Going to class with a $2800 Louis Vuitton book bag on her back and a $4000 Hermes watch on her wrist, Vivian is not your average student.

She lives alone in a posh two-bedroom apartment on Lorne St in central Auckland. She has no idea how much her rent is because its paid for before she gets bill.

While many of her mates at university work part time on minimum wage, Vivian gets thousands of dollars transferred into her bank account every month which help her pay her school fees.

The 20-year-old is being bankrolled by three sugar daddies.

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Sugar dating is where an older man or woman spends large amounts of money on a younger girlfriend or boyfriend in exchange for a relationship.

Arrangements vary, with some sugar babies saying they have sex with the men, and others keeping their contact to dates and no physical contact. Some see the sugar daddy only a small number of times a year, when they fly in from their bases overseas for business, away from their wives and children.

Originally from northern China, Vivian — not her real name — meets her sugar daddies on various websites including English-language sites like The SugarBook and SeekingArrangement, as well as Hong Kong-based sites.

"Overall, I think I have entered into relationship arrangements about eight times ... it is like being in an open relationship," Vivian says.

The youngest of her three sugar daddies is a 40-year-old businessman from Hong Kong. The oldest is a retired 66-year-old grandfather from Malaysia. The third man is from Taiwan.

She says they are aware of each other's existence and all have families back home but she's not sure if they are all still married — they ask her more questions than she asks them.

Her Hong Kong sugar daddy makes regular trips to Auckland, while she flies to see the others in holiday destinations on business class tickets they have paid for.

Vivian says they have sex when they meet, but she doesn't think sex is the motivation for their financial support.

"We are in a relationship agreement, and sex is just a normal part of any boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, right?" she says.

"They help me because they want to and it makes them feel good and happy, not because of sex."

Vivian was introduced to sugar dating by a friend who is also a sugar baby.

"When I first came to New Zealand, I was envious of all the branded goods that my other international student friends had," she says.

Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's charges men for conversation. Photo / File
Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's charges men for conversation. Photo / File

"I tried looking for part-time work and even worked in a massage parlour, but I was earning nowhere near the money I needed to buy all the things that my friends had."

The sugar daddies she met have also lavished her with gifts, including a Xiaomi Mi 8 mobile phone and a MacBook Pro.

Vivian is one of many young women in New Zealand shunning traditional student jobs and the minimum wage to pair up with men who can buy them what they need.

"Lifestyle choices and payment of university fees in an era of heightened competition in tandem with diminishing financial scholarships often catapult students into the outstretched arms of sugared relationship," says Edwina Pio, Auckland University of Technology professor of diversity.

SeekingArrangements, a US-based website, claims to have more than 50,000 members signed up in New Zealand.

Roberts character in Pretty woman could be seen as a sugar baby. Photo / File
Roberts character in Pretty woman could be seen as a sugar baby. Photo / File

The website advertises itself as a way to help sugar babies "hack student debt" which now sits at $15.9 billion in New Zealand. Figures collated by NZME in September showed more university students are struggling to pay the bills even with recent student allowance increases.

"The costs of post-secondary education are now such that working and studying simultaneously is now a very common pattern," says Massey University pro vice-chancellor Professor Paul Spoonley.

"Despite the attempts of the government, I am sure that some of this work will be in the grey economy and not easily monitored and certainly not taxed."

Fees to join sugar daddy websites range from about $60 to more than $250, but some platforms offer free accounts to students who register using their university email address.

They are open to those aged at least 18 who must submit an email and photo for administrators to verify.

Women are asked to state their lifestyle preferences and the men must declare their income, spending habits and net worth.

Alma de Bretteville and Adolph Bernard Spreckels, the original sugar couple.
Alma de Bretteville and Adolph Bernard Spreckels, the original sugar couple.

The concept of sugar baby/daddy relationships is sometimes traced back to the early 1900s when Adolph Bernard Spreckels took over his father's Spreckels Sugar Company in California. The multi-millionaire married socialite Alma de Bretteville, who was 24 years his junior and had grown up poor. She called him her sugar daddy.

Sugar babies have been played out on the silver screen for years.

Marilyn Monroe's character and her two New York flatmates in How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 try to attract rich men and marry them.

Actress Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953. Photo / Donaldson Collection
Actress Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953. Photo / Donaldson Collection

Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's was a country girl who moved to New York where she lives a high-society life. The movie glosses over some of the details for a more conservative, 1961 audience but its clear she lives off her charm.

Then there was Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman in 1990. Although Vivian Ward is a prostitute, Richard Gere's Edward Lewis pays for more than just a night with her. He hires her for six days to pretend to be his girlfriend, as well as sponsoring a new wardrobe.

Hepburn portrayed Holly Golightly in the iconic film which was loosely based on Truman Capote's 1958 novella. Photo / File
Hepburn portrayed Holly Golightly in the iconic film which was loosely based on Truman Capote's 1958 novella. Photo / File

In real life, reality star and model Courtney Stodden admitted signing up to whatsyourprice.com, a website for women who are paid by their suitors, following the break-up of her marriage to The Green Mile star Doug Hutchison who she married when she was 16 and he was 50.

And the late Hugh Hefner's multitude of girlfriends were seen by many as sugar babies. He'd house them in his Playboy mansion in Los Angeles in exchange for their company. He admitted in an interview he paid them $1000 a week which he called a clothing allowance.

While it might seem like a fairy tale to some, the relationships come with warnings — for health, safety and immigration.

A Netsafe spokeswoman says its general advice about meeting someone online would apply to sugar baby relationships.

Before meeting, research should be done on the other person to see if their story matches what they have been saying.

Always meet the person in a public place and don't go aywere private with them until you know them better. Always tell someone where you are going and sort our own mode of transport to and fom the date. And stay sober.

Hugh Hefner and the girls of the Playboy Mansion had a sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship. Photo / Supplied
Hugh Hefner and the girls of the Playboy Mansion had a sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship. Photo / Supplied

Sugar relationships are little different to prostitution because sugar daddies often expect more than just companionship, says Dame Catherine Healy of the NZ Prostitutes Collective.

"It's obvious that commercial sex is a key element. Take the money and the sex away and the relationship would dissolve ... no more sugar."

However, Healy says sugar babies often won't want to see themselves as being part of the sex industry.

"The people who seek these arrangements may not necessarily see the connection and be naive or determined to distance themselves from sex work due to 'whore stigma'," she says.

People who are contemplating sugar dating should make contact with the collective to seek information about strategies to stay safe, Healy says.

For people in New Zealand on student visas, prostitution is illegal. Sugar relationships may also breach temporary visa conditions and students risk being deported, Immigration New Zealand operations support manager Jock Gilray says.

"Payment of school fees, accommodation and presents in exchange for sex may, in certain circumstances, be considered providing commercial sexual services in terms of the Prostitution Reform Act.

"We would be concerned that anyone in that situation could be at risk of exploitation."

The agency has recently launched research to better understand issues within the sex industry as part of its wider work on exploitation. But sugar daddy arrangements are not included in the work scope.

Under immigration instruction, all student visa applicants need sufficient funds to support their stay — $15,000 a year or, for shorter-stay students, $1250 per month.

Spoonley says university students are "bright and creative people" and will find ways to fund their study — even if some of these means are not legal.

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Photo / File
Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Photo / File

He strongly advises international students against embarking on sugar dating.

"It puts your study and residency in New Zealand at risk and it might put you at risk, especially as the relationship is not legal and is not governed in any way by public agencies," he says.

Pio warns that once these types of relationships are entered into it, it is quite hard for the sugar baby to have a normal relationship. The hand-outs stop and a more equal partnership is expected, which many are not accustomed to.

But Hana, a 22-year-old Japanese student who is pursing a finance degree at an Auckland University, believes sugar daddy relationships are far safer than other jobs on the fringes of sex work.

Hana — not her real name — used to work as a part-time karaoke lounge hostess, where she was paid to have drinks with men, before she started sugar dating. She recalls a client spiking her drink with crystal methamphetamine.

"My mind just went blank and my body started shivering ... I couldn't control my movements, at the time I didn't know what was happening," she says.

"I believe I would have been kidnapped or raped if my colleagues hadn't come to help me."

She says she needed the money after a boyfriend's business venture — using money he borrowed from her — landed her in serious debt. She now has two sugar daddies whom she met on sugardaddy.jp and pcmax.jp.

They are both Japanese — one lives in Japan and the other in Hong Kong. She has sex with both of them.

"There is more respect and it feels more like a real relationship in sugar relationships than working in nightclubs or lounges."

Regular income, flexible hours and plenty of bonus gifts

Brooke West says she has been given gifts costing a total of $30,000 by her sugar daddies. Photo / Dean Purcell
Brooke West says she has been given gifts costing a total of $30,000 by her sugar daddies. Photo / Dean Purcell

Brooke West says she has received gifts worth a total of $30,000 from multiple sugar daddies.

"I have been given the latest iPhone, a MacBook Pro, return flights and accommodation to other countries and my French Bulldog."

The 26-year-old works part time as a stripper and dancer, and meets her sugar daddies through her work in strip clubs, which she wouldn't name.

"Sugar babies have fairly regular income streams on their terms, with flexible hours and plenty of bonus gifts and experiences ... the question shouldn't be 'Why do I?' but instead 'Why aren't you?'."

But she says her relationships do not involve sex and are mainly about companionship. Some are willing to pay hundreds of dollars just to have lunch with her, West says, and many of her workmates have sugar daddies too.

"As a dancer, I've had numerous regulars that gave me things ranging from bookings every few weeks to gifts like perfumes, shoes, jewellery and cash," she says.

"I've known of cars and breast implants being paid for."

She says most of her sugar daddies are men in their 40s.

"I guess for them, they like being the white knight helping a damsel in need.

"There's a huge misconception that sugar daddies are decrepit 80-year-olds with an oxygen tank or skin condition in tow, it's just not true.

"In the age of dick pics and the online equivalent of cat calling, having a man that could actually hold a conversation, that genuinely just wanted to help me achieve or obtain certain things and was in a position to do so feels pretty good," West says.

West thinks love-for-money online sites however are being "hijacked by inexperienced girls with no clue" and sugar babies who may not know how to manage guys who "just want to hook up".

"There are definitely men that can become controlling, creating a pretty toxic situation if you don't know what you're doing and how you manage that," she says.