The art of the pickup

A new reality show on VH1 educates would-be Romeos on the fine art of psychological manipulation.

Published August 1, 2007 6:34PM (EDT)

A while ago, I read an article in Esquire's yearly "What It Feels Like" issue about a reporter who picked up Britney Spears. Turns out the author, Neil Strauss, learned his pickup skills because he was at work on his hit book, "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" -- and when an interview with Spears was going nowhere, he realized that if he wanted her to actually talk to him, he had to pick her up.

An interesting (if manipulative and disturbing) story in and of itself. But I bring it up because one of Strauss' mentors in the pickup world was a guy who goes by the name of "Mystery." (I'm sorry, but if someone came up to me in a bar and said his name was Mystery, there is no way I would give him my phone number -- especially if he had a Web site, the Mystery Method, which promises to teach you to "put beautiful women under your spell.") Whereas Strauss somehow manages to come across as mildly endearing -- a psychological tactic, I'm sure -- Mystery seems like a sleaze. So I'm less than thrilled to report that he has now been given his own how-to show on VH1: "The Pick-Up Artist."

As reported in the OC Register, Mystery's eight "apprentices" "will go through a rigorous eight-week boot camp to compete for the title of 'Master Pick-Up Artist.' Aided by Mystery's wingmen, Matador and J Dog, he will teach these average Joes how to turn the women of their dreams into the women of their reality." Translation: He'll teach them how to sleep with hot chicks.

In the style of "America's Next Top Model" and "The Apprentice," one man will be eliminated each week until the grand winner, the "Master Pick-Up Artist," is left not only with tools of psychological manipulation but with $50,000. (The women whom these so-called artists talk to, whose reactions will be filmed via hidden camera, presumably won't be compensated quite so handsomely.)

OK. From the little I've read of "The Game," I'll admit that I think there's something worthwhile in teaching people how to not be intimidated about approaching people they're attracted to. I mean, everyone can use a little more self-confidence. But even Strauss himself becomes disgusted with the idea of becoming a true pickup artist. And besides, the idea of using mentors by the names of Mystery, J Dog and Matador (What, are we going bullfighting?) to teach guys how to manipulate people into hooking up with them seems less empowering than it does sleazy.

There is one possible upside, though: If these pickup artists' techniques become the subject of a TV show, they'll be easier to spot when they're being used. It reminds me of another Esquire story, this time by A.J. Jacobs, about trying to help his hot baby-sitter find a date. Since Michelle was too shy to try online dating herself, Jacobs (with her permission and his wife's OK) began to impersonate her online. For the most part, he's amazed at how easy it is to attract guys who kiss up to her. But then he includes the following anecdote, which gives me hope:

"A few suitors take a snotty tone. One writes that he wants to know more about Michelle, but adds, 'I can tell from your profile that sometimes you're a handful.'

"That's annoying.

"I respond: 'What gives you the idea that I'm sometimes a handful?'

"He responds: 'I am so right!'

"Now the bastard has really pissed me off. I click on his profile. A John Turturro look-alike with a smug smile. His opening photo shows him with his arm around a pretty woman with large breasts, as if to say, 'I hang around with hot, large-breasted women, so if you are a hot, large-breasted woman, you should also hang around with me.' He likes to 'work hard and play harder.' He is 'VERY spiritual.'

"Michelle is not a handful. In her profile, she says that she's very open and will let you know when she's upset. That makes her a handful?

"But I have a theory. I think the fucker is employing an underhanded strategy. I edited an article a couple of years ago about a book called 'The Game,' by Neil Strauss. It's about a nebbishy guy who decides to become the world's greatest pickup artist, and it became exceedingly popular with a certain type of single man. One major strategy Strauss talks about is to mildly insult a beautiful woman, lower her self-esteem, thus making her more vulnerable to your advances.

"So I e-mail handful guy as Michelle: 'Have you read "The Game" by Neil Strauss?'

"He says, 'What makes you ask me that?'

"Yes! Busted."

So perhaps, despite my initial hesitation, Matador, Mystery and J Dog will be doing us all a favor: By exposing their secrets, they will make themselves seem all the more pathetic, more vulnerable, more sensitive, more human ... I mean, it's almost endearing, these grown men trying to learn psychological tactics just to work up the nerve to talk to a woman. Maybe they're not so bad after all. Maybe we should give them a chance.

Or maybe those jerks are on to something.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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