For a married woman, a night out at a bar with Sarah Symonds can be terrifying. Sitting in a dim private lounge in a luxury hotel in downtown Vancouver, Ms. Symonds – a self-styled infidelity analyst – sipped on a glass of chardonnay and offered a play-by-play of the various plot lines evolving around us. Hotel bars – second to conferences, she says – are ground zero for extramarital activities.
"A lot of trouble starts over too much alcohol," said Ms. Symonds, 42, as Bob Seger's Night Moves played in the background. "It removes a lot of inhibitions. Especially for the married man. It often removes his wedding ring as well."
She would know. Ms. Symonds has turned being a mistress into a career, with a new Canadian reality series premiering this month.
Her first affair, with a man she met while visiting family in Abu Dhabi, dates back 20 years. She got a taste of the mystery, the intensity, the attention – and she was hooked. She went on to have multiple affairs with powerful, wealthy, high-profile married men (she won't say how many) both in the U.K., where she's from, and in the U.S., where she worked for a time. While she has no doubt been the cause of a lot of heartbreak, there was one man – Mr. X, she calls him – who "annihilated" her heart, inspiring her in 2007 to self-publish a book: Having an Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman.
She gained the most notoriety after her name was linked with that of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (who denied the two were having an affair.) A taste of the British paparazzi convinced her to get out of the mistress game. She was done being the other woman.
She moved back in with her parents (who are marking 60 years of marriage this year) and from her teenaged bedroom in a tiny village in Wales, she established Mistresses Anonymous, a 13-step program modeled on AA's 12 steps. She created a website and a blog, and started counselling women online to get them out of "counterfeit relationships" – and offer them a bit of sympathy, as well.
"Nobody ever wants to talk about the other woman, but we're people too – making bad decisions, but we're not bad people," she says. "Everything is about the wife, everything is about the man who's cheating. What about the woman who's discarded? She gave her heart to this man. What happens to her?"
She says she tries to respond personally, no charge, to every e-mail she gets – but after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The View and 20/20, it's becoming impossible.
Nobody in the U.S. would touch her idea for a reality series – in which she would help other women leave affairs – but she found a partner in Vancouver's Great Pacific Media. Last year, Ms. Symonds held M.A. meetings in Vancouver and in Ontario. From these, she had all the "other women" she needed for the show (some of them alter their appearance, and the men are never identified). Ms. Symonds has also completed her own transformation. She is now evangelical about her former addiction; You will not, she promises, find anyone more against infidelity than her.
The Mistress premieres on Slice on Aug. 29. Think Intervention meets Sex and the City, says Ms. Symonds.
In the "perfect playground," as she calls it, of the dark Vancouver bar, Ms. Symonds points out the extramarital dangers lurking nearby. "There's some chemistry going on over at that table; some eye contact being made," says Ms. Symonds in her exotic Welsh accent. She is tall, blonde and beautiful, but mistresses, she says, come in all shapes and sizes. "They're not all 20 with blonde hair and big boobs."
And they are not solely responsible for a man's indiscretions, she says. "Everyone wants to blame the other woman," she says. "The irony is this man is risking his wife, his family. ... He's the one choosing to break his home. So he's really the homewrecker."
(Tempted, Squeeze's infidelity cautionary tale, is now playing in the background.)
The other woman, she says, is actually an enabler; she's giving the man what he doesn't get at home (on the most basic level, sex, but ego-stroking too in the form of her interest and attention), allowing him to continue, satisfied, in his marriage.
There are three types of men who cheat, she says. There's the serial philanderer – usually rich, maybe famous – who may have a great marriage and a great wife, but isn't satisfied with one of anything and can sweep women up with extravagant gifts and attention. Then there's the man who wants a bit of activity on the side – and will promise the world to get it. Type three is the only one Ms. Symonds has any time for: the genuinely unhappily married man who falls in love with someone else. But if the guy doesn't leave his wife in the first three to six months of the affair, she warns, he's never leaving.
Beyond helping women get out of their affairs, Ms. Symonds says she can also help wives hold onto their husbands. Take a page out of the mistress's handbook, she encourages. Be sexy. Pay attention to him.
"Mistresses make great wives," she says.
"We all want to be feminists; we want to be equals. But guess what? … If you want to wear your ugly t-shirt and your jeans around the house and act like a man, that's what you're going to get. And he's going to go out and find a pretty young mistress who is sexy. It's just a fact."
Ms. Symonds, who is now in the early stages of a (normal! she says) romance with a Canadian guy, genuinely sees herself as a lifeline to these women, even tearing up in the bar when she gets an e-mail from a woman in the Philippines in a desperate situation.
"I am fighting infidelity on a global basis," she says. "Everyone's got a past but it's what you do with it in helping other people. People do deserve a second chance, and if I can change my life, anybody can."