WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - She lives as a writer in Washington, ditched a career as an ad executive in New York, and plans to become an entrepreneur in Los Angeles.
I never met Shelia until she stepped out of her Uber in Tenleytown, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, dark designer shades, and overalls.
“Hello new friend!” she exclaimed, quickly spotting my CBS badge and our photojournalist who was along to document the encounter.
She was a rented friend.
Fliers for (rented) friends popped up in Friendship Heights Monday, with a passerby posting a photo to Reddit, the social media website. Users asked if this was the real deal, and someone mentioned Rentafriend.com – a place that’s simply self-explanatory.
The website boasts a roster of more than half a million people from Washington to Warsaw. Platonic friendship only. No escorts, no dates, no sex. Across greater Washington, there are 2,182 people who can be rented for friendship.
Shelia is 70 years old. She told us in a wide-ranging interview where it all began – signing up to become a rented friend so she could engage in a popularity contest.
“My best friend found the site first, and we wanted to see who could get the most friends,” Shelia said. “I won, by a longshot, and am still winning to this day.”
But are there background checks for the website? What’s there to stop us from meeting a maniac, or a maniac from meeting Shelia?
“I talk to the people on the phone, and I see what they want,” she said. “I get a sense of what they need, if they’re lonely, if they’re new to town and need someone to show them around. And if they seem crazy, I can say I’m busy, or just hang up.”
Shelia meets her rented friends in public places, and from her days in advertising in Midtown Manhattan, she simply treats most of them as clients.
She also charges $30 per hour.
“Do I meet wonderful people, no, I wouldn’t say I meet wonderful people,” Shelia said. “I meet people with different needs, and I plan days around their needs.”
A man from Texas who was new to the neighborhood found Shelia’s Rentafriend profile, and called her number. The decision blurred the lines between serving as a “professional friend,” as Shelia calls them, and serving as a comforting presence in moments of profound darkness.
“I could tell from his voice that he was going through an emotional time, it was Christmas,” Shelia remembered. “From what he told me, it seemed like he needed a place for reflection. It was snowing, we were both living in New York, so we went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
As the sounds of the choir echoed through the nave, the clamor of Christmas all around them, Shelia’s client stepped outside, facing Fifth Avenue as night fell.
“He cried for an hour, his emotions needed to be let out, and he needed someone to be there for him,” Shelia said. “I’ll never forget it. I was glad it was me.”
It was a story that transformed what at first seemed to be transactional and perhaps tasteless friendships. I never would have met Shelia if it wasn’t for our assignment. I never would have learned how she was there for a stranger in his moment of need. And I never would have spent an evening laughing and marveling at the absurdity of how people’s paths may cross in 2017.
“I’ve been a rented friend 40 times, and out of 40 people, I now say two of them are pro-bono friends,” Shelia said, referring to her now real-life friends.
But as we turned off the cameras and parted ways, she left us with an encouraging sign.
“You’re the third! The third pro-bono friend, that is.”
© 2017 WUSA-TV