Aloha Cuddle Company: Embracing the 'touchy-feely'

by Chance Nakazato
photos by Almendro Fernandez
 
Lealyn Poponi is a professional cuddler. For $1 a minute and with sessions of 30 minutes to five hours, Aloha Cuddle will come to any O‘ahu location for a platonic cuddle session.
 
Poponi, who previously worked at an early childhood education nonprofit in Kalihi, is an inherently affectionate individual. With no issues with physical contact and her active involvement in the cuddling community, many of her friends — including recently hired professional cuddler Tyler Miller — persuaded her to start Hawai‘i's first cuddle company.
 
“I just really want to be there for people who don’t live in the (cuddle) community that Tyler and I enjoy,” Poponi said. “We have friends that are constantly holding hands, we’re having ‘cuddle puddles,’ we’re hugging each other. We have the type of friends that hug upon greeting each other, a kiss on the cheek, and are very affectionate. Not just physically but verbally with each other saying ‘I love you’ and ‘you’re awesome’ and ‘I care about you.’ A lot of people don’t have that.”
 
Modeled after a successful Portland, Oregon, cuddle company called Cuddle Up To Me, Aloha Cuddle has numerous appointments under its belt as well as its own website, Facebook page and advertising.
 
The Service
Cuddling-for-hire is becoming a popular service. In places like Detroit, Houston, Oregon and even Japan, thousands of clients book regular sessions. One cuddling session can consist of anything from talking story to watching a movie. Cuddle sessions are strictly platonic making massage, nudity, sex and any form of sexual contact impermissible.
 
Potential clients are encouraged to book a free, initial screening appointment. Initial screenings are also effective to determine compatibility with a professional cuddler.
 
“You shouldn’t make (a) decision before you’ve even met with us,” Poponi said. “Because your fears may be coming from a place of uncertainty, and there’s no hard feelings if you meet us and it’s not your thing. But you shouldn’t make up your mind before you’ve met with us and let us answer your questions.”
 
Since Aloha Cuddle has no official location, sessions can be held anywhere on the island from public parks, beaches and even Magic Island. As Aloha Cuddle continues to grow and more professional cuddlers are hired, clients will be able to book multiple cuddlers for one session, with an increased fee.
 
“(Cuddling) is about having someone there with you, to have that physical connection but also having someone to listen to you,” Miller said. “We’re there to listen, we’ll be your therapist for an hour — we can’t really give you psychological help or anything that you can get with a real therapist — but if you just need someone to listen to you, talk about your day, about your week, whatever you feel like you need a stranger for, we provide that, too.”
 
The Benefits
Whether it’s utilizing Aloha Cuddle’s services, going to a cuddle party or being with a friend, positive touch provides surprising benefits.
 
According to Poponi, numerous scientific studies support the claim that touch — or in this case cuddling — releases Oxytocin, aka the “Love hormone,” providing substantial psychological and biological health benefits.
 
“Studies are showing that it lowers your risk of heart disease. They’re using it to treat arthritis — even PTSD and all sorts of things,” Poponi said. “Anxiety, stress, it helps you sleep better at night. … I can say that’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be offering the service because it does have a long list of benefits. But of course we can’t guarantee that (the benefits) in any way or promote it as such.”
 
College students can reap substantial benefits from cuddling, especially during times of increased stress, like midterms and finals. As a recent college graduate, Miller revealed some possible benefits for current college students.
 
“As a person who just left college, it gets so real,” Miller said. “I would assume that it’s just as stressful in Hawai‘i as it is in Kentucky but sometimes you just want to cuddle up to somebody — I’m assuming guys feel that way too — but there were so many times where I was just like ‘I need someone to just hold me right now.’ So it would’ve been cool if I could just call someone up and (be) like ‘okay I’m having a nervous breakdown, come snuggle me for thirty minutes.’ College students can use it for that.”
 
Poponi believes another benefit to Aloha Cuddle’s services is gaining experience in interactions with the opposite sex. Even if clients don’t receive direct feedback from sessions, the experience itself should prepare them for future interactions like dating, while also increasing comfortability and confidence.
 
The Challenges
Starting a company in Hawai‘i can prove difficult, let alone a company whose main service involves prolonged physical interaction. When Poponi first began Aloha Cuddle, she had her doubts, but she also received support from friends and other professionals.
 
“Ninety percent of people that I’ve talked to professionally, have been really positive,” Poponi said. “I’m just sort of waiting for someone to judge me and most people haven’t.”
 
Poponi utilized a free University of Hawai‘i program for entrepreneurs and business start ups; where professionals and advisors walk aspiring owners through the process of starting a business. She also received encouragement from a lawyer who testified to the success cuddle companies around the world, and an advertising company who offered discounted services.
 
One interaction was not as positive. When applying for a business credit card, Poponi met resistance from a bank associate who found her idea of a cuddling company, absurd. “When I called and asked for a business credit card, I had to fill out an application and this man called me back from the bank and said ‘we can’t give you a business credit card because we don’t give business credit cards to cuddling companies,’” Poponi said “I was like ‘well it’s a legit business. I have a tax ID, I’m registered with the state and I have a lawyer,’”
 
Miller revealed some of the challenges each of them have had to deal with from personal standpoints.
 
“Before people understand what it means, it sounds like ‘okay you’re going to go and touch strangers and snuggle up to strangers… But that was challenging, to figure out how to explain this to my family because it’s not a really common thing.”
 
Currently, there is a significantly smaller market for male cuddlers. Poponi reasoned that women are not surrounded by the same type of stigma as men.
 
“There isn’t a market for male cuddlers because women touch each other more, so we’re not as touch deprived as guys are,” Poponi said “We don’t have to worry about that pressure to not look gay, like it’s socially acceptable for girls to touch each other, hold hands, play with each others hair and no one’s going to be like ‘you’re a lesbian, that’s gross,’ like some people might.”
    
Future Prospects
A year from now, Poponi hopes to have a larger staff — four to five additional cuddlers — and cuddle sessions booked daily.
 
“Right now, it’s about every other week we have a cuddle — I just started in June — so we’ve had two clients and I’m happy with that,” Poponi said. “I mean I have two other jobs, and it’s not something I’m putting a whole lot of, it’s not a financial need right now for me to have cuddling I just want it because I want the business to happen and I want it to grow.”
 
In terms of those who want to start their own company, or get involved in the cuddling scene, Poponi feels that there are certain criteria to fulfill.

“As far as cuddling, no one can really train you to do that. You’re either into it or you’re not, so you shouldn’t be starting a cuddling business unless you love to touch people,” Poponi said. “I just started it in June and I’ve always put on events, I’ve always been a gatherer of people around cool ideas. So the cuddle puddle (and) the cuddle parties will be easy for me, I just need to do it.”