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DOUGLAS YOUNG

Staff Reporter

Love it's the investment of the 90s.

Otherwise, why would Angelenos pay up to $20,000 for a shot at finding the romance of a lifetime?

If Christmas is the big season for retailers, Valentine's Day is the time that has L.A. matchmakers smiling all the way to the bank.

The Los Angeles area is home to at least 129 dating services, according to the Los Angeles Better Business Bureau. While many of the firms are legitimate and keep their customers satisfied, there are always some that leave their customers high and dry either unfulfilled or out of money altogether.

Prices vary, but dating services can cost anywhere from a few dollars for an ad in the personals to as much as $5,000 and even $10,000 for the most expensive services today.

Still, people who have gone through the process say the fees no matter how large are money well spent if they get results.

"People tell me it's so much money, and I tell them it's by far the best investment I've made," said Lauri Fitzsimmons, a 33-year-old casting director.

Fitzsimmons tried personal ads, blind dates, club-hopping and other tactics before signing on with Debra Winkler Personal Search of Beverly Hills, through which she met her husband, Doug.

"I was to the point where I thought I'd never get married. I was so jaded," she said.

Fitzsimmons and other matchmaker clients point out that high-end dating services are a shrewd investment for busy professionals who want to meet the perfect mate but lack the time and patience to go through all the usual rituals.

The Debra Winkler service, which qualifies as one of L.A.'s priciest, costs between $2,500 and $5,500 for a one- to two-year membership that typically includes between six and eight matches.

The company's 10 matchmakers handle about 5,000 singles at any given time, and that number has been growing at a rate of between 20 percent and 30 percent each year, estimates company founder and President Debra Winkler.

"When I started off six years ago, I only had a few hundred people. I was going to start this business part-time, but it became full-time by the first week," said Winkler, who claims to have brokered close to 500 marriages since she opened her firm.

She cited an unusual case where a man from Fairbanks, Alaska is paying between $5,000 and $10,000 for her to conduct a "special search" to find a match for him.

"He wanted to marry a Jewish girl, but there aren't many Jewish girls in Fairbanks," Winkler noted. "Now we're running ads in Jewish publications. They describe my client, his values and interests and invite people to write in if they're interested."

The ads and other efforts have produced one candidate so far, who flew up to Alaska for a date. Sparks didn't fly, and the search continues, Winkler said.

Winkler and other high-end matchmakers say their fees are justified by the personal attention, discretion and professionalism they bring to their job.

For example, Winkler says her team of 10 team matchmakers all have backgrounds in psychology or social work of some kind.

Likewise, every one of the eight matchmakers at Valenti International has a doctorate in psychology, according to President Irene Valenti.

Valenti's company is based in Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego, but every one to two weeks she stays at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to interview all her potential clients.

At $5,000 to $10,000 to join and another $5,000 to $10,000 for successful pairings, Valenti is one of the most expensive matchmakers in Southern California.

"We are matchmakers in the European tradition," said Valenti, who comes from Canada but claims a European family background. "Years and years ago kings and queens of the old country would use matchmakers," she added.

Valenti said her prices, while seemingly high, don't seem to deter those in search of the perfect mate. To the contrary, she estimated her business has grown by about 50 percent over each of the last two years, and her success rate is as high as 60 percent for the "hundreds" of clients she has served in five years doing business.

Valenti and others professional matchmakers said the season around Valentine's Day is one of the busiest for them. That's because of the holiday's close proximity to Christmas and the new year, according to Sherry Singer, co-founder of Meet-A-Mate, a matchmaking service in Sherman Oaks.

People are making their New Year's resolutions in January and those resolutions often include finding that perfect partner, said Singer.

Meet-A-Mate charges $900 for a one- to two-year membership. Singer and her mother Eva run their company and personally meet and set up all their potential clients.

Singer said that their job while fun can also prove challenging. She recalled a case where a man in search of a mate presented a particular challenge.

"The guy had chronic fatigue syndrome, was overweight, was drinking a diet Coke and was out of work and he wanted a tall beautiful woman," Singer said. "I told him 'I'd love to take you, but first you have to get your health back and get a job for at least six months.'"

Also in the more affordable range is Great Expectations, one of the nation's oldest dating services at 20 years old and probably one of the biggest.

The company uses computers and videos to help people meet for prices that range from $1,500 to $2,500 for a one-year membership. It started out in Encino and now has 53 offices nationwide. The two L.A. County offices are among the company's biggest, with about 10,000 active clients each.

Then there's always the personal ads, which are thriving in L.A. as budget-conscious love seekers carry on their search for the perfect mate.

The Valentine's Day season is particularly sweet at the L.A. Weekly, according to classifieds manager Roxanne Cooper. She estimates taking orders for between 1,500 and 1,600 ads each week during this year's Valentine's Day season, about 20 percent more than at other times. She added that L.A. Weekly's volume of personal ads in general is also growing at an annual rate of about 10 percent.

"People use the personals because it's convenient, saves time and is relatively inexpensive compared to other options," she said.

But people in search of brokered love should exercise some caution before signing up with any dating service, said Ed Johnson, vice president of the L.A. Better Business Bureau.

In one high-profile case that made headlines three years ago, an upscale matchmaker in Beverly Hills named Helena Amram known simply as "Helena" abruptly abandoned her business and absconded to Israel with thousands of dollars in her clients' money.

In more common occurrences, consumers often call in to the Better Business Bureau to report dissatisfaction with their dating services, according to Johnson.

He said the bureau received between 80 and 90 complaints about dating services between the fall of 1995 and fall 1996, and 46 percent of those were either settled unsatisfactorily or ignored when the bureau stepped in to try and resolve the disputes.

In fact, both Debra Winkler Personal Search and Great Expectations have had past complaints leveled against them, though Johnson stressed that each of those firms resolved its disputes in a satisfactory manner.

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