By Chris Klepac
An odd thing is happening in singles bars around the nation – an army of ridiculously overdressed, formerly hapless Internet geeks, Dungeons and Dragons aficionados, and assorted other misfits is descending on Ladies’ Nights and Happy Hours everywhere, armed with pre-scripted pickup routines and hokey magic tricks, and they are scoring.
The Revenge of the Nerd has risen from the basements to the bars, and with the help of a mildly heretical school of 1970s Gestalt psychology called NLP, some of these guys are actually getting laid.
The blame rests squarely with a slight, bald, cheerful fellow named Neil Strauss, who used to work as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone when he wasn’t ghost-writing tell-all glam biographies for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue. One fine day a few years ago, Neil’s boss offered a tantalizing story hook: somewhere out there was an international society of pickup artists. These professional ladykillers devoted their entire lives to the “Venusian arts”, and for a fee they would take an AFC (Average Frustrated Chump) and turn him into a MPUA (Master Pickup Artist). Intriguingly, the PUAs claimed that their methods were grounded in science and worked for everyone – all you had to do was follow the script.
The bait was more than Neil could turn down, and within weeks he had fallen down the rabbit hole and into an alternate universe filled with technical jargon like IOI (Indicator of Interest), set openers (a conversational gambit to use on a group of two or more people) and negs (a mild insult flung at a potential mate to disarm her).
The ringleader of this circus was a gangly, outrageous dynamo who went by the name of Mystery, and defended his look as “peacocking”, a valid technique to stand out from other guys and provoke conversation.
Neil followed Mystery’s fashion advice, took the name Style, and began having sex with beautiful women. He was not, however, a blind disciple. He investigated the techniques of other MPUAs, including Ross Jeffries (the subject of an homage-parody by Tom Cruise in the film Magnolia) and the enigmatic academics who started the whole thing, John Grinder and Richard Bandler.
Bandler and Grinder’s NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, is the “science” that underlies the PUAs’ teachable methods.
They began their work in the 1970s under the banner of “modeling excellence”; if you can imitate the physical movements and mental states of someone who is very good at something, you can to some extent absorb their abilities. The pair used this modest premise as a tool to increase the effectiveness of group therapy, but the implications of their powerful techniques drew many adherents, from feel-good guru Tony Robbins (who started out as an NLP student) to British mentalist Derren Brown, who rode the NLP train to U.K. TV fame by convincing people that red is actually black and that they should give him their wallets.
Sex, as we all know, drives technology, and it wasn’t long before NLP surfaced in that ancient and venerable trolls’ den known as the Usenet Newsgroups. Guys had been gathering on the Internet to share dating tips since it was possible to do so, but now there was a powerful twist: a series of methods that social outcasts could focus on to relieve their anxieties about actually talking to girls. NLP “patterns” appealed to men with monitor tans fielding fantasy baseball teams – suddenly it seemed possible to game your way into the sack.
A few rising stars appeared in the Newsgroups, sharing their tales of success and failure, modifying and improving on the techniques, and creating the bewildering tangle of acronyms and shorthand that characterize the PUA movement.
It wasn’t long before people like Mystery were taking these techniques to the streets, and making bank on seminars that promised to turn stammering nerds into Casanovas.
Neil took it all in, and introduced it to the masses in 2005, with his book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.
The Game is not just a primer on the New Seduction, it’s also a fascinating yarn full of irresistibly twisted characters, the prime mover being Mystery himself.
More than a callow womanizer, Mystery is an obsessive, depressive, mile-a-minute idea man, and we can’t help admiring him as much as Neil does, for turning his fragile, geeky personality to his advantage, and finding the courage to do things that cooler guys only dream about.
And now, after breakdowns, breakups, evictions, busted friendships and other disappointments, Mystery has finally realized the American dream: he hosts his own reality TV show on VH1.
In The Pickup Artist, a group of laughably un-humpable guys are brought together in a posh Austin, Texas mansion and slowly, week by week, transformed into ladies’ men.
They are given makeovers and new clothes, they study scripts and techniques to escalate friendly touching (“kino”), and they are sent into the grinder of Austin’s bass-bumping meat markets, where we watch them crash and burn again and again.
Just as we’re about to roll our eyes and change the channel, Mystery and his two wingmen (none of whom are conventionally movie-star attractive) swoop into the bar, deploy a few hackneyed lines, and have all the girls in the place eating out of the palms of their hands.
Move over Derren Brown, this is real magic.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Style and Mystery have done time on The View and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and various news magazines have mocked and lambasted the PUA system.
The primary objection is that it’s misogynistic, and certainly many women are outraged when they hear the principal tenets. Don’t introduce yourself or buy women drinks, Mystery says, it demonstrates you have a lower value than them. Neg on an attractive target to disqualify yourself as a suitor, then demonstrate higher value by bragging. Lead them on, string them along, make them chase you, lie to them if you have to.
The Average Frustrated Chump’s response to this criticism? Turnabout is fair play.
The Pickup Artist features many of the by now familiar tropes of reality TV. Brady, immune to elimination because he won a challenge, broods over who to protect as his “wingman”. The guys clown for the camera, console each other, and confess their insecurities to us.
The difference is that the challenges are amusing and surprising. Rather than run a relay race or gather coconuts, the fellows have to appear in Speedos at a pool party full of models (the obese Joe B. charms his way to the top as his fitter co-stars gulp and stutter), or tell stories to a room full of preschool girls to hone their attention-holding skills (sneaky Pradeep steals the contest at the last minute by appealing to the girls directly during the vote).
The challenge rewards are also worth watching: Asian indie kid Spoon gets to practice his pickup lines on a real girl, and Latin goofball Cosmo spends the night in the club with Mystery whispering lines into his ear through a hearing aid (Marco scores a kiss, which would have been unthinkable a few weeks previous).
Like most reality shows, The Pickup Artist becomes ludicrous fairly quickly, as the producers realize that reality isn’t always very interesting. Repulsive characters are preserved far past their expiration dates, for spice. Challenges become less and less realistic, backstabbing is encouraged, and elimination decisions seem skewed or just plain wrong.
In the end it’s only a pedestrian entertainment, enlivened by the frission of seeing your doppelgangers at the singles bar, falling down, getting back up again, and eventually winning the day (or is that just me?)
As for the naysayers, if anyone of any gender looks under the surface, they’ll see that Mystery is doing all of us a favor. The main focus of the early episodes is to get the guys to have a public conversation with a girl and not act creepy, and we can all agree that this skill should be in wider supply. In this hyper-sensitive era, a little old fashioned male boldness might go a long way toward helping both sexes have a better night out.
Good hunting, and bring on Season Two.
Ed note: Season One of The Pick-Up Artist ended on September 24. Catch re-runs on VH1 and cross your collective fingers with us that the network gives us a Season Two.