Gold diggers seem to be everywhere at the moment. From headlines warning millionaires of Slavic sirens out to grasp their expense accounts, to column inches devoted to mind-boggling divorce settlements. In May, Beverley Charman bagged £48m from her former husband - the biggest divorce award ever. Our fascination with women who hook up with wealthy men is almost endless.
is it love or is she after his money? We all laughed knowingly when comedian Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton asked Debbie McGee: "So what was it that attracted you to the multi-millionaire Paul Daniels?" The red-tops went into a frenzy when it was revealed that Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins had slept with and then set up home with her well-off married boss.
Recent moves by the Law Commission to give unmarried co-habitees the same financial claims as divorcees in the event of a split were hailed in the press almost gleefully as a gold-digger's charter. So is there a whole new breed of manhunter in town?
"I'm not ashamed to admit that getting married to a wealthy man is my top priority," says Joanna Marie-Clayton, a 27-year old actress and singer from Surrey who is currently working in a care home. "I want to be financially stable and to be able to afford the nice things in life. Frankly, I'm unlikely to achieve that through my own work."
Clayton points out that these days, with the divorce rate so high, considerations such as security are more important than just love. Her dream, she says, is to have a 10-bedroomed house in the country with acres of land and staff to maintain it. "We'd have two or three classic cars - I'd like a Mercedes Kompressor convertible. His and hers would be nice. I'd like lots of dogs, some stables and probably another property in London. I'm not really into designer labels, but it would be nice to be able to buy what I wanted when I wanted. I don't see what's wrong with wanting to meet a man who can provide me with these things - in the past, it was accepted as a woman's duty to make a good marriage and what's so wrong with that?"
The British writer Tasmina Perry, author of the bestseller Daddy's Girls, has chosen gold diggers as the subject of her latest novel, tipped to be this summer's top beach read. "It seemed the right time. There's been a lot of talk in the papers about gold diggers, toxic wives and so on," she says. "Go to restaurants like Cipriani, or Zuma, and they are full of beautiful twentysomething girls on the lookout for a rich man.
When I was researching the book, I spoke to a lot of women who were being plied with champagne every night, yet none would admit to being a gold digger. Then, you discover that wealth is at the top of their wish list for a man. So what, I found myself wondering, is the difference between being Cinderella and gold digging? Where do you draw the line?"
The simple answer, of course, is that in these days of equality, women no longer need to marry into money - we can make our own. In a report published last month by Barclays Wealth Management, economists predicted that there will be more female millionaires in the UK than men by the year 2020, and less than one in four of these will have acquired their wealth through marrying a rich man. Yet, persistently, the ones we are really interested in are the ones who have married wealth.
Whole magazines are devoted to the antics of the Wags and young girls are citing Coleen McLoughlin - who, after all, is only famous for being Wayne Rooney's girlfriend - as their role model. They want to be her - and they're realistic enough to know that a good marriage is their best chance.
There are a whole crop of internet sites to assist women in their quest for a wealthy man. Liselle is a beautiful blonde thirtysomething manager on a salary of £20,000. She has joined the dating website Sugardaddie.com to find herself a rich spouse. "For me to seriously consider him, a man would have to be earning £90 to £100k" she says. She believes he'd be getting a bargain - a gorgeous young wife, love, sex and, one day, a family. In return, she would step up into a whole new financial bracket.
Dr Sheila Keegan, a psychologist with the social-research consultancy Campbell Keegan Ltd, believes she has seen a shift in our attitude to the gold digger lately. "Historically, almost the only way for women to get wealthy was to marry well," she says. "Then came the feminist era when women were supposed to do it for themselves, and they despised the dependent woman. But now we seem to be in a post-feminist era when there isn't that worthiness and sensitivity there was in the 1960s and 1970s because equality is just assumed, and on that basis there's more acceptance of women who want to marry a wealthy man."
Keegan thinks our obsession with celebrities is to blame. "I've recently been doing some research with 14- to 18-year-old girls and they're openly aspirational about admiring wealth and admiring women who have married into wealth. People want an instant route to fame, wealth and success. Greed is no longer perceived as a bad thing, and women are admired for being smart, but not necessarily clever. It's seen as a question of who's using who. Anna Nicole Smith may have got millions, but J Howard Marshall got to share his bed with a beautiful busty blonde while he was in his 80s."
Current trends seems to bear this out. Sugardaddie.com, launched in 2002, now has more than 200,000 members. The website's UK director, Paul Homewood, thinks the gold-diggers phenomenon is about more than just money: " There is an opinion that women on this site are just after the men for their money - but in fact most of them are here for the quality of the men," he says. "They are looking for men who have ambition, who want to get on in life. The men on here are professional men, city bankers, doctors and so on. Why shouldn't that be attractive to women?"
Clayton certainly agrees. "It's not just about lifestyle - I'm ambitious myself and I admire men who have the drive and ambition to get on in life. I've met 15 men since I joined Sugardaddie.com and Seekingmillionaire.com. Typically they're in their 40s or 50s, very successful businessmen without much spare time. They just want to spend the time they do have off with a young babe to spoil and pamper.
Some have quite jetset lifestyles and take me to very swanky places. One took me to Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Sloane Square where we had a wonderful meal. He was a real gentleman. I don't think I'd have to be in love to marry someone - obviously it would have to be someone I liked, but if he was a good man with the right lifestyle and income, then I don't think love is necessarily the most important thing."
Historically, women have always wanted to marry rich men. While Jane Austen's heroines managed to find love along with their fortunes, for most of the characters in her books, love simply wasn't an issue. Marriage was a business. "Relationships are about compromise, aren't they?" says Perry. "Gold diggers are just prepared to compromise that little bit more than most."
Emma Harvey, 32, from Kent, is a member of the dating website sugardaddie.com. She works in IT for a law firm and earns around £35k.
Ideally, I'd hope to meet someone who's on a minimum of £150k to £200k, who probably works in the financial sector or has their own business.
My dream is to live in a big house in the country. I want children, and we'd have lots of dogs, tennis courts, a swimming pool, maybe a little gym. And possibly a bijou flat in Chelsea, too. I have expensive tastes - my usual drink is champagne, I like having my hair done in good salons and I love designer labels - especially Prada, Tods, and Chanel. I'd like to meet a man who felt relaxed about me spending my own money, but even better would be him buying things for me. In return I'd offer love, commitment, and partnership.
If people want to call me a gold digger then so be it. But why, in this day and age, is there this taboo on discussing wanting a man with a good income? We're supposed to say it doesn't matter. Anyway it's not just about money. A man like this would have the drive I find attractive,
Some of my girlfriends think I'm being too businesslike; they say: " You're not at work now, it's not about viewing someone's CV and their potential." But it is like that for me. I've made bad choices before.
Since I joined Sugardaddie.com I've met a couple of lawyers, a doctor and two business consultants. Some were divorced, and a couple had children.
I've not met any serious contenders yet, but I've had some fun. A couple have tried it on, but I made it clear that I wasn't comfortable and they backed off.
A site like this is great; it's like shopping online for a pair of shoes. You want to be sure those shoes fit comfortably - you don't want a cheap pair that are going to give you blisters after a couple of wears.