I Dated Virtually For A Year — & Found Something Way Better Than A Boyfriend

“Are you on the apps?” Traditionally, my answer to that question was a straightforward, “No.” Sometimes I’d add my reasoning: “I’d rather meet someone organically.” That’s still true, but nearly a year into a global pandemic, this question is about as obsolete as a floppy disk. Yes, I’m on the apps. We’re all on the apps. The days of eyefucking a Winklevoss after cutting the line at ACME or making out with a sweaty stranger at a deep house rave in Brooklyn at 4 a.m. are long gone. 
Even so, I’ve always been more focused on my career than on making a romantic connection. In fact, exactly one month before New York City went into lockdown, I took a leap of faith and quit my job as a video producer at Refinery29 to build a company that would empower women to realize that they themselves are the key to their own success and happiness, no Prince Charming necessary. (I describe my persona as a modern-day Carrie Bradshaw, with the confidence of Samantha, the social awareness of Miranda, and the… actually, I don’t relate to Charlotte at all.) But when quarantine began in March, all my future work plans of content creating, partner events, and brand consulting dried up instantly. The bright side: I had the freedom and time to get creative. And I quickly realized that the pandemic was impacting the single community in a unique way. 
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The dating scene as we knew it was about to change forever. Before, FaceTiming someone before a date was usually considered weird. But if no one could meet in real life, our only solution was to meet virtually, in the comfort of our own living room. So I set out to normalize virtual dating
I wanted to show the world what virtual dating was really like — unscripted, on a live platform that didn’t require a subscription. From the start, my only stipulation was that all of the dates would be blind. Any bias or preconceived notions about who the person was would be removed completely. Because at the end of the day, a dating profile doesn't paint the whole picture. In April, I called a friend with a production background and asked her to find two men who would be interested in going on a blind date with me on Friday night… live on Instagram, in front of all my followers. After thousands tuned into that first date in April, I asked those followers what I should name the show, via an Instagram Story. With their blessing, I used my platform to launch Let’s F*cking Date — a first-of-its-kind reality dating show, held entirely on Instagram Live.
It was an immediate success for various reasons. It provided entertainment and escapism during a turbulent time. There were no edits or gimmicks you typically see on reality television, and people were fascinated by the voyeurism of watching two people on a first date. However, I believe the real success of the show was because of the community that was created in a lively comments section, where the audience gave feedback in real time, and which sometimes felt like a show of its own. After the dates, fans from around the world would jump on Live with me to give their feedback on the men, their favorite moments, and what red flags they noticed. During the aftershow, I got to interact with so many incredible people, including a couple that lived on a boat, a woman from Nigeria who would stay up until 3 a.m. just give her feedback, and a 16-year-old in Florida that gave better dating advice than my therapist
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I have countless screenshots of fans telling me that because of the show, they got on the apps and are excited about dating again. I’ve heard stories of people setting their alarms for 8:30 p.m. on Fridays, others who would play the show on a big screen at their family dinner tables, and more who recap the episodes the next morning with their co-workers on Slack. It was notable how much life the show had even when the cameras weren’t turned on. So much so, that my fans begged me to create a Facebook group (which now has nearly 3,500 members) so they could discuss their thoughts on the dates, and how the show empowered them to date virtually. LFD was a (COVID-safe) party, and everyone was invited. 
Week after week, the viewership would grow. But I wasn’t being entirely honest with my audience. Two months into the first season, I visited my friends for a weekend. One night, after taking hallucinogenic mushrooms, I felt tears spill down my face as I admitted that despite how happy I was that the show took off, I felt so lonely.
I had formed genuine connections with a couple of the men I dated, but the limitations of the pandemic made it difficult to deepen off camera. Plus, it was tough to be really vulnerable with someone with so many people watching — and frankly, I could rarely distinguish what was real and what was for the show. In the midst of my breakdown, I compared putting on the live show to being a DJ doing a set at a concert: A DJ can see and feel the audience, but once the concert ends and everyone goes home, they’re left alone. Similarly, I felt so connected to the viewers while filming, but once the Live ended, I would just sit under the warmth of my ring light by myself and feel darkness.
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When it comes to my image on social media, I’m known to be fearless and open with my vulnerability. This was the first time I hid my reality — how much the feelings of isolation intensified and began to take a real toll on my mental health. Instead, I put so much pressure on myself to dismiss those feelings. I thought that if my audience discovered that I was still lonely while doing this show and going on virtual dates, that meant I was a hypocrite; a fraud. 
Part of the reason I was so resistant to my own loneliness was because I couldn’t identify where it came from. When I voiced the feeling to my best friend, she said, “It’s okay to feel lonely, but just because you don’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t mean you’re alone. What about all your other relationships?” She was right. It was inaccurate to say that my social life had evaporated all together. While I stopped gallivanting around NYC’s crowded parties, I began having intimate outdoor dinners with a few friends, engaging in hours-long conversations. While I stopped going to an office, I started my own company, brainstorming with my employees from around the country for hours on Zoom. While I couldn’t hug my divorced parents, our bond was stronger than ever, as a result of FaceTime dinners, where we would prop our phones up and eat together through a screen. It occurred to me that, really, since the pandemic started, I have actually been extremely present in my relationships, yet was so quick to think I was alone — just because I wasn’t in a romantic one. 
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This realization led me to ask myself: Why don’t we celebrate our friendships or other relationships the way we do romantic relationships? Perhaps the deeply entrenched societal norms that place a premium on relationships formed for and headed toward traditional marriage lead us to equate the absence of a romantic partner with loneliness. As so many know, marriage is not a cure-all. Marriage is a manmade institution, entirely regulated by our government. And while citizens have pushed the government into expanding the definition of marriage through social justice protests and campaigns, the lawmakers are ultimately the ones with the power to deem a relationship as personal as a marriage “acceptable.” 
What if I were to intentionally focus on the immense joy I derive from my other personal relationships, the ones that don’t require any formalized legal process to validate: the bonds I share with my best friends, my employees, my parents, and most importantly, myself? That mental shift helped me see the outcome of my show in a new light. Every episode was about finding new ways to connect, despite being forced to physically isolate. And I was blessed to make many more connections than I’d originally set out to. I connected with people all over the world — the viewers.
After a viral first season of LFD, I launched the second in September. We successfully sold the season for six figures in sponsorships, and I was able to turn a show I self-produced in my living room into a full-blown production. I hired and collaborated with a group of talented individuals dedicated to producing, designing, editing, tweeting, marketing, and glamming me up before each date. 
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We created a card game designed to be played by singles, couples, groups, and friends  to encourage people to open up and fearlessly be themselves. We also kicked off a grassroots marketing campaign where we plastered signs all around New York City with text that read: “Single Woman Looking For Love,” featuring a photo of yours truly. 
To my surprise, fans from all over the world started DMing me, asking for the PDF file so they could print it out and hang it up in their communities — in Tokyo, Nashville, Stockholm, London, and Nantucket. While the signs told the world I was single and looking for love, these DMs helped me realize that I had already found it. Despite making a brand out of empowering women to let go of the idea of Prince Charming, some part of me had still thought that coupledom was the ultimate goal. My show was ostensibly about meeting someone to achieve that goal. But in the end, I found love in my community, in my team, and in myself. 
No, that isn't the fairytale ending we've been indoctrinated to expect every romance to wind up in. I think it may be even better.
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Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email single.files@vice.com.

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