IT USED to be enough just to work as 'public relations' executives, usually in karaoke bars, or to wait for a call from the escort service. But even the world's most unacknowledged male profession has to change with the times. Some men are now strapping on sweatbands, lacing up their Reeboks and heading for physical fitness centres. These men are big, they're buffed, and they're laughing all the way to the bank. 'I don't want to divide my money with anyone, I am my own boss,' said Mark (not his real name), who has been going to health spas to pick up women for the past eight months. The American-Chinese prefers gyms for pick-ups as it allows him more freedom than working for an escort service or at a karaoke bar, and there is less chance of being caught by police. Mark, who is in his mid-20s, has been a gigolo for almost three years. He came to Hong Kong five years ago from Los Angeles to pursue a fine arts career, but found job opportunities limited. 'I couldn't find anything in fine arts so I worked in foreign exchange, real estate and for my uncle in his trading company,' he said. 'But those jobs didn't pay very well. I didn't make enough money to finance the lifestyle I was used to. I know money can't buy happiness - but it can definitely buy comfort.' 'I want to be in a situation where I can generate money even when I'm asleep.' Mark began by responding to a newspaper advertisement for PR karaoke waiters. He worked at the bar for two years before going solo. 'I learned the tricks of the trade and now I'm working freelance,' he said. A former gigolo, 33-year-old Brandon, said: 'The prime objective of being a gigolo is to see how much money you can get from them [the clients]. The most effective way is by making them feel sorry for you.' 'You have to be an excellent judge of character so that you know exactly what to say in order to push the right buttons,' he said. 'When working in a private women's club at Repulse Bay, we were told not to wear expensive clothes, we had to use cheap lighters and wear watches bought from street vendors. I've had women buy me literally bags of clothes, Rolex watches, gold lighters and many other things.' The advantage of a private club over an escort service is that the women can go to the club to choose the man she wants as company. Mark, a member of four fitness facilities, works out every day across the territory: in Tsim Sha Tsui, Causeway Bay and Central. He goes to one gym every morning for aerobics and another in the afternoon for weights and machines, the third for its swimming pool twice a week, and he hangs out with male friends at the fourth. Mark usually works out alone so he is free to move when he spots a potential target. He begins by monitoring her activities for two to three weeks before making a move. 'I try to see if she exercises alone, if she is exercising right or breathing correctly. If not, I go over and see if I can help her,' Mark said. 'I treat her nicely and talk to her so she won't feel too lonely. Then I see if she leaves alone before I decide whether to make my move. People at the gym don't suspect what I am, they just think I'm a playboy. Very often, men ask me what my secret is.' Mark prefers older, mature women, and directs his efforts towards local women with whom he has more time to wine and dine. Many European women turn out to be tourists. 'Of all the women I've approached in a gym, 60 to 70 per cent are now my clients,' Mark said. 'When I first approach these women, I pretend I'm trying to pick them up. 'When I think they're interested, I give them my business card.' The cards, printed with the words 'Mark - at your service', convey his message. He admits many women are genuinely surprised when they realise he is a gigolo - then they are intrigued. Contrary to popular belief, being a gigolo has little to do with sex. 'Most of these women just want a good listener,' Brandon said, adding they usually seek only companionship. 'There are many types of women who hire gigolos. One type is lonely, old, possibly widowed. Another is the unattractive and overweight type. Sometimes they are attractive, executive women who do not have time for relationships but still need to satisfy their needs. From time to time, we even get some celebrities. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all very rich,' Brandon said. Milky, an attractive 22-year-old actress, is among the wealthy women who form the clientele, although she tends to frequent clubs. 'I go just for the fun of it,' she said. 'Sure it's expensive; it's not unusual to spend over $15,000 in one evening but I can afford it.' She said her activities were not that different from going to a karaoke bar or disco. 'We sit there, have a few drinks and sing. However, there is a level of superiority I feel when I know I can control the escort sitting with me. Money is power.' 'I have slept with only 10 of my clients - and I've had more than 40. I'm very selective,' Mark said. He claims to have no fear of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD). 'I am very cautious concerning sex. I always practise safe sex and I have regular check-ups every three months; I've never been exposed to any STDs before,' he said. 'Women usually want to live out their sexual fantasies with me. I've never had a woman who was into sadism and masochism or bondage; nothing kinky but we would play various sex games.' Brandon, who was a gigolo for two-and-a-half years, said he had slept with only six of his clients. The potential pitfalls of 'dating' so many women trained Brandon to develop an excellent memory. 'I have to remember who I saw each movie with and when I saw it with them. The best way around it is just to say I've never seen any movies before, so I might end up seeing one movie five times!' Another lesson learned was never to hold hands with a woman in public. To avoid that, Brandon would always carry a mobile phone in one hand and a shopping bag in another. He didn't mind a woman walking arm in arm with him because 'it's not unusual to see my mother or my aunt walking like that with me'. Brandon describes escort services as 'less expensive and lower class. When you call up an escort service, it is usually for sex. The club I worked for was very classy and discreet.' One former owner of a private women's club in Happy Valley, 36-year-old JL, said he entered this business out of curiosity. 'A friend from Taiwan told me these clubs were very hot there, and he proposed a partnership,' he said. 'In six months, business skyrocketed. We opened a few more in Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Causeway Bay, Repulse Bay and Kowloon Tong.' Companionship comes at a premium. Brandon said he would make $200,000 by accompanying a client on a week-long vacation. Each sexual encounter rang up an additional $5,000. But Mark said as freelancers, 'we can modify our rates according to a woman's looks, her personality and whether or not we enjoy being with her'. Brandon and Mark defend their business as a kind of game for high rewards. 'So many women are using men's money - why not the other way around?' Brandon said. And everyone, male or female, has a limited 'shelf life', a factor Mark is well aware of. 'I just want to save up enough money to start my own business,' he said. Brandon, too, had saved his earnings and now owns a trading company. But the experience does take its toll. After 'seeing these women cheat on their husbands and go with different men every time', JL says he has 'totally lost faith in women' and regrets having entered the business.