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The next day, as Lewis entered the reception hall, he decided to make a careful survey of the room before plunging into conversation. Between the groups of women clustered around the Americans, he spotted a pretty blonde sitting by herself near the wall; she looked shy, perhaps a little melancholy.
"How old do you suppose she is?" he asked Julia, who said she thought probably early 20s.
"Oh, that's too bad ..." Lewis said, thinking of his checklist criteria. Then, as the blonde peered forlornly about the room, he reconsidered.
"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to talk to her," he said. "See if she'd like to meet me."
He watched as Julia walked over and spoke to the girl, pointing back at Lewis. The girl looked up at him, smiled, nodded and began making her way across the ballroom.
Guys who've been beaten down by the dating wars. Workaholics whose career success has come at the expense of their social lives. Lonely divorces who can't face a return to the bar scene. These are Art Steckel's customers.
As the founder of European Connections, he used to listen patiently as men would rationalize their going overseas to search for brides. Now, he says, he politely interrupts, telling them they have no need to explain their motives. But the truth is, he doesn't need to be told.
"I've heard a thousand reasons," Steckel says. "Over and over again."
Now 11 years old, European Connections is one of the leaders of an unregulated industry that has grown to include hundreds of mail-order-bride agencies, most with at least one website and many with affiliate offices in Russia.
A 1999 report by the INS (since reborn as the fascistically named Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Department of Homeland Security) estimates that "international matchmaking organizations" were responsible for helping bring approximately 5,000 Russian brides into the U.S. annually. That number undoubtedly continued to rise until the clampdown on visas that followed 9-11.
For the past decade, the mail-order bride industry has been dominated by a handful of major stateside players, including Steckel's company, which occupies its own building in a Dunwoody office park. Other prominent firms include A Foreign Affair in Phoenix, Ariz., probably the biggest and best-known agency; the Houston-based Angelika network, which has sold dozens of "franchise" websites that share its database of available women; and Anastasia, run by a former mail-order bride out of Bangor, Maine.
According to Steckel, his clients are mostly white-collar: doctors, lawyers, accountants and a surprising number of airline pilots. The limited research that's been done on the industry bears him out; the INS study confirms that the typical mail-order bride customer is about 40, white, well-educated, conservative and professionally successful.
Of course, a man must be reasonably well-off to afford the $3,500 that European Connections charges for a romance tour, not to mention the costs of bringing a woman into the U.S.
But the most striking commonality among the men who keep this industry afloat is a pre-feminist concept of marriage and family that has led them to believe that, in order to find a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad, they've got to leave the country.
Ken Agee, one of three co-owners of A Foreign Affair, says his customers have largely given up on American women.
"They're used to being shot down because they aren't rich enough or they don't drive the right kind of car," he explains. "American women have too much emotional baggage; they're usually carrying issues from past relationships."
For example, Agee says, he recently had a tour client, an unmarried 40-year-old, who owns 16 Hooters restaurants.
"This is a guy who should have no trouble meeting women, but he told me he thinks American women are too stuck up," he says.
So, in case anyone out there was wondering whatever happened to those guys who used to mope around the frat house bitching about how Suzy the cheerleader was too shallow to go out with someone like him, here's your answer.
Many American men feel burned by failed marriages, disillusioned with career women and intimidated by the demands of their female contemporaries. These men are looking for a return to a simpler, golden era, when the man was head of the household and the woman had dinner on the table when he got home. And they're going to Ukraine to find it.
"The women over there are like they were here 50 years ago," Phil Lewis explains. "For them, their family comes first. They appreciate what they've got more than American women."
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