Inside Cuddle Up to Me are a half dozen cuddling rooms with themes ranging from tropical to meditative. Sessions cost as much as $80 an hour and last 90 minutes to three hours on average. Clients choose between 70 different cuddling positions with names like "Mama Bear" and "Gummy Worm."
One professional cuddler, Olivia, heard about the business and decided she'd like to participate. "I'm a birth doula, which involves a lot of affection and comfort through touch," she explains. She says her husband supported the idea of getting paid for hugs. "He's not a very affectionate person, and so when he heard that this was an option for me, he was like, 'That's perfect.'"
Tim became a cuddler after seeing his father deal with health problems. "I noticed in the hospital that there were a lot of people that didn't have access to touch," he says. Like Olivia, Tim's spouse supports his cuddling gig. "It really fulfills this part of me that wants to give and share with people."
Meet the customers
"I come here when I want to feel loved," says Paul. "I've been in love a number of times, but there hasn't been a lot of safety in that love."
He admitted the first few sessions were awkward. "It was weird — 'Oh, this is the time when we should start kissing or something' — but I had to realize, wow, that's not allowed, and that's carried over to the rest of my life...observing and obeying boundaries."
Richard is divorced. "I moved to Portland, and I didn't really know many people," he says.
He read an article about Hess's business and was terrified. He wanted to change that reaction.
"If I say that I don't want to live by myself, I want to have relationships, I want to be with people, I am sending some incredibly different vibes by my reaction, so I figured this was something that would help me," he explains. He says the occasional cuddle session has made him "less standoffish."
David comes for platonic cuddles when he's in between relationships. He says he loves cuddling with girlfriends, but it often sends the message that he's seeking a serious relationship, when he's not. At Cuddle Up to Me, the intentions are clear: "I love human touch, and I can do it without marrying them."
Women come for cuddles too. A young woman who goes by the roller derby nickname "Crash" says she started coming for cuddles because, "I was just kind of a loner and had a huge personal space bubble." She decided to get rid of that bubble after seeing the affection between her roller derby teammates. "This year my resolution is to become a more affectionate person, so that's why I'm here. I'm learning."
The Trump effect
Donald Trump's election has been good for the cuddling business in Portland. "The protest marches came within a block of our studio election night," Hess says. "It's really cool to give people an outlet where they can feel safe for at least a minute in a world that's so out of control right now."
Still, being a professional cuddler has not made Samantha Hess rich yet — she hasn't yet broken $100,000 in annual revenues. But the business has survived five years and brought her a wealth of satisfaction. In 2015, Hess made it through the first round of NBC's "America's Got Talent" after cuddling onstage with host Nick Cannon. She has also created a code of conduct to train would-be cuddlers in other states. Classes cost $299 online and as much as $3,200 in person. "Once someone achieves 250 session hours, they receive this new title, Master Cuddler," says Hess.