Deborah Copaken & Daniel Jones, MODERN LOVE

Deborah Copaken & Daniel Jones, MODERN LOVE

Zibby Owens: Welcome, everybody. I have a whole group here today on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Do you want to introduce yourselves? I’ve never done a so-many-people podcast.

Deborah Copaken: A panel. I’m Deb Copaken. I wrote the article for the Modern Love story.

Justin McLeod: I’m Justin McLeod, founder of Hinge, interviewee in the Modern Love story.

Kate McLeod: I’m Kate McLeod. I have a company that makes body moisturizers. I also called off a wedding and came back for my first love, Justin, because of this whole Modern Love story, which we’ll get to.

Daniel Jones: I’m Dan Jones, the editor of Modern Love column at The New York Times.

Zibby: I had a glimpse at the editing after Dan tore apart the bio I wrote about him. Oh, my gosh. Maybe it’s because he’s the editor at this column at a major newspaper, but now I’m totally embarrassed by my commas or whatever else I did wrong.

Dan: There were some clarifications.

Zibby: That’s okay. I can take it. I’m good with edits. Who wants to jump in and tell the story of what happened?

Deborah: Justin, why don’t you start? I’ll fill in.

Justin: Sure, I can start. I don’t even know where to begin, really. I’ll start in the middle.

Deborah: In medias res, as they say.

Justin: Yeah, in medias res. This really started because I was running Hinge back in 2014. I got a call or an email from Deborah asking — you were looking for a job or a story.

Deborah: I was looking for stories. At the time, I had just gotten a job at That then became That then blew up. I needed to produce a story every single day. What am I going to write about today? I met this amazing guy on Hinge. Why don’t I interview the CEO of Hinge? That would be a fun story. “How did you start your dating app?” We met.

Justin: You came to me. You’re like, “I downloaded this app. The first guy who popped up for me, I matched with. Now we’re in love. How did you figure this out? What did you do?” I was lucky. I got lucky. We had a great interview — it was very standard — about the founding of Hinge and how we got here. We were wrapping up. You were getting up to —

Deborah: — I had to go pick up my kid at school. I was like, “I’ve got to go. Shoot.”

Justin: She asked this one final question which was, “Have you ever been in love?” It was a throwaway question. She was running out the door. I was like, “Once a long time ago, but I didn’t recognize it until it was too late.” She stopped and turns. She asked me to tell her the story. I told her the story of Kate, of my college girlfriend that I was totally in love with. I screwed it up because I have a very sordid past of drugs and alcohol and all kinds of rehabs. It was a wild story. I, at the end of it all, told Kate to save herself and run away, which she wisely did. Then four years later after I’d cleaned up my act, I had reached back out to her while I was in business school. She politely declined my — I reached out to her to say, “At least, let’s meet up.” You were living in London at this time. It’s such a long story. Kate had moved to London. I reached out to her. She said no. I was heartbroken. Deborah pulled out of me that, really, Kate was the reason for Hinge. I was heartbroken, and then the idea for Hinge spawned a few weeks later. That was it.

Deborah: I said to you at the time, “You just emailed her? If you really love her, you’ve got to go after her.” I told him the story of this guy that I was dating back in 1989 who I met in Jamaica. Then we spent a beautiful week in London together. He was supposed to show up in Paris and never showed up. I thought he’d stood me up. I found out twenty years later, because that was back in the day before email and Facebook and being able to keep track of people, that he had showed up in Paris but had lost the piece of paper with my phone number on it and ended up staying at a youth hostel all weekend. It’s so sad. When this young man and I met up twenty years later, both married with three kids, love doesn’t go away. It just is there. I told him the story. If you love her, don’t end up like me twenty years later regretting not going after this person. I thought I was stood up. Put your body where your beliefs are.

Kate: Thank you for that. Justin jumped over it, but it had been four years of many back-and-forths, even on my part. I transferred universities to get my life back together. When love happens and it’s true and it’s real like that, it can really render you — I was so distraught emotionally. I couldn’t get anything done. When he had come back after four years of silence, I thought I can’t trust this. I can’t do it again. I needed a little bit more of a grand gesture. I needed to know he was really serious.

Justin: I was afraid to do that because having screwed it up so many times before, really putting yourself out there — in retrospect, it really was my risk, but it was the risk of hurting her again. I was afraid to put myself out there so much because then she would maybe actually come back.

Deborah: Then you’d have to deal with intimacy.

Justin: Then I would screw it up again. That was the big fear for me. You told me to go over there. I’m like, “Listen crazy lady, it’s been seven years. She’s getting married in a couple months. She lives over in Europe. It’s too late.” You’re like, “It’s never too late. You’ve got to go.”

Deborah: It’s never too late. Also, she’s been engaged for two years. That’s a long engagement.

Zibby: Bad sign.

Kate: Justin sent this one final email in February of 2015. He actually thought I still lived in London. I was living in Switzerland at the time. He said, “I can’t believe I’m never going to see you again. I’m going to be in London launching Hinge next week. Meet me for coffee, just fifteen minutes, hello, goodbye.” I got it. Something in me, I had never stopped thinking about Justin. I really hadn’t.

Justin: Quick interjection. After that one time I reached out and she said no, then I would write her at least every year on her birthday. Sometimes it would be like, “I can be friends now. Maybe we can be friends.” Then the next one would be like, “I’ll come over to London with an engagement ring, anything.” I was always summarily ignored. I didn’t even know whether she was getting them. Maybe she blocked me. I didn’t know.

Kate: Of course, I was getting them.

Justin: Until I sent the engagement one, at which point I got blocked on all forms of social media.

Kate: I’m going to cut in there. The thing is, when we finally split up, I came to this internal realization. I assumed that the love wasn’t reciprocated and that what you should look for in life is a really good friendship and partnership, but anything that passionate is going to blow up. Avoid that. I met someone when I came to New York. We were really good friends. We were together for seven years. The reason that none of those emails were responded to is — we did have that one point of communication in 2010. We had one phone call. Then after that, whenever I would get one of these emails, I would actually open them up with my ex. We would read them together. I did not want there to be any secrets. I remember telling him about that first phone call. I remember saying, “This is your relationship. I didn’t want to hide things. If I get contacted again, we’re a team. Let’s open this together. We’ll read it together.”

Dan: You wouldn’t respond?

Kate: No, I didn’t respond.

Justin: Kate didn’t know how to block emails.

Kate: He’s the tech one. I work with my hands. After that email that he did send, I think it was in 2013, that said, “I would come over with an engagement ring,” my ex was getting ready to propose. That one really struck a chord, and you were blocked. I never stopped thinking about him, though. It did start to dawn on me that maybe this wasn’t as one sided as I thought it had been all of that time. I was approaching my wedding. The thing that really bothered me was that I was still thinking. There was this nagging. It was this little thing in the back of my mind that kept popping up. I was still thinking of this other person. When I did get that last email — for anyone listening, that little gurgling noise is our baby who’s five months old.

Zibby: I was going to say that, but I didn’t want to give away the ending.

Justin: It turns out we ended up together. Spoiler alert.

Zibby: Thank you. Now I can talk about the baby.

Kate: When I got that email, there was something that went off in my head. You know what? This one’s for me. It’s the only one I didn’t share. It’s the only I responded to.

Zibby: That was that.

Justin: Sort of. There was obviously a lot more that happened. What happened on my end was, it was a couple months later. I was out at dinner. As I was walking out of this dinner in New York, as I was walking out of the restaurant, out of the corner of my eye I saw Kate’s best friend from college who I hadn’t seen in forever. I walked over. We started chatting. We ended up walking out together. It was raining, so we caught a cab together towards the West Village. We were talking about Kate. I got out of the car. I went upstairs. I’m like, I’m going to send one last email even though I’ve been blocked on social media and she never responds to my emails. That was that email. When I woke up the next morning and I had a response, it was like —

Dan: — What’d she say?

Justin: She said, “DM me on Instagram.”

Kate: I was so hoping you weren’t going to say that.

Zibby: So romantic.

Kate: If we’re going to be honest and all this comes out here, in wanting to not hide anything from my ex, he became a little paranoid and would check my emails. Moving on from that, I had a food blog back at the time. Food pictures were becoming really big on Instagram. I had just discovered these direct messages. Now I am sure that many elicit affairs go on, on DMs on Instagram. That was the only method of communication that I thought was going to be completely safe. I sent him my name.

Justin: We started chatting back and forth.

Kate: It was like we never stopped.

Justin: We started chatting a little bit. You’re like, “I can’t talk on this thing. It blew up my push notifications. I’ll talk to you this weekend. I’m going to be on my own. He’s travelling for work. I’ll talk to you this weekend. You can call me this weekend.” Then Deborah’s voice flashes in my head. “You’ve got to do something.”

Deborah: Don’t regret!

Justin: It was a Thursday morning. I, just like in the movies, drove to the airport, asked for a ticket to Switzerland, and got on the next plane and took a red eye.

Kate: I have to say, imagine it’s a February morning in Zurich. Zurich’s this stunning, beautiful city. The mountains are all around. It was cold. I was really excited to chat with him. I remember that morning, I got up early. I downloaded The Vow and The Notebook. This is true. This is me. I was all cuddled in bed in my pajamas drinking cocoa. I sent him a message, “I am ready to talk when you are.” It was almost instant I got, “I’m here.” I was like, “What do you mean you’re here? You’re here like you’re ready to speak?” He was like, “No, I just landed.”

Dan: You didn’t know he was flying?

Kate: No. I said I would speak to him on Friday morning, not in person.

Dan: That’s quite a move.

Deborah: That’s a grand gesture.

Justin: I was taking the advice.

Kate: I almost broke a tooth tripping to get into the tub to clean myself up.

Deborah: Then a few weeks later, he calls me up. He says, “I wanted to take you out to –” What was it? Gotham Bar and Grill?

Justin: Not a few weeks later. Literally the next day.

Deborah: He’s like, “I want to take you out to lunch to –”

Justin: — I sent you an email.

Kate: We were together.

Deborah: I didn’t know you were together.

Justin: We already decided that Kate’s coming back to America. It took us all of a day.

Kate: down at a café. Basically, we didn’t get up for eight hours. They were super sweet. We didn’t even order water. We just sat there talking.

Justin: We skipped over that. I let her know I’ve landed. She’s like, “Where are we meeting?” First of all, I didn’t sleep at all on the plane because I was so nervous. I was throwing up in the bathroom. It wasn’t super romantic. I was like, “I need to go to a hotel and sleep for a moment. I’ll meet you this afternoon.” I’ve got to say, part of it was a grand gesture. Honestly, part of it was closure. She was getting married in a month.

Dan: I was going to ask, where is the fiancé during this stretch? Did you live together?

Kate: Yes. He was out of town this weekend. I had never done anything like this before. We had our own problems. Whether or not Justin and I were going to work out or still going to work out, it’s actually a completely separate thing. We’ll get there, but it’s hard. There are human feelings involved.

Dan: I remember in the essay that, Deb, one of your reactions was, “Poor guy.” You started this whole in motion.

Deborah: Then you feel bad about it. You know what? I could just tell. Also, didn’t you read the silly article I wrote in

Kate: Not until we started speaking. Then he actually did send it to me. Things like that were so deeply meaningful to me and did carry so much gravitas and weight because I still didn’t believe that he could be really serious about this. He texted me, let me know he was in Zurich. We picked a café. I cannot tell you what it feels like, the energy coursing through your body when you’ve dreamt of someone for eight years. It was two weeks shy of eight years to the day since we had seen each other. You’re sitting at a café. You look up out the window. There that person is walking across the street. I can’t even go into what that does to your body. He came up. I’ll never forget. He walked in. He looked up at me. We made eye contact. He came over and he hugged me. I’m literally goosebumping out right now. I think I actually had to push you away. I couldn’t physically take it. It was too much. I could feel the energy running between us.

Justin: As I was about to say, I’ve changed so much in eight years. I’m sure she’s changed so much. We’re idealizing each other. I’m idealizing her at the very least.

Dan: You were undergraduates the last time you were together?

Justin: Basically, yeah. I was one year out. She was in her senior year. We’ve changed so much. We’re going to see each other. We’re going to laugh this off. I’m going to go on to London to the Hinge launch party and finally get closure and move on with my life. That’s not what happened. I knew within three minutes of sitting down and hanging out. What have I been doing with my life?

Zibby: Aw. This is so sweet. This is like When Harry Met Sally. You know the couch? They always had those little scenes. I feel like I’m just sitting here in my living room watching that movie right here. It’s amazing.

Justin: That was that. We sat down. Everyone was like, “How did it happen?” We were sitting there. She was like, “Obviously, I’m not calling off the wedding. It’s a month away. We’ll stay in touch,” and then a few hours later was like, “If I were going to call off the wedding…” Then by the end of it, it was like, “Okay, I think I’m calling off the wedding.” Then the next day we sent Deborah an email. “I have a funny story for you. Let’s get together for lunch next week.”

Deborah: It was much less explicit than that. It was more like, “Hey, I’d like to have lunch with you.”

Kate: I remember this. You were like, “I’m just going to tell her, ‘Let’s catch up.’” You hadn’t seen her since the article.

Deborah: You said, “I wanted to thank you for publishing the article. We got a lot of interest in the app.” This happens every once in a while as a journalist. You get invited to have a post-article publishing lunch. I walked up to the maître d’. I said, “I’m meeting Justin McLeod here. It’s table for two.” He was running behind me. He was like, “No, table for three.” I thought he’s bringing a publicist or something. Ugh. I said, “Three? Who are you talking about?” He goes, “Her.” Look at her hair. She was running because she was late. This beautiful strawberry blond hair running by the window in a pink coat, I will never forget that image ever.

Kate: I love that pink coat.

Deborah: I started crying.

Justin: You’re not even giving yourself enough credit. I said, “Table for three.” You turned and you were like, “No.” Then you just started crying. Then we sat down and Kate ran around the corner.

Deborah: I cried the whole lunch.

Dan: All of you have such Hollywood impulses in your own lives.

Deborah: I know, right?

Dan: The average person would not hold that information. They would email the person and say, “This is what happened. This is the story.” They wouldn’t save it for —

Deborah: — that moment.

Zibby: It’s cinematic.

Dan: Even in the essay itself, that was one of these moments. When I’m editing a piece and I’m reading it, even if it happened this way, it’s not believable. We may need to do some work here. The scene when you are gathering at the restaurant and the timing of that and all that, it’s just not believable.

Deborah: And yet…

Justin: Stranger than fiction, for sure.

Dan: And yet you convinced that me it was.

Deborah: Even in my head I said there was three weeks between the time that you emailed me, but no. It was from Switzerland?

Justin: It was from Switzerland. I’m like, Deborah’s going to love this.

Deborah: Oh, my god. Then I went back to my office. I told him this amazing story. Then I got fired.

Zibby: Oh, no!

Deborah: Scary Mommy, your friend —

Zibby: — I didn’t say it was my friend. I said I wrote one article for them.

Deborah: became Then we bought Scary Mommy. Then she became our editor. Soon after that, she calls me. She said, “You know Deb, every time I read one of your stories, I want to dumb it down and make it shorter.” I was like, “That’s not going to work for me.” I don’t know if I got fired or we just had a difference of opinion. I was going to write the story of their getting back together for Instead, I had to get a new job because I didn’t have a job anymore. I was going to work for The Observer, but then my boss was sexually harassing me. I ended up at this horrible PR firm which I’m not going to say the name of. That was where I was working, as a vice president at a PR firm, and writing on the subway there because I had an hour commute. You asked me, where did I write this article? On the freaking subway to my other job.

Zibby: Unbelievable. Then you just sent it?

Deborah: I sent it to Dan. Dan and I had worked together. I had done one other Modern Love. That first Modern Love, we did the edit while I was literally on the floor of a hospital about to go in for an appendectomy. Dan was like, “Are you okay? Shouldn’t you call someone besides me?” I knew Dan. He was the first person I thought of because it was a love story. It’s a love story.

Zibby: A Modern Love story.

Dan: Several times over.

Deborah: I sent it to you. You can tell the rest.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Dan: Modern Love has a lot of submissions, maybe eight or nine thousand a year. It takes us months and months to get through them. In Deb’s case, we’d worked together before. She’s a pro. She knows a good story when she sees one. I don’t remember how long it took me to get to it. I don’t think it was that long. I love these stories that have — what’s the movie? Sliding Doors?

Zibby: Favorite movie.

Dan: These missed opportunities, this had two of them playing off each other and informing each other. There were parts about it, they were true but unbelievable in a way like I said before, the ways that it worked and grand gesture. A lot of what I see today in stories that are submitted is this feeling that kind of romance is lost. We moved beyond that kind of — no one wants to be vulnerable in the way that Justin was describing. He would have to be vulnerable if he was going to do this. There are too many ways to protect ourselves from that. Technology was supposed to be the shortcut to love. Instead, it’s the armor against love in a lot of ways. That’s what we do with our phones and all that.

There’s this incredible yearning for connection and a sense of romance and a sense of grand gesture and really taking a risk. This story had all of that. It was a joy. It made sense of itself. Deb talking about how love from the past, that eternally quality of when you have that connection, it doesn’t really go away. It may change forms. It may be passed along to somebody else. There was a lot going on in the story. Some pieces, I edit a lot. I don’t remember. This needed to be worked on a lot. I know we talked about it and did some work to get it in shape. The real joy was seeing it picked for this Amazon series, with some changes, turning Justin into the hero and the . With some changes, it’s come to life. It’s going to be seen by a lot of people in about three weeks.

Zibby: So exciting. Did you get to pick the eight stories on which the series was based?

Dan: That was a process that involved the producers and the Amazon Studios executives. I’m the only one who knows the whole archive of Modern Love, at least mostly or most readily. John Carney, who’s the showrunner for the series, he probably read five or six hundred essays. He really read a lot. Then we shared lists of essays that we thought would be good for the series. It boiled down and boiled down and boiled down until I had this nice combination of eight essays. One of them was promising. It was also one of the hardest to put together. It was two current stories and then two past stories. Each episode took six days of shooting, which isn’t a lot. They had to do these two life stories in six days and then figure out how to edit them together in a way that was dramatic and told the whole thing. They made some shortcuts. They made some changes from the real story to make that happen. It made me weep when I finally saw the final .

Deborah: I cried too. I got called into The New York Times the other day. Dan said, “I’m going to show you the story.” He was interviewing me at the same time. The story is so different and so similar, meaning the truth of the story was kept. Seeing that truth on screen, I was weeping seeing it. It’s really good.

Dan: It’s emotional.

Justin: Do we get to see this thing?

Zibby: You haven’t seen it?

Justin: No. Not only that, I’ll tell you really quick that we were — Deborah called me one day randomly, I thought randomly, in New York.

Deborah: That was randomly.

Justin: She’s like, “Apparently, Amazon has partnered with The New York Times. They’re turning Modern Love into this anthology.” I’m like, “Cool.” She’s like, “Oh, yeah. Also, your story is the pilot.” I’m like, “That’s so cool.” She’s like, “Also, it’s being filmed right now in Gowanus. Today’s the last day of shooting.” I’m like, “Really?” She’s like, “Also, Dev Patel is playing you.” I call Kate. I’m like, “Kate, we’re news.”

Kate: I was like, “I am going.” I hopped in an Uber. I walked up on the set. It was a massive set.

Justin: There were like 150 people here.

Kate: They’re like, “Who are you?” I’m like, “I think this is my story.”

Justin: We snuck in as extras. I don’t know whether we made it into the final cut or not, but we tried to.

Kate: We’re in the front row of the launch party.

Justin: They changed the name of Hinge to Fuse. We were at the Fuse launch party watching Dev Patel up on stage launching my app. That was a surreal experience, another major Hollywood moment.

Dan: I actually have the episode on my laptop. I can show it to you.

Justin: Um, yes.

Deborah: Do you really?

Zibby: We’re turning off the podcast.

Kate: Talking about the truth and what was preserved and touching on — Justin can jump in here because he’s massively against digital addiction. That vulnerability, even just being on the set and getting the gist of what the episode was going to be about, I know that was kept, that risk that we both had to take. Let’s take down the walls. Let’s see if something’s still there. What was so unique about our connection is that, at least for me, Justin was my first love. When we first connected back in 2004, it was when I really started dating. I didn’t have any walls up. We did get to know each other. All of that did flow out. When you connect with someone on that level and you really share yourself, it’s more than just dating. It’s a friendship. It’s human connection. I do think we’re lacking that in today’s world.

Zibby: Deb’s crying again.

Deborah: I just moved in with my boyfriend into their neighborhood. Now I literally run them into them on the street.

Justin: She’s going to start babysitting.

Kate: It’s amazing.

Deborah: I came over the day they had their baby, two days later maybe, whatever. I’m bringing my camera. I shot some photos. It’s still weirdly overwhelming to feel that this love affair that happened back in 1989 that didn’t get a chance to live somehow lives on in that little baby in this room. It’s overwhelming.

Dan: It’s true.

Zibby: Unbelieve.

Justin: And not just there. The other relevant thing is that I was running a dating app at the time. Because of this whole story, I was running this app that was — it was just a swiping app. It was another one of those vulnerability shield swiping app things. This experience, because of you, because of us, taught me that love isn’t a volume game. It’s not about finding your perfect puzzle pieces. It’s softening your edges.

Dan: Did that influence how you designed the app?

Justin: Totally. Our story love, I was like, this is so wrong. This is so wrong, what we’re doing. I went to my board of directors. I said, “I know we’re growing. I know that everything’s going well. I know we have ten million dollars in the bank, but I want to tear it all down. I want to start over from scratch. I want to build something that actually helps people who are really looking for something find their person.”

Kate: I’m going to throw this in because you’re forgetting this. The weekend that he realized this, you stayed up. It was Thanksgiving of 2015. It was the same weekend this article was published in the newspaper. I remember the last two nights we were down at your home in Louisville, Kentucky. You literally did not go to bed. You just sat at the kitchen counter. You’re like, “I’m ripping . I’m redoing it.” It was the same weekend this article was published.

Justin: That’s so true. Literally, the day that this article came out is the day that I decided — wow, I’ve never even put that together.

Kate: You’re welcome.

Dan: I did play a role, then.

Justin: Totally. Now, not just this, but hundreds of thousands of couples, tens of thousands of marriages, thousands of babies.

Zibby: Because of your one question.

Justin: Because of that one question. Just think of the ripple effect of that.

Zibby: Unbelievable. Oh, my gosh. That’s crazy.

Deborah: I went into the subway the other day. I saw an ad for Hinge. It says, “We are the app that makes you want to get rid of our app.”

Justin: Designed to be deleted.

Deborah: Designed to be deleted, thank you. Better than — and I was the one that worked in PR.

Justin: Maybe we’ll reconsider our tag line.

Deborah: Again, this story makes me burst out crying all the time. I’m sitting in the subway. I see the ad. I’m like, . I know that he changed it after he met Kate. Now everybody that I talk to, all my single friends are like, “Hinge is the best.” It asks you these really vulnerable questions. You have to put yourself out there like that.

Kate: He rebooted the app. Then as the app started to develop and grow with time, then the prompts came on. That tracked with — when I first got back everyone was like, “This is a fairytale.” Yeah, but it’s two strangers living in a 340-square-foot studio who hadn’t seen each other in eight years. We had a lot of work to do. As we became more vulnerable with each other, that vulnerability is reflected on the prompts that came onto Hinge.

Dan: That’s so interesting. The most popular Modern Love column by far, actually, the most popular article in The New York Times, was the “36 Questions” that are all about vulnerability. It’s all about putting vulnerability on an equal footing so that both people have to participate equally. The scariest thing is who’s going to do it first? Who’s going to do it more? Those questions, which I imagine are the same kinds of things that you have as prompts, it’s a game, but it’s a game of integrity. It’s a game really works.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like the people in this room are responsible for all the love in the universe right now. I am blessed to be in .

Dan: Probably seventy percent of it.

Zibby: Our time is up. Thank you so much for sharing this story and for you, for getting this baby to be born and all this love to —

Deborah: — She had a little bit more to do with getting the baby than me.

Zibby: Good job, Kate.

Justin: I .

Kate: He did.

Zibby: Good job, Justin. Thanks for sharing your story with listeners of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Really appreciate it.

Justin: Thank you.

Deborah: Thanks, Zibby.

Dan: Thank you.

Kate: Thank you.

Deborah Copaken & Daniel Jones, MODERN LOVE