PORTLAND, Ore. — Samantha Hess had just gone through a divorce with her high school sweetheart. At the age of 28, when she began dating for the first time as an adult, she realized the only touch given to her was of the romantic kind.
"And I realized really what I needed was a hug. I just needed a hug," Hess said.
In 2013 she had an idea; a business idea to offer a hug or a cuddling session with a complete stranger looking for the same kind of platonic touch.
"I started by posting on social media and telling my friends and they all told me I was going to die and terrible things are going to happen to me," Hess said.
Her business was called "Cuddle Up To Me." She crafted her business idea, created waivers for clients to sign and within six months, was meeting her first clients. Business was going well.
"It was two weeks before I had my first appointment and then within six months, I was two months out for appointments. The need was so huge," Hess said.
"Cuddle Up To Me" first started as a house call, outpatient type of service.
"I would go to people's homes, movie theaters and lots of park sessions. People are not scary or dangerous that reach out for this type of service. I've never once had to end a session early. People are very kind and respectful," Hess said. "People have never had the opportunity to go see a movie with someone that wasn't their family and it's really nice to have that opportunity to snuggle up next to someone and watch a movie."
Within a year, she realized the demand was greater than what she could do by herself. She opened her first storefront office in 2014, hired employees and trained them in the art of cuddling using a training program she created herself.
Hess' unique business idea caught national headlines almost immediately and it even caught the eye of "America's Got Talent" producers. She flew out for an audition where she cuddled up with host Nick Cannon on stage and then was brought back and cuddled with guest judge Neil Patrick Harris before getting four X's and not moving on.
"I love that this work is silly. I like to think of this as inner-child work," Hess said.
Hess, a self-described extrovert, was loving her work. Then the pandemic hit.
"It destroyed my world when the pandemic hit," Hess said of the isolation and lack of touch she was able to give or receive.
As a way to connect with her clients, she created a virtual eye-gazing video. Hess met outdoors, seated apart at a park, then moved indoors with windows open as the restrictions began to lift.
Her business downsized from a 4,000 square foot retail space to a single room office that was less than 100 square feet.
After more than 3,200 sessions that ranged anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours and cost anywhere from 80 to 100 dollars an hour, Hess packed up her small office and shut down "Cuddle Up To Me."
"This business really taught me so much. I'm going start crying now," she said, wiping away tears. "I think the biggest lesson for me was that when I take the time to really see people, to get to know them, every single person I've met is worth loving."
After nine years of touching people and their lives and just listening, it's time to move on.
"Witnessing endless suffering and tragedy for nine years takes its toll," she said. "I've really seen lifetimes worth of trauma and held space for people going through things I didn't even know were possible."
Hess said now she'll take time and listen to herself. Her plans include writing a second book.
"It sucks that I have to leave this and it's time. It's time." Hess said.