Angelina Jolie played one. Nicole Kidman had a role as another. A movie about one even won an award at the Sundance film festival.
They're mail-order brides. And like the personals and escorts, they are part of the romantic world's dark corners, found in the back pages of magazines.
For many people, their place is justified. Critics paint the practice as exploitative and crass, as morally dubious as prostitution.
They point to the gaps between the involved parties: old men from the wealthy first world, paired up with young women from the impoverished third, who often don't share the same cultural background, much less the same language.
Then there are the widely reported nightmare stories: young women abused, or even killed by their undesirable mates, and desperate, lonely men duped out of fortunes by conniving sirens.
But the practice also has supporters. Those who have engaged in these relationships say they are more successful than traditional relationships and they say their unions are as natural as any other.
As in all matters of the heart, the issue is more complicated than can be assessed at first glance.
A Personal Story
There are no official figures on the number of mail-order brides globally, but with the growing interconnectedness of the world, and the rising popularity of the Internet as a form of communication, many in the industry say mail-order brides are becoming an increasingly popular option.
Delaney Davis is one of these people. He is the owner of several Web sites, among them FilipinaWife.com, for those interested in finding a bride from the Philippines.
Davis, 60, is not only the seller: he's also a consumer too. A little over a year ago, he married an 18-year-old from the Philippines. The two had been corresponding since she was 16, Davis said. He was her first boyfriend.
Davis says there's nothing unnatural about such a relationship. Young women in his wife's home country, as well as many other areas of the globe, look for older men, he said.
"The young men [in impoverished countries like the Philippines] have no means of supporting a wife," he said. Even without considering foreigners, young women naturally gravitate towards older men "to provide stability and the respect factor," he said.
It was also natural for men like him to search for a wife overseas, Davis said. Most of his applicants are middle-aged, divorced, and when they re-enter the dating scene in the United States, they find many women their age have "obvious psychological scars," he said. "They'll say 'you're just like my ex-boyfriend.'"
Younger women, on the other hand, just aren't interested in older men, he said. And the chances of meeting a potential mate also gets slimmer as you get older, said Mike Krosky, the president of Cherry Blossoms — a company which claims to be the oldest in this industry.
"When people get into their 30s and 40s there not a lot of opportunities to meet somebody," he said. Krosky noted that some clients were from small towns, where the dating pool was limited.
The Other Side
Defenders of the "mail-order bride" industry are quick to point out that the women in these relationships seek out the men as much as the men seek them out.
In fact, they object to the term "mail-order bride," and prefer terms like "pen pal" relationship, or "international matchmaking," because, they say, the process is far more involved and far less one-sided than picking a T-shirt out of a catalog.
Women who want to take part have a hand in initiating the process. If they decide they want a foreign mate, they can submit their photos and profiles to any one of hundreds of Internet sites or mail-order catalogs, often for free.
Western men looking for a bride then pay a subscription or entry fee to catalogs and Web sites like Cherry Blossoms and FilipinaWife to peruse these profiles, and decide who they want to court.
Owners of these businesses say that what goes on are not cold, commercial transactions: young wives for passports to the first world. They say they encourage real relationships, by stressing the importance of regular communication.
Krosky, for example, says he offers a money-back satisfaction guarantee — but the client would have to contact at least 100 prospective wives before the money was returned.
Philip Ovalsen, owner of ActionPersonals.com, said most of the men who had a bad experience with his site were the sort to "send, like, one line to the women." He said he had four words of advice for men writing to potential wives: "Be interested in her."
‘Darn Good Reputation’
They could also cite plenty of reasons why Western men would be desirable.
"American guys, we get a bad rap sometime but when you go on a worldwide level, we have a darn good reputation," Krosky said. He cited stories about women with doctorates forced to serve coffee because their culture was so patriarchal.
"Men in desperate situations tend to drink to their frustrations and take it out on their wives," said Ovalsen, 56, who has a 29-year-old Filipina wife.
One notable feature of many of the ads from China and Russia, was that the women asked that potential suitors be sober, Krosky said.
There is also the lure of American residency. Many applicants "are college graduates looking for a chance for a new life," Davis said.
"But [because of the state of the Philippine economy] they'll be lucky to get a job as a sales clerk."
The reason Western men pursue foreign women, though, is often a source of dispute.
Many sponsors and participants of these "pen pal" relationships promote the traditional values of women from the underdeveloped world, and their suitability for marriage. "American women have lost that through women's lib," Davis said.
The first listing that comes up in a Web search for "Mail Order Brides" is "The Mail Order Bride Warehouse."
Critics say these descriptions create unrealistic expectations and propagate stereotypes — conditions that are especially dangerous when women take on the nature of chattel, they say.
While many of the relationships are based on correspondence, they do start with catalogs that often reduce a person to little more than a photo and vital statistics — like height, weight, and even bust size.
One report out of Australia, which is a leading destination for mail-order brides, found that Filipina women aged 20-39 there were six times more likely to be victims of violence than their local counterparts. The researchers said most of those suspected, charged or convicted were either the women's spouse or de facto partner.
Even agency owners admitted some of their male applicants might be socially inept, but many of them preferred to term it "shy."
A Question of Control
Krosky and Ovalesen are careful to warn that their relationships are seldom about control.
Many men who had a bad experience have "done stupid things in their quest for a nice submissive bride and consequently been ripped off or at least disappointed that foreign women have as many brains as Western women," Ovalsen said.
"I know plenty of Filipinos, Chinese, that if they're not happy they won't stay," Krosky said.
Supporters of the industry are keen to point out that the divorce rate among mail-order brides is significantly less than for the general population of the developed world. But critics say this is only a sign of other problems.
Women are often afraid to leave such relationships because the men have all the power, they say. In many cases, the women "don't have any support systems in this country and may have both language and cultural barriers," said Vivian Itchon Gupta, of the Philippine women's group GABRIELA.
Gupta said while the women might initiate these relationships, there are times they are still victims, lured by recruiters with false promises of a better life.
Call for Legislation
Critics of the mail-order industry don't deny that good relationships can result from these arrangements, but they say the potential for exploitation is immense.
In 1990, the Philippines enacted a law making it illegal to advertise mail-order bride agencies after it was found that many women who had married through these channels had been forced into slavery or servitude.
Ironically, some men in the Western world argue that they also need protection — that women in these arrangements also exploit them for their citizenship, or their wealth.
But so far, it appears to be a very difficult thing to legislate love — or anything that looks like it.