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Hickman says his typical client is someone who has developed a company and then sold it, or is a whiz kid who struck it rich in the stock market. These men are typically over 35 and have never married. Kosenkova says their poorest client had a net worth of just over $1 million, while their richest client rang in at more than $100 million. You'll have to take the couple's word for it all: They offer no documentation to back up the hype.
While Hickman says the names of his clients are recognizable, he refuses to divulge them. He's sworn to secrecy. "It's the mail-order bride stigma," he explains. What he will say is that his client list consists of the founder of a high-tech company Bill Gates purchased, a mogul whose company advertises during the Super Bowl, a businessman who owned a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby and a British aristocrat who is a contributor to the Financial Times of London. Though Hickman says he doesn't absolutely restrict his service to millionaires, he does require potential clients to submit verification of their income status.
"They've been working hard all of their lives," Hickman says. "They've dedicated themselves to their careers." Like virtually every man seeking a Russian wife, Hickman says his clients are disillusioned with American women. They've had supermodels and successful career women on their arms and found them shallow and manipulative, jockeying the relationship to enhance their careers. "They're looking for the Ozzie and Harriet-type marriage," Hickman says. "Our clients want that, back to the '50s...They all say they just want an ordinary down-to-earth girl who is beautiful."
Hickman says his company has strict criteria for the women who meet his clients. They must have a university degree, an impeccable background, no children and must never have been married. Hickman claims the verification process for his girls is fairly easy. "This is Russia," he says, "so there are KGB files on every citizen, and the information is as easy to obtain as a credit report in the USA." But Hickman adds that he waives the unmarried, childless and degree requirements if the woman is unusually beautiful.
While Hickman refuses to disclose Miss Russia's financial picture, he claims he serves up to three clients a month and admits he has yet to turn a profit. The tour is focused and loosely regimented. At the start of the seven-day St. Petersburg tour, the client is picked up at the airport in a stretch limo and is provided with a driver, a bodyguard and two translators. The client takes one day of rest and begins the interview process at noon the next day. Clients generally see five girls a day for four days, each session lasting some 45 minutes. "It's like a job interview," Hickman says. "It's a crass way of putting it, but that's exactly what it is." Usually by the third day, the client has selected the girl he's most interested in, and the last few days are dedicated to romantic dinners, ballets, operas and trips to the Hermitage Museum.
Hickman's elitist matchmaking company has kicked up a lot of international media interest over the last few months. Early last year, French National Television began work on a documentary chronicling his millionaire clients in their quest for love. Last May, Hickman took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Business Journal and an ad in The Dallas Morning News calling for a Texas millionaire to be featured in the documentary. His fishing wasn't successful. Instead, the 90-minute documentary, to air next fall on French channel 3, will feature an Arizona millionaire and Hickman client who is engaged to Miss Teen Ukraine, Marina Troshina.
The matchmaking business is only one part of the fledgling business empire Hickman calls Romanov Inc., the core of which is the capitalist frivolity known as beauty pageants. He plans to launch and operate "Miss Teen" pageants all over Europe, with events planned in the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Feeding off of his teen enterprise is a model management group, a film division, an ad agency, a fashion division and, of course, the matchmaking business. "All of these companies revolve around beautiful women," boasts Hickman. "That's what makes this company so great." And all of his talk of an empire may be more than just idle chatter. Tear Sheet magazine, which claims to be the world's largest trade magazine of the professional modeling industry, with a circulation of 230,000, last year tagged one of Romanov's models, Sasha Hodotova of St. Petersburg, as one of the world's 50 most beautiful models. He plans to take the modeling arm of Romanov public and spin off Miss Russia Dot Com in the near future.
"I think it's every American man's dream to marry a beautiful model who's 10 or 15 years younger than him," says the Arizona millionaire profiled in the French TV documentary. "If you could tell a man there was a place where he could meet 30 Victoria's Secret supermodels that are all interested in marriage...it would seem unbelievable."
While there are no reliable statistics for mail-order bride services, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service pegged the number of firms at roughly 100 in 1994. By May 1998 that number topped 200, which collectively advertised between 100,000 and 150,000 women. Most of these women hail from two regions: Southeast Asia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, with Russia and the Ukraine the most common countries of origin. The INS estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 marriages between American men and foreign brides take place each year through these services.