SHORT. Skinny. Shiny-headed. A big nose and brown eyes with a myopic bulge Lasik can do nothing about: as world-class womanisers go, Neil Strauss is more Roman Polanski than Warren Beatty but, for a while, he lived a life Nuts readers can only dream about.
To understand how this diminutive figure became the Jaws of LA bar sharks, we need to rewind two years. Back then Strauss was a journalist on the New York Times, the only notches on his belt two best-selling books on Mtley Cre and Marilyn Manson. His editor asked if he'd write the next one on a compendium of chat-up lines he'd stumbled upon on the internet. Curious, Strauss Googled the "layguide" and found himself tumbling down a virtual rabbit hole into the secret subculture of the pick-up artist or PUA.
His transformation from professional observer to professional player took two years. By the end he was no longer Neil but Style, premier pick-up artist and founding father of "Project Hollywood" - a frat-come-flop-house operating out of Dean Martin's old pad in LA. There were different women in the hot-tub every night. Courtney Love moved in and Britney Spears gave him her cellphone number.
Not bad for a geek who'd studied for three years at a women's college (Vassar) without having a single girlfriend. But it was no easy task. He worked obsessively. "When I came out of Project Hollywood I had three boxes full of books on persuasion, books on women's sexual fantasies, books on aura reading, books on handwriting analysis, books on how to be 'the jerk women love'," he says, "all this and I was posting online all day."
For serious students of seduction, the first step is gaining access to private chatrooms where the dark arts of pick-up are traded and discussed. Nobody uses their real name, instead characters called Mystery, Extramask and Vision swap expertise, post carefully choreographed game plans and file "field reports".
Like all subcultures, they have their own language. Going out on the pull is called "sarging" and the sarging tactics Strauss describes range from the benign such as "peacocking" - wearing show-off clothes - via the questionable - a put-down technique called "negging", in which PUAs criticise or ridicule their targets to make them insecure and therefore more receptive to their subsequent advances - to the downright queasy - PUAs will employ everything from group dynamics to neuro-linguistic programming to get a girl's number, or even better "a tonguedown". "Believe me, I'm the first guy to say that I don't think all the techniques are right," Strauss says slowly, "Of course we all want to walk up and say: 'Hey, I like you, let's exchange numbers and hang out.' But you can't do that," he says. "Instead you have to go through this social game. These guys are just learning how to play it. And no matter how good they get, women ultimately have the choice. You can't trick someone into sleeping with you."
I still have problems with negging, I tell him, quoting an example he gives in his book of the PUA's Zen master, Warren Beatty, blowing his nose and handing it to his female companion. "That's horrible," nods Strauss, "I totally agree, but these guys are like social scientists and they go with what works." So because they work it's OK to use them? "The neg's been the most controversial element of this but you know, a neg is not an insult, it's more like teasing, really. You're not actually being mean. It's about letting someone know that they'll have to chase to get you."
Today Strauss is dressed in black trousers, black shirt, peacocky zip-up pink tie, ear piercings and platform boots: "I always said they allowed me to meet an extra two inches of women." He is plausible and polite. As we talk I can't help noticing that even when he's disagreeing with me, he begins every answer with an overwhelmingly positive response.
When I tell him that his description of going out for a night with a shoulder bag filled with magic tricks such as fake lint to pick off women's shoulders and a cheat sheet of routine conversational openers creeped me out he says: "Oh, yeah. It's ridiculous. Yeah, totally."
While Strauss might have started off with palm readings ("everybody's favourite subject is themselves") he ended up with threesomes and a harem of sexual playmates at Project Hollywood. As his success grew, he became increasingly cut off from family and friends. Did he ever feel as though he was being corrupted, losing himself in The Game? "Oh, I totally felt like I was being corrupted and losing myself, but I wasn't ready to hear it."
He goes on: "One pick-up thing I would mention is that, as you're talking to me, although you're asking questions and being open with your hands, your legs are crossed and faced away, so there's also that distance." My body language is giving me away, but I can't help it, to me this secret fraternity seems unsavoury - even sinister - with shades of Fight Club and Tom Cruise's "respect the cock" sex instructor in Magnolia, a character who was based on a real pick-up guru.
Living in all-male communes, watching each other stalk women in public then rating and describing their conquests in code, PUAs seem to represent a depressing social atomisation. The rivalries and crushes they have on one another sometimes seem stronger than any putative relationship they might have with a member of the opposite sex.
As Strauss records in his book, "a gulf was opening up between men and women in my mind. I was beginning to see women solely as measuring instruments to give me feedback on how I was progressing as a pick-up artist. They were my crash-test dummies, identifiable only by hair colours and numbers - a blonde 7, a brunette 10. Even when I was having a deep conversation, learning about a woman's dreams and point of view, in my mind I was ticking off a box in my routine marked rapport."
Then again, perhaps it doesn't do to take the whole thing too seriously. For all the terminology (which, it must be said, owes as much to Top Gun as behavioural psychology) PUA techniques generally come down to things like making people look at you by wearing a daft pink cowboy hat, or not talking to the girl you fancy straight away so you don't seem desperate.
Learning "pick-up" isn't learning how to be phoney, insists Strauss, it's just learning how to be confident. "Some guys are naturally just big teases and flirts. So it's OK for the guy that's naturally good, but for that other guy, the pick-up artist, somehow it isn't. Why is that?" Erm, the idea of slick insincerity? "The funny thing is that when it starts working it becomes you and who you are."
Forget Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, argues Strauss, "pick-up" is the best form of self-help there is. It allows shy men to "be their best selves. You know, when you're with your friends and you're joking around and you're laughing and they all think you're great, then you meet a woman and you can't even stammer out a word? Ultimately, all those routines are just a way to keep your mouth moving while you display your personality. All these guys are doing is putting themselves in the selection pool." Americans must be better at running these routines than selfconscious, self-deprecating Brits, I suggest. A lad from Penicuik coming on like a Tom Cruise manqu would be a little odd. "Well you don't have to be Tom Cruise," he laughs, "You could be Orlando Bloom." The guys who run Project Edinburgh, he says, are among the cooler PUAs, "because some of the projects or 'lairs' are really, really nerdy."
The pick-up scene seems to tap into men's insecurities in the same way that women's magazines do and creates the same sense of community. "Once they realise it's OK, you can confide your problems," says Strauss. "They have this complete breakdown: 'Tell me what to do, tell me how to dress, tell me how to walk, should I wear these glasses? I'm on psychiatric medicine, should I get off it? Should I do drugs? Should I drink? Do I speak too fast, too slow? Whoosh. You know, all this stuff comes flying out. Gurus become like father figures and give them advice."
Despite his proselytising zeal, Strauss concedes these fledgling players are vulnerable. "I think some of them follow false prophets. Some guys claim to be gurus who aren't very good with women themselves. They do it for power and they lead these guys astray." As for the psychological techniques they teach them, he says, "they're like anything else, I guess, they can be used for good or evil!"
Strauss also admits there is something very addictive about playing The Game but notes that those who do it for too long tend to end up turning a little, well, strange. Walking, talking and dressing identically, their slavish reliance on patterns and routines means they become what he calls "social robots". "They become very needy. They're not thinking about connecting with people, they're thinking, 'how do I make people respond?' They turn into these weird attention-seeking clones."
At the height of his success, Strauss's alter-ego Style spawned his own clutch of shaven-headed, goatee-wearing acolytes. "It got so I couldn't tell people where I'd bought a pair of shoes because they'd go out and buy the exact same pair," but the scene was also becoming cannibalistic. Style's fans no longer simply went along to his workshops, they began analysing his every move. "It was insane. They broke down my personality to things I didn't even know I did, things that are just natural to me. And then they'd turn them into routines and post them online."
Project Hollywood eventually imploded, but pick-up communities have continued to mushroom online and there are now workshops all over the world. In fact, Strauss tells me "Tyler Durden", a former resident of that pioneering institution, has been sarging with his posse in London's Leicester Square this very weekend. Strauss won't be joining them. Since meeting his girlfriend Lisa (the drummer in Courtney Love's band) Strauss has retired Style, although he admits that he's still fighting a few small fires. "Even now, there can be a group of strangers and I have this crazy need to do what they call 'demonstrate value' - do something amazing that will make everyone go wow! " He doesn't regret his time as a pick-up artist, however. "I don't know if I'd be happy and in love now if I hadn't been through that. I'd probably still be sitting at my computer unshaven, in my underpants, writing, alone."
The Game is published by Canongate on 15 September at 16.99.