Anyone who has dipped a toe into online dating will be familiar with the fatigue that comes from a long evening spent swiping right on unsuitable matches. Surely, you think, there must be a dating pool of cooler, better-looking people hanging out elsewhere?
There is. They are on Raya, the secretive, members-only app dubbed “Illuminati Tinder” and “the Soho House of dating apps”, which is rumoured to be crawling with celebrities.
These rumours remain rumours because Raya has stringent privacy rules. Making Screenshots in the app prompts a warning message or a temporary ban and discussing other users publicly could result in being booted off entirely.
That hasn’t stopped the rumour mill from churning. The celebrities said to have been seen on Raya range from Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck – pre JLo, Channing Tatum and Matthew Perry) models (Cara Delevingne) and British heartthrobs (Harry Styles, Paul Mescal, Niall Horan).
This week it was reported that after “struggling” with the dating apps used by the masses – Hinge, Tinder, et al – former Lioness and football pundit Alex Scott downloaded Raya on her friend Jamie Redknapp’s recommendation, and is now said to be happily dating the singer Jess Glynne.
Raya is not cheap. A standard membership is £16.99 per month, and Raya+, which offers added features, is £44.99 per month. But to even join the app, which launched in 2015, you must undergo an application process that can take weeks or months, overseen by a secret committee of members. At one point, there was a 100,000 person waiting list. According to the New York Times, only eight per cent of applicants are accepted, meaning that you technically have a higher chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge universities.
Alice (not her real name), a 36-year-old Londoner, was one of the lucky ones. She was “terribly excited” when her application was approved almost instantly in early 2020. “The swiping began. And quickly ended,” she says. “Raya only shows you a handful of users at a time, supposedly to encourage a ‘community of exclusivity’, or other such guff, with the option of paying a fiver for more.”
For Alice, there was another issue: “Only a fraction [of users] were based in London, as I was.” She assumes the average user is “so jetset, monied, cool or carefree that they can whip up a date when passing spontaneously through Monaco, say, or LA.”
Were they at least a higher calibre of match? “I soon found myself playing an amusing game of Raya bingo,” she says, “clocking recurring tropes including, but not limited to, a Patek Philippe Nautilus watch; a photo from Burning Man [festival]; at least one holiday snap from Tulum/Ibiza/Mykonos (delete as appropriate); a manly pursuit such as rock climbing or posing with a sushi platter at Nobu.”
Alice’s Raya career was short-lived but, ultimately, a success. “I did manage to secure a tryst with an actor on whom I’d a long-term crush. We had a passionate and fleeting dalliance… and never spoke again. To my mind, this is what I had come for.”
Elise (not her real name), now 42, also started using Raya in 2020 – and has used it sporadically since. “Obviously, you have to be recommended and invited, you have to have at least two references,” she says. “But I was having difficulty getting [accepted]. Finally, I got an email from someone who works there, and they were struggling to [vet] me because I have a private Instagram. It shows you the calibre of the people on there that they asked me to send my personal website or Imdb [Internet movie database] page.”
Once she was finally in, Elise’s experience was largely positive, although no relationship went beyond a first date. Her matches were “very friendly and kind. And it felt really easy,” although “everyone can be quite vague with what they do… A lot of investors, self-employed entrepreneurs, [people in] media, DJs, guitarists…” She, too, was put off by a high proportion of “poncy” profiles and photos of Burning Man.
Raya began as an app with a focus on the creative industries – its founder, Daniel Gendelman, has said it is supposed to feel like a “digital dinner party”. It has since broadened its scope, but only so far. “I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but you’re not going to get someone saying, ‘I’m a plumber’,” says Elise.
She says there is a directory of members categorised by profession: models, songwriters, professional athletes and actors, as you would expect, but also events and marketing managers, doctors, and countless other (still “cool”) industries. It is a myth that every other profile is a celebrity, but Elise herself has seen two A-listers and a handful of other actors she knows from American TV shows.
However, the users I speak to say even the non-celebs are similarly young, successful and attractive. “The aesthetic standard on the app was very high,” says Nell Hudson, actress and author of Just for Today, who used the app in 2019. “The calibre of women was intimidating. I’ve had friends say this about being on [other apps], but on Raya, the other women did make me feel very slug-like… [But] I did meet a boyfriend there who I was with for about 18 months, so it was successful for me to some extent. I got a lovely relationship out of it.”
It’s oddly reassuring that, when it comes down to it, celebrities looking for love have resorted to the same tactics as the rest of us: lying on the sofa swiping right.