This week I found myself sitting at a coffee shop in front of my laptop, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, waiting to meet a pickup artist working under the Jersey Shore styled pseudonym Tony D. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a pickup artist (or PUA) is an individual that uses a formalized set of rules and tactics to meet women. Although this description could be used to characterize any living, breathing, heterosexual male out at a club on a Saturday night, PUAs have gone a step further. Through the use of practiced routines and procedures with technical terms like “spin-pull-open”, and an adherence to philosophical concepts about social value, PUAs have taken the act of going to a bar and transformed it into something close to a religion.
The PUA subculture was relatively unknown until the 2005 publication of Neil Strauss’ novel The Game, in which Strauss recounts his autobiographical experiences with pickup artists. However, the PUA community itself has existed for at least ten years. It has developed from a group of what my interviewee will later refer to as “50 year old Dungeons and Dragons fans” into a community frequented by “lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.” Furthermore, I am told that almost every major city has an online forum for PUAs called a “lair” (some of the Dungeons and Dragons lingo remains) and that the most popular ones in LA contain upwards of 40,000 members. At one point, VH1 was even producing a show titled The Pickup Artist, where famed PUA ‘Mystery’ would teach aspiring Lotharios how to hit on women.
Prior to the interview, I had a series of preconceived notions in regards to pickup artists and, by association, the man I would be meeting. Basically, I imagined that my interviewee would be a tall, overly built, overly bronzed individual with diamond stud earrings and an affectation for naming his abdominal muscles. I assumed he would be the type of individual who talked constantly and unintelligibly about the kind of women he had been with and the kind of women that wanted to be with him. However, when I finally came face to face with Tony D, I found myself staring downwards at a 5’ 8”, bearded, well dressed but otherwise average looking individual. My immediate reaction was to dismiss Tony D as an imposter. The dating scene in Vancouver is notoriously difficult and I was staring at an individual who looked like he would have a harder time picking up women then the man interviewing him – a gangly, goofy, barely employed writer. However, the moment Tony D began to speak it became obvious that he was a charming individual with palatable charisma. Tony D seemed to be the kind of person who was able to talk himself attractive.
While Tony D’s physical appearance ran counter to my expectations, his life story appeared even more out of place with my imagined biography of a PUA. When I asked Tony to tell me about himself, he opened with the fact that when he was 12 years old he developed Gynecomastia – the abnormal development of large breasts in males. Tony D’s website references his experience with Gynecomastia and his resultant shame and devastation from the taunting of his fellow classmates. It’s a story that one would associate with an introverted, quiet, and unassuming adult. It did not mesh with the personification of confidence that was sitting in front of me. Tony D went on to explain that it was actually following surgery to reduce the size of his chest that he became involved with the PUA culture. He was sitting at home, without a girlfriend, and feeling “really insecure” when a UK reality show featuring a pickup artist known as Juggler flashed across his television screen. Tony D was instantly intrigued, joined an online forum of PUAs, and started practicing their prescribed routines.
The effects were startling; by 2008, Tony D had gained so much notoriety for his ability to meet women that he was regularly being contacted by aspiring PUAs who wanted to have him work as their wingman. By 2009, Tony had become adept enough at the art of seduction that he was able to charge for his services. Currently, he makes a portion of his living teaching 16 hour dating boot camps at $799 a pop. He also provides 40+ hour mentorships to other clients that can run into the thousands of dollars. In addition to this, Tony’s psychological state and lifestyle have also been deeply affected by his experiences as a PUA. Tony explains, “My entire life changed 180 degrees once I got into pick up. It’s almost like a religion…In order to attract women I had to completely change my life. I had to learn confidence.”
I ask Tony D. about some of the instructional techniques he uses with his clients and he tells me that the type of “game” popularized by Neil Strauss’ novel is beginning to fall out of practice. He explains that in the mid 2000s, PUAs were memorizing routines or bits of dialogue to pick up women and that since the publication of Strauss’ novel the most effective routines have been popularized to the point of ineffectiveness. Instead, Tony D uses exercises that develop improvisational skill. For instance, he tells me that he will commonly have his clients approach a random stranger with the goal of engaging that stranger in a thumb war. He also takes them to improv classes, and brings them to bars where they are encouraged to start conversations with a high volume of strange women. Having had experience in sales, I tell Tony D. that the tactics he’s teaching are very similar to those taught by corporations like Investors Group, or Telus, when they are trying to drum up new clients. Tony D. laughs and agrees before admitting that he actually used to work as a telemarketer.
However, despite the jokes, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there is a significant difference between shilling for a long distance provider and convincing women to come home with you. As much as I admire Tony’s positivity and charisma, the fact remains that his business relies to some degree on the harsh objectification of women. Furthermore, the PUA community has been criticized in the past for some of their techniques. In particular, their use of an exercise referred to as “negging”, where a PUA attempts to lower a female’s social value by casually insulting her. I raise these points with Tony and he defends the community with the following assertions: “I wouldn’t disagree that there are misogynists on the scene. But it is a tiny percentage. As far as hatred of women, being a PUA is about getting with women and understanding women. You can’t do that if you hate them.” Tony also brushes away the criticism that has been launched against “negging”, stating “Critics think it’s about being mean to affect self esteem. It’s not about that. It’s about equalling the playing field. I will react negatively if someone is reacting negatively to me.” Surprisingly, Tony tells me that he has actually been contacted by women who are interested in having him teach them how to pick up men.
I give Tony an incredulous stare, but he insists that it is true. I ask him if he’s ever actually gone outside his current client base of young heterosexual men and taught a woman or possibly a gay male. He has not, due largely to the fact that he has no experience picking up men. However, he has had a diverse spectrum of clients from “19 year old students” to “a 59 year old circus performer.” Later, I am actually given the opportunity of meeting one of Tony’s clients and am a little disappointed to find that he is not employed at Barnum & Baileys. Nonetheless, it is curious to see how shy and unassuming he is. Tony indicates that this not unusual and that most his clients are “normal dudes,” commonly “introverted, university students, with a little extra money and lack of confidence” who are “more interested in finding a girlfriend than becoming a player.”
I ask Tony if he is similar to his clients in this regard. I wonder whether a man so adept at meeting women that he has turned it into a career, would ever want to settle down in a conventional sense. Tony responds plainly by saying, “Most guys want to keep the girl. There are a few guys who stay players and most guys who do that in the long run are kind of f****ed up. It’s not the path to happiness. You’re never going to bang your way to enlightenment.” I’m pretty sure Tony was not intending to be profound, but I feel like that last sentence might one day serve as a parable warning against my generation’s common aspiration towards an over-sexed and under-committed love life. After all, if a man like Tony D believes it is impossible for someone like himself to achieve nirvana through random sexual encounters, than what hope could we mere mortals possibly have?