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Jan. 28 2000 3:30 AM

Hookers.com

How e-commerce is transforming the oldest profession.

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In the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, high roller Richard Gere is able to secure six full days of Julia Roberts' sexual services for $3,000. Nowadays, (at least here in Los Angeles, where the movie was set) a first-class hooker costs considerably more than $500 a night. One big reason is that, like all other businesses, the oldest one is being utterly transformed by the Internet. And it's changing in ways that ought to transform the way we think about it as well.

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Recently, I had the experience of escorting "Veronica" through the main dining room of Spago. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, and heads turned as she poured across the room, her dress speaking to every man there in the international language of bugle beads. Veronica is apparently no stranger to Spago. She and the maîtresse d'hôtel exchanged knowing smiles as we were seated. And when she's not there, she says, she's often at the Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire (the Pretty Woman hotel), the Four Seasons, and so on. She lives at the beach. She drives a Mercedes S420. She doesn't ask what you're having before she orders foie gras.

Actually, Veronica was "escorting" me. In her early 30s, Veronica's been an "escort" for four years now but only recently listed herself on the Web. Her ad featured a picture of her more or less in a black pantsuit, along with this text:

Veronica

Professional intelligent and sexy

I'll make a great impression on your behalf

All with the elegance and grace of a true lady

Available for intimate evenings and corporate affairs

Shopping or a round of golf, I also ride and fly

Whatever your pleasure

I'm happy to be by your side

There was no mention of price. A day or so after I e-mailed a query to the address listed, I got back this e-mailed response:

Hi Scott,

Let me remind you that I am an escort, I require a one time introductory fee of $500.00. $500.00 per hour and $2,500.00 for the evening.

If this is acceptable to you we can set up an appointment.

Yours…..Veronica

Within a few days we were at Spago.

(A note on method: Slate paid Veronica's $500 introductory fee in return for an interview, conducted in public, and nothing else. She's a businesswoman who gives men what they want for a price. I wanted an interview. In fact, I was being paid to conduct it. Why should she give it away for free?)

I discovered Veronica's ad on a site called LA Exotics, one of the most active and extensive in the Web's burgeoning Rent-a-Woman world. When you go there, you find, superimposed over a photo of a naked woman getting ahold of herself, an exquisite menu of options: Massage Outcall [ they come to you ], Massage Incall [ you go to them ] (Blonde), Massage Incall (Brunette), Daytime Delicacies, Afterdark Angels, Escorts (Blonde), Escorts (Brunette), Entertainers/Strippers, Fetish/Alternative, and Personals. (The difference, if any, between a "massage" and an "escort" is beyond the scope of this article—let alone what "personals" could possibly be in contrast to the other offerings.) There is no category for "interviews," but there are separate listings for redheads, women of color, and tantric sex. To reassure wary horn-dogs, many of the clickable thumbnail pictures carry a little badge indicating that the site has verified that the woman in the shot is really the woman you'll meet. (Except for the digitally blurred eyes, Veronica's picture looks almost exactly like her.)

Veronica paid LA Exotics $100 to list her for a month. She says she got more than 250 phone calls off that, which produced three new men who've hired her at least once, and who, she predicts, will be added to her stable of regulars. In business terms, three out of 250, or 1.2 percent, is her "yield." Apparently prostitution is like the magazine business, where a low yield from solicitations can nevertheless be profitable, depending on renewals. Veronica claims that the ad produced several other qualified customers who are now on her waiting list. She says her regulars are all married, all over 35, and all "high-end corporate," except for some NBA players. Of the newbies, she says, one lives in San Francisco; one in Portland, Ore.; and one in New York. If they come to her, they spring for everything, including one of L.A.'s deluxe hotels and her omnipresent clothes and jewelry needs. If she goes to them, it's more of the same, plus a first-class plane ticket for the trip. She says she only works two nights a week. If true, and if she gets her posted rate, that's $200,000 a year for less than half-time work.

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