'Love Is Blind' in real life? What happened when an L.A. speed-dating event required blindfolds

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29: Left to right, Joseph Jessup, of Burbank, music artist Head, of St. Louis, Jessica Holmes, of Compton, and Ashley Franklin, of Anaheim, at a blindfolded speed dating event at the New Millenium Beauty and Barber Shops on Saturday, April 29, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. Miss Haze began hosting blindfolded speed dating events in her hometown of St. Louis before "Love is Blind" blew up on Netflix. Now, she's bringing the experience to L.A. for the first time. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Blindfolded participants at the Dating Blind speed-dating event had 10-minute dates. They weren't allowed to discuss age or appearance but were prompted to ask questions such as, "What's one thing about you people take for granted?" (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Maria Serpas' hands fidgeted nervously in her lap as she waited for her date to arrive.

“I’m giving [dating] another chance,” said the 40-year-old entrepreneur from Montebello. “I think I’ve done a lot of work on myself mentally and now I’m in a space where everything is aligned, and it’s like, ‘All right, let’s see how I can align my love life now.’”

A psychic stands with eyes closed, one hand raised and the other holding a deck of oracle cards.
Tahlia L'Oréal, a psychic, guides an oracle card reading before the start of Dating Blind. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When her date finally sat down in front of her, she couldn't see him. They’d both been blindfolded ahead of time — he'd been guided to Serpas' table by a staffer — as part of a unique experience called Dating Blind.

“It made me feel a bit safer because they weren’t looking at me and I wasn’t looking at them,” Serpas said. She’d dressed for the occasion wearing a butterfly-print dress, pink heels, natural-looking makeup and bouncy curls.

“My issue with men sometimes is that they see this first,” she said as she traced her hands along her body, “but they don’t want to engage in deeper conversations.”

Serpas was one of 12 singles — five men and seven women — to participate in the Dating Blind event, which took place on a recent Saturday afternoon at a spacious training school called Beyond the Combs Academy in Leimert Park. It was founder Arissa Haze’s first time hosting the experience in L.A. after launching it in her hometown of St. Louis in July 2019 as a way to combat superficial speed-dating interactions.

A blindfolded participant is escorted to his seat at a blindfolded speed dating event.
A blindfolded participant, left, is escorted to his seat at the Dating Blind speed-dating event in Los Angeles. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“When you sit there and you know you only have seven minutes to talk to a person, if you’re immediately not attracted to them, you’re not even going to give them a chance,” said Haze, a poet who goes by the stage name Miss Haze. On the other hand, “You might have your eye on somebody like, ‘OK, I only have five more times before they get down here.’ And then that person gets there, and you don't even want to talk to him because his conversation is terrible.

“So, it’s like y’all need to not be able to see. That’s what’s wrong! Because I definitely was judging beforehand, so I know if I’m judging, everybody else is judging,” said Haze, who runs a branding agency.

The concept of removing physical appearance from dating has grown in popularity in recent years thanks to Netflix's popular reality dating show “Love Is Blind,” in which couples go on blind dates via separate rooms known as “pods” and aren’t able to see their love interest until they get engaged. But Haze says she created her event several months before “Love Is Blind” premiered in February 2020.

“It's cool that they have it as a show, but at the same time it’s still not a real thing," she said, adding that the series only features "attractive people."

Blindfolded people sit at tables during a speed-dating event.
Participants at a blindfolded speed-dating event at Beyond the Combs Academy in Los Angeles. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Read more: If 'Love Is Blind,' why are all the people on Netflix's new reality show so hot?

As the singles, who ranged from 23 to 75 (the majority of them were in their 30s and 40s), arrived at the Dating Blind event, they were immediately taken into separate rooms based on their gender. This event focused on people who identify as heterosexual, but Haze said she plans to expand to host events catering to various sexual orientations. (About half of the participants were interviewed and only one had seen "Love Is Blind.")

Once they all arrived, Tahlia L’Oréal, an astrologist and psychic who hosted the event, guided each group through breathing exercises and oracle card readings.

“That’s right on trend,” she said about the last card that she pulled, which said "new love." “I have a feeling that at least one of you guys tonight is going to meet somebody. And the whole point of this is to have fun, open your heart, put yourself out there and allow yourself to date.”

Participants sitting at a table across from one another hold hands.
Participants hold hands on their 10-minute speed date. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Read more: Dating in L.A. is exhausting, so I asked a chatbot to flirt for me. Things got weird fast

Shortly after, the women were blindfolded and seated in pairs at tables. Then the men, who were already wearing blindfolds, were carefully guided down a flight of stairs and seated at a table in front of their first date. Given that there were more women than men, at least two women didn’t have dates during the rounds, so L’Oréal gave them personal tarot card readings in the meantime. More men RSVP'd, but some didn't show up.

The guests were given two rules: Don't take off your blindfold until you're instructed to do so and don't ask questions about age or appearance.

Each round, which lasted roughly 10 minutes, began with an icebreaker question that was meant to help the daters dig beyond surface-level inquiries. They were encouraged to open up with questions like: What's one thing about you that people take for granted?

With the eliminated pressure of seeing their date face-to-face, the room quickly filled with lively chatter and laughter. A few of the participants even held hands during their dates.

"I can’t see you, but you have nice hands,” one woman said.

Two women hug.
Ashley Franklin, left, of Anaheim, gets a hug from Miss Haze, the event coordinator, at a blindfolded speed-dating event at the New Millennium Beauty and Barber Shops in L.A. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Read more: L.A. Affairs: Online dating wasn’t going well. Was I geographically undesirable?

Tony Faten of Leimert Park, who has never dated before, said the blindfolded aspect of the event is what enticed him to go. The 30-year-old podcast script writer liked “the fact that it was more focusing around people's voices and feeling their energy to see if the vibes would click,” he said. "It’s actually right up my alley.”

For Joseph Jessup of Burbank, who’s been to two other traditional speed-dating events, the blindfolds helped him feel comfortable talking to strangers.

“I think it’s a good way to meet different people and not immediately hit a dead wall,” the 31-year-old video game programmer said, adding that he found the experience on EventBrite.

“I’m always nervous about meeting new people in general," he added. "As much as I like to throw myself in the deep end, meeting new people is still somewhat exhausting.”

After roughly 70 minutes of speed dating, the guests were asked to remove their blindfolds for the grand reveal. As they squinted and rubbed their eyes to readjust to the light, they were greeted by a stranger sitting in front of them.

“I didn’t want it to be over,” said Faten.

The event hosts turned up the music and offered mimosas and appetizers to encourage guests to mingle. Given the small number of participants, it was easy for them to match voices to faces. Some people continued their conversations and exchanged phone numbers, while others seemed less comfortable once the blindfolds were off, including a 75-year-old woman, who left early.

Two daters talk with their blindfolds off at the end of the speed dating event.
Khaleeq Brown, 31, left, of Lake Forest, and Maria Serpas, 40, of Montebello, get to know each other after being blindfolded. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Serpas of Montebello said she would have preferred for the guests to be separated or standing in a circle during the reveal instead of sitting in front of their last date because it felt awkward. (This was Haze's initial plan, but there was a miscommunication.) But by the end of the experience, Serpas had exchanged phone numbers with a man she had a "strong connection" with, as well as a woman she befriended at the event.

Though they didn't end up hanging out — he told her the next day that he wasn't actually looking for a relationship — Serpas said she'd attend another Dating Blind event because she liked the concept. She'd just want to ensure that there would be a 1:1 ratio of men and women who are emotionally available.

“What I enjoyed most was that I could focus on the tone of their voice," she said. "Like even the shakiness of their voice or nervousness in their voice, and it felt like, ‘OK, this is real.’"

The next Dating Blind event is scheduled for June 17 at 4310 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets start at $40.

A woman holds an oracle card that says "New Love."
Tahlia L'Oréal hold an oracle card that says "New Love." (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sign up for L.A. Goes Out, a weekly newsletter about exploring and experiencing Los Angeles from the L.A. Times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.