How Noel Biderman and Avid Life Media hoodwinked us—and why we didn’t know until now
In late 2012, I signed up at Ashley Madison’s naughty sister site, Established Men, to research a feature I was writing for Toronto Life on the city’s sugar baby culture. Established Men, as its name suggests, facilitates relationships between older, rich men (the sugar daddies) and hot, young women (their babies). The assignment was to paint a picture of how popular sugar dating sites had become, how they worked, who used them and why, and to explore the ethics: is this just prostitution by another name? The feature, “The Sweetened Life,” ran in April 2013.
I found my main source, Olivia, through a call-out on another sugar daddy dating service. We met over breakfast at a Golden Griddle, and we stayed in contact over the course of many weeks, texting regularly. Eventually, I earned her trust, and she showed me her full sugar baby profile, videos of her dates, photos of gifts and jaw-dropping dinner bills from high-end Toronto restaurants.
And while I had other sources, babies and daddies both, I wanted more. So I asked Established Men’s PR team to put out a call to its members with my interview request. They produced two clients: Melissa, a sugar baby, and Steve, a sugar daddy (neither one knew the other). Both told me those were their real names, and they asked me to print their first names only—a condition of their speaking with me.
I interviewed Steve and Melissa separately over the phone in early January 2013 in great detail. They were uncomfortable at times, awkward at others, guarded, enthused, hesitant, by turns eloquent and inarticulate. Nothing sounded rehearsed and there were no contradictions in their stories. Melissa mentioned that she was a vegan, making it hard for her then-daddy to wine-and-dine her at high-scale restaurants. She told me she wanted to go back to school, and was embarrassed she kept putting it off because she couldn’t get her life together. She gushed about musicals her sugar daddy took her to. And she told me one of her former daddies broke it off after she met his friends and they convinced him she was a gold digger.
Steve seemed equally real: he corrected me when I made the mistake of using the term “dating,” telling me it wasn’t that serious; he was defensive when I pushed him to talk about the roles sex and money played in sugar dating; he seemed vaguely bitter and bored when he talked about his former marriage, but excited about the attention of a young, attractive woman. They bristled when I implied sugar dating was a, well, sweeter version of prostitution—a service that allowed both parties to openly engage in exchanging sex for money without calling it that, exactly.
The story I wrote was well read in print and online. For a few weeks, nearly everyone I met wanted to talk about the sugar world. After a while, the hubbub died down and I went on to write other stories, and I didn’t think about Melissa and Steve or any of my other sugar sources for years. Until, that is, a few weeks ago when I heard about the Ashley Madison leak. Like everyone else, I was riveted. Not only had hackers leaked the information of millions of users, but they’d also made public the email inbox of Noel Biderman, the self-styled “King of Infidelity” and now former CEO of Avid Life, the parent company of Ashley Madison and Established Men.
Then things got really interesting. Last week, staff at Toronto Life obtained a bunch of Biderman’s emails, which revealed some unsettling things about two of my sources. Steve and Melissa were fake names. “Steve” was in fact an acquaintance of Biderman’s. “Melissa” was an employee of the company. Biderman and his staff had discussed paying members to speak to me. And they’d played a central role in determining what exactly Steve and Melissa would tell me.
In one thread, Biderman emails a male acquaintance, asking: “Will you do an anonymous interview for me…as a Toronto sugar daddy using EstablishedMen.” He responds, “Sure. When?” Biderman then hands the conversation off to his PR manager.
Just over an hour later, the PR manager writes to Biderman: “I spoke to him and all set—to make Toronto references, I thought he should drop some Toronto restaurants and/or hotels if asked where he goes on dates…thoughts? He will share the fact that he spends most time at home ordering in and taking her away on weekends—Las Vegas, New York…”
Biderman responds, “Yes—harbour 60.”
The next day, the PR manager writes to Biderman’s friend: “Based on our discussion, I informed the reporter that your name is Steve, a divorced gentleman with 2 kids, in his 40s, real estate and enjoys EstablishedMen.com to meet younger women with the no strings attached philosophy… She is looking forward to speaking with you on Tuesday [… ] In addition to everything we discussed yesterday, definitely mention some restaurants you go to including Harbour Sixty.”
I cringe now to realize that I bought it, and both Steve and Melissa (and Harbour Sixty) appeared in the final version.
Anyway, late last week, after we’d discovered these behind the scenes happenings, we emailed “Steve” and “Melissa” with our concerns. Steve called within the hour. He admitted he had spoken to me at Biderman’s request and that he had lied about various family details. He said that before our original interview, he was nervous and asked for advice, and that Biderman and his team had obliged. However, he insisted that he was, at the time of the original interview, a bonafide member of Established Men, and he provided documentation that proved it. He begged us not to reveal his real name. I agreed to honour my original promise to protect his identity.
“Melissa” has moved out of Toronto and works for a company affiliated with Avid Life. Our emails to her went unanswered. Her Facebook profile shows a young woman who looks exactly how she described herself to me. Emails to Avid Life and to the PR contact I used for the story, who now runs her own PR firm in Toronto, also went unanswered. We don’t know if what Melissa told me during our interview was true. It’s possible she was an employee and a sugar baby. It’s possible she manufactured the whole thing to please her boss.
I never asked Steve and Melissa for their full names. Neither did Toronto Life. Had we done so, we might have caught on to the deception. That was a mistake we won’t repeat. And obviously had we known Steve was an acquaintance of Biderman’s, or that Melissa was an employee—even if both were verifiable users of the site—we wouldn’t have used them as sources. We trusted Avid Life when we shouldn’t have. After all, why wouldn’t a company that’s predicated on cheating lie about other things, too?