I’d never considered trying to date someone who lived in another country.
That is, until watching—inhaling is really the correct word—TLC’s reality-TV trashterpiece 90 Day Fiancé. TLC, for the unfamiliar, is the go-to cable destination for reality programming (My 600-lb Life, My Husband’s Not Gay) so lowbrow that even Bravo feels too squeamish to greenlight it, but which still offers PhD-level insights into the human condition.
The surprisingly legalistic (but, you know, in a batshit way) 90 Day Fiancé explores the lives of partners, always an American and a foreigner, who hope to marry and stay in the U.S. with the help of a K-1 visa—which, if approved, allows the noncitizen to live here for 90 days, at which point they must wed or catch the next flight home.
The show’s a runaway phenomenon, lifting TLC to ratings highs, spawning four spin-offs, and even beating out Fear the Walking Dead in terms of total viewers. 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? tracks not-always-joyous newlyweds who have completed the K-1 visa process, including scandal-ridden fan favorites Ashley and the Jamaican Jay, who cheated on her (twice) shortly after their wedding. Meanwhile, the brand-new 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way follows Americans who travel abroad to be with their partner. Marvel’s got nothing on the network’s world-building.
This whole entertainment empire is partly based on a strange phenomenon: international dating sites and apps, which allow people to match oceans apart, whether they’re simply bored of the dating pool around them or drawn to a foreign culture—out of heritage, innocent affinity, or something more skeevy.
While the series’ couples meet in other, more physically proximate ways as well—say, a nightclub run-in in Mexico or a fling at a Jamaican resort—the most intriguing affairs stem from long-long-distance digital hookups. Falling in love during a trip one thing, but cruising for a foreign boo from the remove of a chat window prompts all sorts of questions about what a prospective paramour is after and how genuine the romance is—not to mention the complicated logistics of it.
Take, for example, the sad case of Ricky, who in season two chased a pretty and very young woman he had chatted with on ColombianCupid (its slogan: “Find Your Colombian Beauty”) all the way to Medellín. After an awkward dinner, she vanished for good. Determined, Ricky pursued his backup: Ximena, whom he had also messaged via ColombianCupid.
Also pretty, older, and self-possessed, Ximena ventured from her rural town Villanueva to see Ricky. To keep the story short: Ricky avoided telling Ximena the truth, asked her to marry him with a ring originally meant for the other woman, and the whole thing predictably backfired. (There’s also an elaborate, True Detective-worthy fan conspiracy theory alleging that he was still married during production and that the relationships were faked for publicity.)
“I’m sorry about everything. I’m sorry. Perdon,” Ricky tells Ximena of his deceit in one scene as they sit on a dock. To show his contrition, Ximena demands that Ricky, who does not know how to swim, jump in the water. He does.
When you hear of these so-called international dating apps, you might think: Okay, so like mail-order brides. And not unfairly.
That was more or less my first impression. Being from Miami, where everyone is from anywhere but there, I like to think that I’m open to a transient lifestyle. In my 12-ish years as a sexually active gay man, I've slept with many, if not quite all, kinds of men, foreign and otherwise.
In my case, however, the encounters were with people who were near me at the time. Why, if you could find a partner within a 10-mile radius, would you go out of your way to woo someone whose joining your life would require exorbitant resources—time, emotion, money, a capable lawyer? The “mail-order bride” stereotype gets tossed around a lot on 90DF, usually by disapproving friends and exes. The couples always insist that they’re in it for love.
The truth, at least on these apps, seems to lie somewhere in the muddy middle. In my own experience trying out ColombianCupid and JamaicanDating for several weeks, I found that, yes, they more or less exist to connect a (frequently male, American) user with a foreign (generally female) babe from a picturesque but relatively economically disadvantaged nation.
These apps are also more complex and morally ambiguous than the old days of engagement by postal service in order to ensure a better life. It’s not as much a one-way street anymore, as the (usually female) daters have considerably more agency—to browse, research, and block the many suitors in their path. However, there’s often still an element of economic disparity which makes the dynamic not exactly equal and somewhat unsavory.
But, the apps bring happy stories, too: Viewers didn’t have a lot of hope for Paul Staehle and Karine Martins on 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days (they’re also currently featured on The Other Way). Especially once Staehle traveled to the Amazon of Martins’ native Brazil, where he proceeded to have what seemed like a nervous breakdown, leaving her to be mugged by a man with a machete, an episode that’s fortunately behind them.
The two originally met via MiCrush, a self-described free “Latino Dating App,” which is inactive as of this writing.
Karine tells me that she saw MiCrush as an international dating app, with “people from the whole world.”
“It’s actually for Latin dating, not international dating,” Paul, from Kentucky, contradicts (he and Karine met on the app while they were far apart in their own countries). “We also talked a little bit on [a social discovery and dating app] called Badoo. But MiCrush had a translator as a part of the app and we communicated a lot on there. I think we messaged back and forth for about a year, and decided to meet in person, so we did it on the show.”
Paul, already a “huge fan” of 90 Day Fiancé, applied to be on the series. By the time producers approached him, he and Karine had already been talking for some time, but only online. Naturally, the production’s resources, including salaries for cast members, help facilitate meetings like theirs.
The couple’s reasons for searching for love thousands of miles away, much less broadcasting their first physical interactions in front of millions, sound reasonable, if slightly farfetched. “I just wanted something different,” Karine says of what drew her to MiCrush. “I have always dated people from my city. All the relationships that I had were with jealous guys.” Though, she adds, “Paul is a jealous guy, too.”
“I struck out so many times with American women,” Paul explains. “In the Latin American culture, they are very religious, they have very strong family values and morals. I noticed that Karine’s entire village is centered around the community and their shared faith. Families do things as a whole, and the values are similar to the ones I grew up with. It’s hard to [find that] in the U.S. when everyone is glued to their phones all the time.”
“At the time we started talking, Karine didn’t speak any English, but she has a good heart,” he adds (viewers will also attest that his Portuguese left much room for improvement). “I guess love has no distance.”
Maybe it’s a convenient line, or maybe it’s true. Paul and Karine are still together and just had their first son.
The first thing you notice on ColombianCupid is that it is not at all like Tinder. Or Hinge, or Bumble, or any of the other popular location-based dating apps. First, it costs $35 a month for a subscription allowing you to message people back and forth—steep even by the standards of premium dating apps.
When setting up a profile, ColombianCupid asks for a detailed description of your “appearance,” which includes eyewear, body art, and your “best feature.” Under the somewhat mystifying drop-down list for the latter, in addition to “my butt,” “my lips,” and “my personality,” you can select “my wallet.” You answer questions about your English and Spanish language abilities, your annual salary, and if you consider yourself “very attractive,” “attractive,” “average,” or “below average.” I wavered slightly before settling on “attractive.”
These forward inquiries may be unsettling to the average American in the dating pool, but they reminded me of some of the most memorable conversations on 90DF, in which the non-Americans can be startlingly frank. As Michael and the larger Angela from Georgia browse a shop in his native Nigeria, she hesitates when asked about trying on a traditional outfit. “It looks embarrassing to her because she’s fat,” Michael tells the shopkeeper. He later appears confused by Angela’s anger.
The language barrier certainly includes a distance between American demureness and bluntness in other cultures. ColombianCupid, for its part, doesn’t shy away from stating things as they are. It’s part of the Cupid Media network operating 35 “niche dating sites” including AsianDating, ChinaLoveCupid, BBWCupid (BBW is an abbreviation for “big beautiful woman”), BlackCupid, and InterracialCupid. The company claims to have “helped more than 30 million people look for love.”
As the names imply, these sites target desires for certain ethnic and physical types. ColombianCupid sent me messages promoting “natural Mexican beauties” and “exotic Caribbean girls,” which linked out to Cupid Media’s other sites. (I tried and failed to find men looking for men on the apps who were willing to go on the record for this story.)
That doesn’t mean everyone here is looking to fulfill a fetish. “I was worried [about that],” Karine admits. Then again, she adds, “It’s always a concern when you are looking for a relationship in a dating app. Before Paul, I had met other guys, and I knew when they only wanted sex.”
Indeed, some of the problems that users face on these apps are of the run-of-the-mill digital-dating variety. “Last night a boy from Greece called Goran wrote to me,” says Martha, 37, of Cali, Colombia. “And he is depraved. Today he sent me photos of his penis.”
Martha tells GQ that she had been feeling lonely and joined ColombianCupid on the recommendation of a friend only to quickly become disheartened. (Conversations from ColombianCupid have been translated from Spanish.) “I think these pages are for crazy people.”
Other stories are more successful, if elusive. “I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful pilot on this page,” says Naii, 26, of Neiva, Colombia. “We talked for two months [over video calls]. He was the only man I've ever met on this page, and I never thought I would find such a person.” She eventually crossed paths with the German pilot during his four-day trip to Colombia, and while “the attraction was strong, we were not compatible,” Naii said.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic requirements on ColombianCupid aren’t the superficial ones, but those that end up being most critical to transnational couples trying to unite. A verified profile, which increases your chances of matching with someone, requires an image of a passport, driver's licence, or national ID card to ensure you are who claim to be.
Tellingly, a separate tab is devoted to the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, a U.S. federal statute requiring background checks for marriage visas, which was enacted in 2006 after Indle King of Washington state was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling his Russian wife to death. ColombianCupid asks detailed questions about criminal history and residence history, it says, to protect the “safety of our members.”
This paper trail isn’t incidental. Americans and foreign nationals trying to get married in the U.S. face enormous legal hurdles, including interviews with consular officers to get a visa approved. “The couple has to prove that their relationship is legit” and not a pose for a green card, says Joshua Goldstein, an immigration lawyer based in Los Angeles who helps individuals and couples through the process of getting a green card, among other services like representation in deportation proceedings.
That means drilling into specifics from the mundane to the potentially lethal—often hidden from the 90DF cameras. “How often do they call each other? How often do they text? Do they say they’re engaged on Facebook or is it a secret? How much time have they spent with each other? Where does he work? Where did he go to school? What are the names of his brothers?” Goldstein says of potential questions. A history of violence is all but a no-go. “I wouldn't take a case like that.”
Most importantly, Goldstein needs to feel convinced by the sincerity of the couples he takes on, some of whom met on Facebook or other digital platforms. He’s skeptical of apps that specifically cater to international relationships. “It sounds a little sketchy to me,” he says, adding that so-called “marriage brokerage services,” which could include such apps, “are frowned upon” in the legal realm.
That won’t deter Naii, whether on ColombianCupid or anywhere else.
“I'm still waiting for a good man to come,” she says. “I know I'll find [him] one day.”
Originally Appeared on GQ