the
Plaza. It was not a date; the man had a serious girlfriend. He needed something
else. "Would you be my arm candy tomorrow night?" he asked.
Arm candy. The phrase is bracing in its candor, implying a beautiful object to attach to your arm, for others to feast their eyes upon. In the image-obsessed 1990's, when a dominant mood is the desire to inspire fits of envy in one's friends, a woman (and sometimes a man) in the role of arm candy expresses the quintessential modern relationship.
It's a one-night nothing, a post-sexual image enhancer and ego booster. In the conventional pairing -- powerful older man, stunning young woman -- her presence assures the seething jealousy of other men and guarantees the intrigued interest of other women.
Going to a benefit for the Museum of Modern Art? How about that crowded Oscar-night party at Elaine's? A splashy movie premiere? The best companion is arm candy: beautiful, well-behaved, soft-spoken. Although the goal is sometimes to land your picture in the gossip columns or society party pages, just as often the target audience is the rest of the room. "It's about getting the most beautiful woman to walk into the room with you so that everybody else eats their heart out," Mr. Farkas said.
Lest the arrangement sound horribly exploitive, an arm candy outing can be beneficial for both parties -- the young woman gets to generate a little public heat and light for herself, while the man gives the titillating appearance of having a beautiful lover. (Arm candy is not to be confused with "beard" -- a woman who escorts a gay man, thereby masking his sexual orientation. In the classic arm candy relationship, the man is heterosexual, but no romantic relationship is sought -- or at least consummated. Unlike real romance, the arm candy arrangement is a no-muss, no-fuss and -- perhaps most important -- no prenup relationship.)
Mark Baker, a party promoter who has connections among models, nightclub owners and restaurateurs, said he is often asked to set people up on dates "for decoration."
"I have been approached by people on a regular basis to provide decoration," he said. "I've always managed to keep it aboveboard and correct. I don't do the one-on-one, end-up-at-my-hotel thing."
"I call them the compulsive Christmas trees," he said of the men he helps set up. "They won't go out of the house without decoration. It's a fundamental insecurity at some level."
Mr. Farkas, 49, who was once married but is now divorced, conceded that the notion of arm candy reveals the inner pathos of the modern urban bachelor. "We had no egos, and I would get my ego from a beautiful woman," he recalled of his youthful years, when he pursued arm candy more than today. "When I was younger, arm candy was a big thing. Those were the days when you only brought Ford models out with you, because that was the thing to do. And among the guys, we had this competition. Were you getting a $3,000-a-day model or a $4,000-a-day model?"
Mr. Farkas still escorts models, including the superstar 1970's model Marisa Berenson, whom he took to a round of polo matches in Bridgehampton, N.Y., in July. But the older he gets, he said, the more he thinks about a woman who is going to be there for the long run. "There's a difference between having a fun evening and having a life," he said.
In 1993, Michael Caruso -- now editor in chief of Details magazine, but then a staff editor at Vanity Fair -- was asked by his magazine to escort the model Vendela, in the role of arm candy, to the annual White House correspondents' dinner.
"There were rows of paparazzi like a firing squad," Mr. Caruso recalled. "So we got the full-on fusillade of flashbulbs and I smiled as best I could." A week later, Mr. Caruso appeared beaming in a picture with his beautiful date in a Newsweek article about the correspondents' dinner. The picture appeared along with those of Colin Powell, Barbra Streisand and President Clinton.
"That was the really hilarious part," Mr. Caruso said. "It was like that game on 'Sesame Street' -- you know, 'Which one of these pictures does not belong?' "
Perhaps because there is no romantic link, being someone's arm candy does not always leave a lasting impression. Through a spokeswoman, Vendela said she had no memory of Mr. Caruso.
Mr. Maher explained how his arm-candy date for the Esquire party came about. "I hadn't lived in New York for over a year," he said. "And I didn't know anybody, so I asked a friend to set me up. What are the chances you're going to like somebody on a setup? Frankly I would rather have been alone. And I wasn't into this person romantically or physically."
Mr. Maher added that he rarely uses the term "arm candy" -- which he defined as "to have somebody on your arm just for the purpose of looking good" -- with its implications of friendly chastity. "Because, and this is going to sound really politically incorrect" -- Mr. Maher rarely hesitates at plugging his show -- "anybody I'm with, I'm usually intending to have sex with or am having sex with already."
But he did concede that he took the model Amber Smith to the American Museum of the Moving Image for a benefit in 1995, and it was a chaste, one-date relationship. "We had one date, and she was beautiful," he said. "But she had that supermodel 'I have a headache' reaction to me. I never saw her again."
Those who fulfill the requirements of arm candy are not limited to the merely model-beautiful. Norah Lawlor, the society editor of Hamptons magazine, said some men in New York prefer that their arm candy come from the Social Register. "She should have gone to Harvard," Ms. Lawlor said, "plus be gorgeous, plus have a great last name, plus be blond. Oh, and plus she should be 21."
The expression arm candy is the latest in a long line of similarly blunt and, to be sure, sexist terms. Frank Sinatra used to refer to a pair of beautiful women, one on each arm, as "cuff links." And in the 1980's, "arm piece" -- perhaps the precursor to "arm candy" -- was used to describe an attractive date. The term "walker" refers to a man, often gay, who escorts genteel ladies of some social standing to events because their husbands are unavailable or uninterested.
Few women who are characterized as arm candy appreciate the term. Ms. Sowell, Mr. Farkas's date at Saks two weeks ago, said, "I just don't think it's really flattering."
But men are by no means excluded from the category. Kate Bohner, a correspondent for CNBC, said she once attempted a ploy to attract the attention of a potential boyfriend. "I called Chris Cuomo, who is classic arm candy," Ms. Bohner said, referring to the broodingly good-looking son of Mario M. Cuomo, the former Governor. Ms. Bohner invited Mr. Cuomo, who is a lawyer and a correspondent for a Fox Network newsmagazine, to go to the Grammy awards with her in 1996. But the plan didn't work as she expected.
"He stood me up," she said.
When Mr. Cuomo was told last week that he had been labeled "arm candy," he replied, "It's unfortunate that people need to define other people by their looks."
The arm-candy game has complicated rules.
Jason Binn, the publisher of Hamptons and Ocean Drive magazines, said that
savvy men can detect when another man is escorting arm candy, rather than a
woman whom he genuinely likes but who happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.
Nikki Novak and Jason Binn
"When you're going to a big premiere and Madonna's going to be there, or a Barneys party or a Peggy Siegal screening or the Bulgari openings, you want to walk in and feel like you're somebody," he said. "The safety is that no one talks at these things. You're not having conversations. You get as far as, 'Hi, how are you.' You're not bringing arm candy to a small dinner party. These guys want to bring a girl that people will look at and say, 'Wow!' And because the conversation never gets deep enough, no one knows if they're friends or arm pieces or lovers."
Last year, Mr. Binn invited out a model, Nikki Novak, as arm candy, but she turned the tables. "I had always heard he liked to take out arm candy," Ms. Novak, 27, said. "But then the first time he took me out, it was to meet the President. And the second time, it was to meet George Clooney. So in reality I was actually using him, and it's interesting how women -- or men, if they're the arm candy -- can turn it around. In secret, I was the one who was winning out, rather than him just having a pretty girl on his arm."
In a scenario that might make a post-modern Hollywood romantic comedy, Mr. Binn and Ms. Novak exploited one another so frequently that they fell in love. While out on a "no strings attached" date, Mr. Binn learned that his mother had fallen ill. When she died shortly after that, Ms. Novak was with him. His sorrow brought them closer, and now they say they are a real couple.
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