Chances are while you were Facebook surfing back in September you may have stumbled upon an Elite Daily video about a professional cuddlist Kan Seidel. The video has gained over 20 million views since its debut and sparked a mass curiosity about the new-age therapy where you basically cuddle with strangers. Perhaps one of the most fascinating revelations regarding the practice came from fellow cuddlist Amaku Ukpong, who, at the end, said, “I feel like I matter. That might have been a little bit too deep, but that’s how I feel. That’s how I feel. I think cuddling can do that… make you feel like you’re a human being especially when you feel invisible to the world.”
But you would never know who Kan’s costar is that offered the profound remark because she was never properly introduced to the audience. Amaku is a Black female in the business of cuddling and it’s hard to believe that doesn’t have anything to with why she remained nameless in the clip, even after practically begging Elite Daily producers to identify her.
BET.com gave Amaku the opportunity to share her story, one very different from a white male cuddlist, which Elite Daily failed to realize.
For Amaku, filming the video was a very pleasant experience. She and Kan are both cuddlists who cuddle with each other outside of clients, so it was a very natural process for both of them. But then Amaku filled us in on the aftermath:
“It was interesting because I was celebrating the success of the video and my friend getting so much attention. I’m that kind of friend that can’t wait to celebrate your success. I’m very supportive and I was in a supportive role there, but Kan’s the one that brought it to my attention that they didn’t mention my name not once. And I was like, 'Wow. Yeah, that’s right.'
I wasn’t really focused on me. I was caught up in the conversation about cuddling and non-sexual touch that it took me second to realize that they really played me, pretty much. When I texted the producer about why my name wasn’t included, his exact response was, 'Well it wasn’t imperative that anyone knew your name’… It really hit me that this kind of thing, normal everyday things — shooting a video, applying for a job — there’s so much marginalization that goes on with people of color. And it’s in the tiniest ways, but the impact is always felt in a huge ways. It was hurtful.”
What’s more is that Amaku’s final statement in the viral video is what resonated most with audiences:
“I understand that I was in a supportive role, but in any role you’re in, you’re supposed to have a name. Supporting roles are also memorable roles. And a lot of the conversation, especially for women of color, surrounded the end part when I talked about feeling like I matter, especially in a world that tends to make you invisible. And there was a lot of conversation about that, so I just wasn’t a piece of furniture in the video. My input was very significant for certain people, especially people that look like me.
A lot of my girlfriends who are African-American that saw the video told me they watched it because they saw a woman of color and were like, ‘Apparently this is something that not just white people do. Let’s check this out.’”
Get Properly Acquainted
Amaku is a 31-year-old Brooklynite who, in addition to being a cuddlist, is an energy medicine practitioner, spiritual nutritionist and Higher Brain Living mastery facilitator. She specializes in body work where she’s manually moving negative energy out of the body. The wellness practitioner was first introduced to professional cuddling after coming upon a flyer in a supermarket in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and trained this summer to become a professional herself.
So just how is navigating the world of cuddlists different for a Black woman? For one, Amaku encounters a lot of white men who have never touched a Black woman:
“I have been contacted many white males that have expressed so many times to me, they’ve never had close contact with a woman of color. And so for them it’s new, it’s interesting. I get a lot who say, ‘I’ve never touched a Black woman before,’ because maybe it was something that wasn’t encouraged, or allowed growing up. And they think somehow it’s supposed to be different.
"I had a guy who booked a session with me and I winded up not doing it because his motives didn’t sound clean. He mentioned to me something like, ‘I’ve never touched a Black woman before. I’m curious cause you know what they say about Black women.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I could only imagine, but since this isn’t a sexual service it doesn’t matter what they say.’ So I had to end that conversation real quick.”
Ironically, her wellness practice sits in New York’s Financial District, one of the most masculine areas of the whole city. Her clientele is primarily white men over the age of 50, many of them married. While some are sincerely looking for support—maybe there’s something going on in the marriage where they there’s no contact anymore —there’s always a small portion who are looking for something more. Men mistaking cuddling for a sexual service is something that Amaku deals with day in and day out:
“It’s not even a mistake, they know. But they want to push boundaries and see how far they can get. They don’t understand ‘No’ or ‘Can you keep your hand here?’ In my work as wellness practitioner working with masculine emotionality and sexuality in general, I’ve seen that there’s not a lot of respect for women of color in a position like mine. They see on the website that this is a non-sexual service, but they’ll test their luck and try it anyway.”
There’s a strict code of conduct on cuddlist.com that all participants must adhere by. The website that hosts a cuddle community where Amaku’s clients book a session prides itself on making sure both parties involved are comfortable and safe. But Amaku mostly relies on her intuition and can sense concerning clients from a mile away, even just through messaging with potential clients before a session. She plays no games, any red flags and she reports them right away on the Cuddlist Facebook page.
Being a cuddlist who is also a Black woman doesn’t always sound like a Law & Order: SVU episode waiting to happen, it’s fulfilling work, Amaku explains:
“What I really want is for it to be normalized that people coming from different cultures can have moments of caring, nurturing and intimacy without having to focus on the fact that we’re different in certain ways… Professional cuddling is also really a way to reprogram our beliefs on touch and how it should be exchanged between the opposite sex. There has to be mutual respect and touch is great way to initiate that.
I've had two Black women book my services. I actually just recently had a session with one of them and what I’m beginning to understand is that women of color definitely need support in a place that’s safe because traditionally women of color have not been safe in the arms of white men. You know there’s that history of rape and violence against all women of color and that energy is still there to a certain degree. It’s not even all historical traumas; just day to day cat calling is disrespectful. So I feel like women of color are going to start to use this service a lot. And we need more women of color to provide this service because we feel safe with each other.”
The Big Payoff
So what about the money? As far as hourly wage, Amaku charges $80, the same amount Kan charges. The overall payoff varies by region, though. She has a Latina friend based in San Antonio who books seven to ten sessions per week. But in New York cuddling is still catching on, so let’s just say Amaku is not living solely off her cuddle earnings yet. But she wants do more of it and is even looking into getting another space in Brooklyn.
Sure a girl’s gotta eat, but at the end of the day it isn’t really about the money for Amaku:
“When you have a wellness practice, naturally the areas you’re working in are healing you too. They may be areas where you need to heal as well. When you get that client that just needs love and support and that’s what you're needing, it’s really powerful. It goes both ways and that’s why this is really gratifying work because you’re not just giving and being drained in the giving. You’re also receiving, and when you’re receiving the right kind of energy it keeps you healthy. It’s balance.”
(Photos: Rafael Archuleta)