In an interview at a bar, the evening newscast’s guest anchor introduced Opdenkelder as “the founder of an online dating site,” CougarLife.com, that helps older women and younger men (ahem, “cubs”) pair up. But as Lang reported — and what would soon become an international news story — there was a powerful killjoy standing in the way of cougars and cubs and their quest for intimacy. Google Inc. was banning Cougar Life’s advertisements, explaining to Lang in a statement that it does not allow “adult” dating sites (while it doesn’t ban less hookup-focused sites, such as Match.com).
It was a compelling story — one undeniably made even better by the fact that the founder, Opdenkelder, was blonde, curvy, media savvy, and more than willing to go on television in a tight-fitting pencil skirt and explain why cougars like her deserve love too. Over time, Opdenkelder would give voice to that struggle in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and in papers from this chain. There were many more magazine profiles of her, occasionally featuring cheesecake photos of Opdenkelder herself, and TV reports. Usually she was described as the founder or president of Cougar Life.
Too bad it wasn’t true.
A Financial Post investigation has found that Opdenkelder is one of at least three women who were hired to pose as founders, executives or board members of niche dating websites owned by Avid Life Media Inc., the parent company of the adultery website Ashley Madison.
That site was recently the target of an attack by hackers — a massive data breach that included publicizing 37-million members’ personal information. The hackers also leaked a trove of Avid Life’s corporate e-mails online, specifically those linked to the account of former chief executive Noel Biderman, who stepped down in August in the aftermath.
Biderman’s e-mails indicate that the women who promoted themselves in national media as top executives at the websites Cougar Life, The Big and the Beautiful, and Established Men were hired to attract publicity and new members by spinning a compelling backstory for the sites. In reality, they were spokesmodels — invariably very good-looking spokesmodels — with most reporters taking them at their word about their executive roles. Avid Life had a pay grid that offered compensation for various media appearances. The relationship with Avid Media did not always end amicably.
Opdenkelder’s relationship with Avid Life deteriorated into a legal dispute. She would not comment on her role with Cougar Life, her lawyer citing a clause in the eventual settlement agreement that now bars her from discussing her time with Avid Life.
Simone Dadoun-Cohen, who presented herself as the founder and CEO of Established Men, a site aimed at connecting wealthy men with young women who appreciate the benefits of dating wealthy men, declined to comment when contacted by telephone.
Whitney Thompson, the first plus-sized winner of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, presented herself as the president and founder of The Big and the Beautiful, a site that connects men with larger-sized women. The Financial Post could not reach her directly (she did not respond to attempts to contact her at a newer venture, a Southern-food restaurant in Springfield, Tenn.) But the agent who worked for her during her time with Avid Life said he would not provide any information about the arrangement.
Avid Life Media was contacted for comment about the roles of the three women earlier this week, but had not provided a response to the Financial Post by deadline.
The plan to have a spokesmodel identified in the media as a legitimate dot-com entrepreneur did not come without hitches. In one case, the ABC program Nightline was planning a report on Cougar Life and Opdenkelder in 2012 that appeared to worry Biderman. The former CEO expressed concern to a member of his public relations team about the segment, which he sensed might be turning into something meatier than the puff pieces that were more common.
“I don’t want this turning in to a witch hunt,” Biderman wrote. “We don’t want the site and Claudia to look like ‘frauds.’”
Cougar Life was one of two new websites Avid Life launched with a big splash in 2009. The other was the sugar-daddy site Established Men.
Simone Dadoun-Cohen was described as alternately as the “founder,” “creator” or “CEO” of Established Men, on The Tyra Banks Show, ABC News and elsewhere. Her backstory was that she was inspired to start the site after putting herself through college as a stripper at the Toronto men’s club, The Brass Rail, where she met her future husband.
By 2012, she was no longer the public face of Established Men, which had Biderman trying to figure out how to handle media requests for her. In a 2013 e-mail exchange, Biderman and Avid Life’s former public relations manager Shari Cogan discuss how to respond if reporters ask about Dadoun-Cohen and whether they should ask her to do one more interview for a Toronto Life feature on sugar-daddy dating.
By 2012, Avid Life had launched The Big and the Beautiful. Thompson repeatedly described herself as president and founder of the company in interviews.
In January of 2012, Thompson was about to embark on a PR blitz related to a rejected Super Bowl advertisement for The Big and the Beautiful — having ads rejected was something that also helped generate earned publicity for the more risqué website, Ashley Madison. A member of Avid Life’s public relations team e-mailed Biderman to get his approval for a list of suggested responses that Thompson could offer to questions from reporters they might anticipate.
A question like: how does a brand new website like The Big and Beautiful afford a commercial on the Super Bowl? The suggested response was that she had raised more than $ 15 million in venture capital funding — sounding like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. If asked about her site’s connection to Avid Life, Thompson was to explain that she “sub-contracted the technology” to the Toronto-based company.
By August of that year, however, Thompson’s relationship with the company had taken a sour turn. Apparently unhappy with The Big and the Beautiful’s growth, Avid Life wanted to negotiate a pay cut for Thompson, dropping her rate for appearances on U.S. national television from $ 2,000 to $ 1,500 and her rate for interviews in U.S. national newspapers from $ 1,500 to $ 1,000. Her agent sent an e-mail protesting the offer. “We also have issues with protection for Whitney against future questions,” he wrote. Thompson appears to have ceased working as a spokeswoman for the site soon after, with no further mentions of her in the media or in the leaked e-mails.
The company also looked at finding ways to connect itself to bigger-name celebrities: it appears to have engaged in serious discussions with Frank Sorrentino, the reality television personality best-known as the big brother of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino on Jersey Shore. In exchange for representing himself as the president of another sugar-daddy site, Arrangement Finders, Avid Life offered to pay Sorrentino $ 2,000 to $ 4,000 for appearances on U.S. national television, $ 250 for quotes in print publications and $ 500 for interviews on national radio.
Sorrentino, Biderman and other Avid Life staff exchanged many e-mails, but in the end he appears to have decided against it; there seem to be no mentions of him as the president of the website in the media. Sorrentino did not respond to a request for comment.
Opdenkelder stayed with Cougar Life until 2013. Following a dispute over a promotional trip to Africa that Avid Life was not happy with, the company sent her a termination letter on Jan. 9 of that year.
In March, Opdenkelder served the company with a lawsuit seeking more than $ 750,000 in damages for reasons including lost income and mental distress. According to her statement of claim, she had been making a monthly retainer of $ 2,000 plus fees for each media appearance.
As the case was settled, her claims were never tested in court. But in Avid Life’s statement of defence and countersuit, the company admits that Opdenkelder was not who she claimed to be in interviews. “For the purposes of media interviews and promotion of Cougarlife.com only, Cougar Life allowed Opdenkelder adopt a public persona as ‘founder’ and or ‘president’ of Cougar Life in the course of providing the Services to increase her credibility as spokesperson for Cougarlife.com,” the company stated. “In reality, Opdenkelder did not perform any duties or services as ‘president’ other than those related to spokesperson, as set out in the Consulting Agreement. In the same way, Opdenkelder was not the founder of Cougarlife.com in any way.” Opdenkelder’s statement of defence agrees: “she was not in fact the president and founder of Cougar Life.”
The spokeswomen may not have been the founders, presidents or chief executives of the websites they promoted, but some elements of their backstories do appear to be true. Opdenkelder has been talking about and making public appearances with her much-younger partner for years and has repeatedly said they got married in 2011 (according to the profiles of her that ran, Opdenkelder would now be in her mid-forties).
Dadoun-Cohen has changed her name, and promotes herself on her website, simonesinclaire.com, as a nutritionist, hypnotherapist, and personal trainer. She writes “I am a Shapeshifter. In another life, I was a bit of a sexpert.” She is also a competitive bikini body builder.
The Ashley Madison leaks, however, suggest that relying on unsuspecting reporters was part of Avid Life’s media method. A recent mea culpa in Toronto Life magazine by one of those reporters alleged that Biderman used friends of his to pose as Established Men members for a profile in the magazine. In another e-mail chain where staff are trying to decide who to attribute quotes to in a press release for Established Men, Biderman suggests making up a name. A member of the public relations team offers to play the role of “Vanessa Charles,” an apparently fictional spokeswoman, in phone interviews.
Julie Beun, a freelance journalist, sat down with Opdenkelder and her partner for a lengthy profile that ran in the Ottawa Citizen in 2010. She acknowledges that it would have been unlikely her editor would have been as interested in a story about the dating service without the ingredient of a strong, beautiful female founder who was really living the cougar life.
“Is it sucky of her to have done it? Yeah. Am I surprised? No,” Beun said. “It’s called marketing. It kind of pisses you off as a journalist that you got taken, but at the same time, I get it.”