Danger: pickup artists ahead

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We'll call this one Cupid because, with his golden curls and wide-eyed cherubic face, it seems like a decent handle. He's 26, fresh out of the military and, despite his Abercrombie good looks, he tends to panic when he talks to girls. "I'm totally an introvert," he says early on a Friday evening.

But now it's into the wee hours of Saturday morning and he's at the Saddle Ranch on the Sunset Strip. He's watched as a man called Mystery made out with a cute brunet with pale lipstick and another guy did a "bounce," leading the most scantily clad woman at the bar from one part of the patio to another.

But Cupid hasn't approached anybody all night, and now that the bartenders are hollering for everybody to get out he's worried it might be too late. He turns to Neil Strauss for guidance.

Strauss once counted himself among those who were panicked around women. Then he overcompensated. After attending a seminar on the art of seduction in 2002, the former New York Times columnist and current Rolling Stone writer has been obsessed with, even addicted to, a little-known community of men who consider themselves pickup artists. He posts to message boards, helps out with seduction courses, even concocted an ill-conceived plan to get the best in the business to live together in Dean Martin's former mansion above the Hollywood strip.

He chronicles his ascent (descent?) into this world in the new book "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists," which arrives in stores, bound like a Bible, on Tuesday. In it, Strauss describes in graphic detail a personal journey that begins with him being terrified of women and ends with him believing he could seduce any woman in a club, bar, coffee shop or elevator. He is a diminutive man with a shaved head and angular goatee, and though he seems gentle and sweet in person — nervous and cute and maybe a touch effete (affectations he's learned in seduction training, perhaps?) — in the book he comes off as debauched and predatory.

But he is a hero to the 11 men who have signed up for the $2,250 Mystery Method Bootcamp — a three-day, 40-hour intensive seminar designed to help "men from any background meet, attract and build relationships with exceptional women of extraordinary beauty and quality," according to the workshop's website.

"He's supposed to be one of the best," says Chongo, a 30-year-old special effects designer who is on his third seminar this weekend.

"See that girl over there with the pink shirt?" Cupid asks Strauss, who is known as Style in the rapidly growing community of pickup artists and who once appeared in a porn movie while ghostwriting Jenna Jameson's memoir. "I think she's, like, the hottest girl in the whole place."

"You may have missed your window because now she's with a guy. But go and approach her anyway. It's a two set," says Strauss, in pickup lingo referring to the number of people.

"Can I do that even though the lights are on?" Cupid asks.

"Don't even think about it and just do it," Strauss says. "If you don't, you'll be regretting it the rest of the weekend."

Strauss doesn't have high expectations for Cupid. After all, this is only the first night. The whole point of the evening is for students to watch the self-proclaimed pros in the field and to take their own fledgling steps into the world of seduction by starting conversations with women.

"The first night we go out, the students will walk in and crash and burn because they don't have a clue yet. The second day is more about the students and they'll go and do openers and do OK, and the third day is kind of fun. On the third day, they actually start to have some success," Strauss says. "People forget how petrified men are to talk to women they don't know." But Cupid does well for a first outing — the couple engage in conversation with him.

Strauss isn't teaching this weekend's workshop. He's assisting his friend Erik von Markovik, arguably the best pickup artist in the community, who uses the name Mystery — and who first taught the course three years ago, the class Strauss attended. Now Mystery is teaching seduction seminars almost every weekend in cities around the globe. He isn't the only one — Strauss estimates there are roughly 100 others.

Mystery is a 6-foot-5-inch lanky magician from Toronto who intentionally "peacocks" (dresses outrageously to attract women) — today it's black fingernails, black cowboy hat, brown corduroy bell-bottom suit with little slashes of orange all over it and snakeskin boots. A virgin, he says, until he was 21, he developed the "Mystery Method" through trial and error and the kind of single-minded determination and willingness to practice that all magicians need to be successful at deception.

Mystery has a term for everything in the pickup game — a "neg" is a casual insult you tell a girl you're interested in to show her you don't think she's so great ("Your nails look nice, are they real?" "Look, her nose wiggles when she laughs"). Walking up to a group of people and starting to talk to them is called "opening a set." A "false time constraint" is a white lie that implies you're not going to hang around and bother anybody ("I can only stay a minute," "I have to get back to my friend"). Mystery encourages his students to tell stories that show DHV (demonstrations of higher value) and to look for IOI (indicators of interest) from their selected targets. (Yes, women are referred to as targets.)

In the field, he'll speak over students' shoulders while they're talking to a girl and tell them "push, pull, push, pull," which means hold her hand, then drop it like you don't care, then hold it again. He'll tell them when to start to "kino," or begin the back rubbing, hand holding and arm stroking that indicates this relationship is about being more than just friends. He's like a choreographer of the seduction dance and the boot camp is for people with two left feet.

There are two parts to every day of the boot camp — a classroom component and a field component. The classroom component this weekend was held in a small room at the Holiday Inn on Highland Avenue and taught exclusively by Mystery. In the field (the Saddle Ranch, the Standard and the World), he brings "approach coaches," guys like Strauss who have already taken his classes and have established themselves in the community, to advise the students while they are doing a set.

Dressed in his corduroy suit, Mystery paces around the Holiday Inn conference room talking about hard-wired responses in interaction between the sexes, refers to photocopied handouts with suggested openers on them (most begin with "Can I get your opinion on ..."), and writes charts on a white board breaking down the time from "Meet" until "Sex" into three, then nine, then 13 sub-moments.

The students take careful notes on everything; Chongo even has his laptop. They range in age from mid-20s to mid-40s and come across as quiet and nice guys — maybe a little sad, or a bit lonely. Except for the gangly guy who walked in late wearing a tight red shirt with mesh panels in it. ("Love the shirt," Mystery says. "Got it.")

"There are three main types who take the seminar," Strauss says. "Guys who just got out of a rough breakup after several years and are out of the loop of dating, guys who have had no luck with women — whether it's a 25-year-old guy who never held a girl's hand before or guys who are 40 and are still virgins — and then there are guys who are attractive and socially adjusted but they feel the girl always chooses them and they never choose who they are attracted to."

Strauss admits that he got carried away as an MPUA (master pickup artist) but says for him it wasn't about power but instead the fear of failure. "I do think I went through a dark period where I got seduced by seduction," he says. "It was about how far I could get, how far I could push it.... I'm finally able, for the first time, to go out again and not think of people as sets that I need to approach."

Over the last year he has begun to distance himself from the pickup artists a bit. He has a girlfriend; he's been writing the book and now he'll be promoting it. But he says he's not done with the community yet.

"I still like helping the guys," he says. "If I can boost someone's self-esteem, help him get a girlfriend for the first time in his life and keep him from opening fire in a supermarket because of his frustrations, then I'm doing something good in the world."

And Cupid, well, he already has some vague ideas about healthy relationships being so important they could put an end to wars. In the meantime, he says the class is really helping him get his nerve up for talking to strangers.

On Sunday, the final night of fieldwork is held at the World, a loud dance club on Hollywood Boulevard. Cupid approaches one set in the main room, but the girls can't hear him so he backs away after just a few openers. Strauss suggests he go to the outside patio, where it is a little quieter. Mystery is already out there with some other students, towering above everyone in a red leopard print T-shirt and a top hat.

Cupid sees three girls leaning against the wall and decides to go in, but Strauss advises him against it. "Jon says that set has been done two times already," he says. "They're going to think it's a line."

"I don't care, I'm going in anyway," says Cupid, who walks away, purposefully, to the girls.

"Oh, my God," Strauss says. "He's going to be good."

*

Neil Strauss book signings

Where: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 8

Contact: (310) 659-3684

Also

Where: Borders Westwood, 1360 Westwood Blvd., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5

Contact: (310) 475-3444

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