As we enter the warmer months under a relaxed coronavirus lockdown, online dating remains king. And while going for a socially distanced beer in a crowded park with someone you’ve been messaging for a week is nice, it’s not quite the summer romance you were looking for. Do you remember locking eyes with a stranger in the smoking area of a shit bar and flirting your way into being offered a roll-up? We didn't know how good we had it.
Kymara Akinpelumi, a 21-year-old artist, has managed to capture some of the excitement that comes from meeting someone new. She has been running a Zoom event called "Take Me In", a virtual dating party based on the popular ITV show Take Me Out.
The premise follows the format of the TV show, with a few crucial changes. Instead of a man awkwardly dancing his way out of a lift and across a stage lined with the women he’s hoping to impress, he sits in the Zoom waiting room until Akinpelumi lets him in. The women chat between themselves on the call, solo-drinking in their bedrooms, before turning their microphones off for his entrance. As he is let into the room, his song of his choice plays and Akinpelumi shares his introductory video with the rest of the call. Rather than turn a light off if you’re uninterested, you turn off your camera. When the single man decides which woman he's interested in pursuing things with, he slides into her Instagram DMs.
"I’ve tried some Zoom parties with friends before and everyone said they were going to party but they just sat there and really wanted to let everything out because they haven’t spoken to anyone in a while," says Akinpelumi, who started Take Me In as a way to celebrate her 21st birthday. "They didn’t want to party, they wanted to cry. So, Take Me In happened.”
Akinpelumi's first Take Me In was such a success that she opened the second party out to friends of friends. On a Sunday afternoon at the end of May, I also join the call. Since it's probably the closest I’ll ever get to being on a dating show, I decided to take a half-hour nap beforehand to look my best. I end up waking five minutes before the Zoom call is due to start, and decide that simply putting on lip balm and sitting next to a lamp will make me look more put together. I join the call with about 20 other women just as Akinpelumi is giving a rundown of how the evening will work.
The first single man of the night is Ben. As he enters the call, there is silence. Akinpelumi says, "If he doesn’t make you cream, turn off your screen", then presses play on his introduction video. The women watch as Ben goes about a typical day under lockdown, cooking at home and at one point, inexplicably, climbing a tree.
After the call, Akinpelumi says that she is pleasantly surprised at the amount of effort Ben put into his video. “Three days before my deadline and he wasn’t really replying to me, so I rang him,” she says. “He was like, ‘I’m going to sort it out today' and his whole house got together and they were really excited by it. Now all of his housemates want to do it.”
After Ben come five more single men. As we watch them ring in and out of the call, with women's cameras flicking on and off, there’s a giddiness in the air – despite the distance between us. It's kind of like being in the girls' bathroom on a night out. The women compliment one another’s hair and outfit choices, and solo glasses of wine are refilled. It could be the lag from using Zoom but everyone’s chatter happily overlaps, reminding me of a battle over the mirror to reapply lip gloss.
Hannah, one of the women playing Take Me In tonight, says that the call is a great idea. “It’s just really fun to chat to all you girls. It’s like being out,” she says. She also manages to match with one of the single men.
As Take Me In come to an end, some women stay on and chat about the men who are now in their DMs. Akinpelumi is also pleased with how the call went tonight.
“I wouldn’t have done it any other way because it allows people to be really silly,” she says. “I think it helps people dating wise being on something like Zoom. When things do go wrong with technology people start to relax because the real world comes in. No one’s putting on a filter or being really polished. They’re at home doing what they want.”
Britain may be transitioning out of lockdown but the pandemic is far from over. Until it is safe to be within one metre of a stranger, or even at the pub, it seems that we may have to get used to new kinds of dating.
“I really want to do a gay Take Me In next," Akinpelumi says. "I’ve already spoken to a couple of my girl friends about it."