Health

Samantha Hess, Portland's OG Cuddling Professional, Is Calling It Quits

Over nine years, Hess received national publicity and dreamt of a chain of cuddling studios. But bad faith landlords and the pandemic both took their toll.

By Julia Silverman September 22, 2022

Samantha Hess, Portland's first professional cuddler, is closing down her studio.

Image: Carla Axtman

After nine years of snuggle sessions, Portland’s trailblazing professional cuddler says she’s calling it quits. 

Samantha Hess, a former personal trainer who was inspired to start her business in 2013 after reading about a farmers’ market entrepreneur who sold hugs for $2 a pop, had her official last cuddling bookings on Tuesday, September 20.  

She’s spending this week clearing out her Southwest Portland studio; her studio's web domain, cuddleuptome.com, is for sale, as is certifiedcuddlers.com, an offshoot site also run by Hess that offered training courses to aspiring cuddlers and included a search function to help potential clients find course graduates in their regions. 

In a long post to her followers on Patreon last month, Hess wrote that her decision was the result of “death by a thousand cuts.” She told of constantly needing to relocate her studio after being evicted due to buildings being sold and leases being broken, and of “having to live my personal life in ways that reflect the brand I run. It’s the concern I feel about the future of the industry in an ever-changing world. It’s seeing my life is still a joke to so many.” She also writes that she is about $45,000 in debt to investors. 

Hess was on the leading edge of the cuddling movement, which positions consensual, non-sexual touch as a form of emotional connection, a mental health boost and an exercise in understanding boundaries and consent. During the span of her career, she appeared on America’s Got Talent where she demonstrated various cuddling positions on celebrity judges Nick Cannon and Neil Patrick Harris. She also organized a cuddling convention ("CuddleCon") in Portland on Valentine’s Day in 2015. Her goal in the beginning, she has said, was to seed a chain of “Cuddle Me Up” studios in cities around the country. 

Then came coronavirus. The social distancing and lockdowns of the pandemic were a big hurdle for the cuddling industry, which had since expanded to a number of online national sites that allow people to find a local match for platonic cuddling. 

Still, Hess made it through that disruption, adding outdoor sessions by summer of 2020, and requiring vaccinations for indoor sessions by spring of the following year. She also offered some online options, like this YouTube short on “virtual eye gazing.” 

But by summer of 2022, she writes, she’d reached a breaking point: “It’s being exhausted and not feeling that spark anymore. It’s wanting to find new work to explore. It’s having already achieved the goal I set out to achieve of helping build a foundation for the industry. It’s having the financial abundance to truly be able to put myself first.” 

As to what’s next, Hess says she’s not sure yet. She’s taking a month off, and then will consider how to tend in the future to those who pay for her content via Patreon, plus whether she wants to resume online training programs and events.  She's also writing her second book, which she's hoping will be published in early 2023.

"It will be a combination of my trauma history as an explanation as to why I decided I was qualified to do this when it wasn't a thing, a behind the scenes of running the business, and client stories written directly by them," Hess says. "Not sure of the title yet, but I'm playing around with "The Most Successful Failure" and "The Snuggle Is Real." 

In the meantime, Hess has highlighted several other alternative options for her cuddling clients, including The Touch Tonic, a cuddling studio on SE Belmont that offers individual and group cuddling sessions. 

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