When you first see the towering, 6-foot-5 man who goes by the name "Mystery," there's almost too much to take in. A floppy top hat and goggles, bright red lips tattooed on his neck, kohl-lined eyes, platform boots, black nails, binoculars slung around his neck: These are just a few of Mystery's unexplainable accouterments. But Mystery says he knows just what he's doing. He calls his look "peacocking" -- and explains that it's a way of capturing women's attention, to intrigue and, ultimately, sleep with them.
At 35, Mystery (aka Erik Von Markovik) is widely considered one of the most successful pickup artists in the world and makes his livelihood by getting other men laid. He first shot to fame in 2005, after a best-selling exposé by journalist Neil Strauss, "The Game," brought readers inside his life within the Los Angeles seduction scene. Mystery then published an instructional manual titled "How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed: The Mystery Method." Now he's starring in his very own reality-TV series, "The Pick-up Artist," premiering Aug. 6 on VH1. There, with the help of his wingmen, Matador and J Dog, Mystery plans to fix the luck of a 45-year-old virgin and seven other hapless Don Juans.
When he's not in front of the camera, Mystery pays homage to his two idols -- Tony Robbins and Casanova -- by traveling the world offering seduction workshops, some of which run nearly $5,000 a pop. During these seminars, he roams hotel conference rooms in a headset, scribbling Venn diagrams and flowcharts meant to illuminate the female mind. Later on, students accompany him to a nightclub, where like a skilled magician, Mystery produces three platinum blonds on his lap or summons a phone number from a woman standing next to her boyfriend.
As it happens, Mystery used to work as a magician. But he says that he found he could cut the magic from his interactions with people and still captivate them -- especially women. Paired with some self-taught psychology, those mind games developed into "The Mystery Method," which, he says, teaches men to rewire a woman's "attraction circuitry."
How do you "rewire" a woman? According to Mystery, it involves meeting the objectives of her phases of attraction in order to establish comfort and successfully seduce her within seven hours. It's a method that has inspired ire, to be sure -- particularly his use of the "neg," a "subtle-yet-negative statement that puts a target off-guard and makes her question her own value." Along with "peacocking" -- which, some might say, paints women as house cats easily distracted by shiny objects -- Mystery has also developed "cat theory," which he defines as "keeping 'bait' just out of a woman's reach and continually enticing her in small increments. She must be baited to chase like a cat with a string." He dubs this school of thought the "Venusian Arts" -- the end goal of which is "replication."
Salon spoke to Mystery by phone in San Diego (where he was filming an upcoming product) about sexual psychology, the "need to be hugged," and the loneliness of life as a pickup artist.
What can viewers expect from your upcoming VH1 reality-TV show?
It'll be heartwarming. Eight lovable lonelies are coming to me -- one moment. [Yelling in background: Dude, it started!] Forgive me, I'm being pulled from several sides. I have, in this show, eight students and my job is to get them up to speed in a game their dads never taught them. In order to make it challenging we added in an elimination game to it, whereby by the end, only one of them will have earned the right to hang with me, travel with me and teach others.
Were you worried that someone wasn't going to be qualified by the end of the show?
No, I wasn't, simply because I've done boot camps for quite some time and learning the elegant art of cold approach pickup is definable, it's quantifiable. You can do it. It's a lot like getting on a motorcycle. The first time you get on it you'll be afraid, just like the first time you approach a girl. The same sort of full-blown adrenaline release will take place. If you desensitize yourself to those foreign environments you'll get yourself up to speed.
You're already fairly well known, but what does this show mean for your future as a pickup artist?
[Laughs] I'm a 35-year-old man. I don't need any more friends. I have all the friends that I need in my life to share challenges with. The women in my life, they're good friends. I've never hidden any of this pickup stuff from them. If you had to hide pickup secrets from a woman, I think those secrets would be unethical. During my boot camps, over the years, I've invited girlfriends to these events. And, really, they're great sounding boards. I get to find out what they feel is moral or immoral.
Have they helped you to tweak your method at all?
Well, what a woman says she wants and what she responds to are two different things.
That brings me to another question. You've said your method addresses female psychology.
So what kind of psychological theories underpin your method?
Well, that's a loaded question.
I'm fascinated by psychology and one aspect of psychology, if you're going to zoom into it a little bit, is sexual psychology. We're not out to try to figure out the opposite sex, we're trying to figure out ourselves.
If we could reverse-engineer the way the emotional circuits in our brain work, how they function and why and how they systematically trigger when we're faced with certain events, we could figure out how to do it right. How do you approach a woman without freaking her out?
A woman wants to align with a man of high value. How can a man systematically convey his value to a woman if she won't even let him? A woman, by the time she's 23 years old, if she's a beautiful young lady, she's going to have been hit on a good 7,500 times. So we have to approach differently. We can't approach saying, "Wow, I like you, do you like me?"
There are some differences among men and women when it comes to our attraction circuits. A man's circuits are calibrated primarily to respond to a woman's replication value -- to her hip to waist ratio, facial symmetry, breast shape and size, health characteristics, and all that, right? And a woman, her attraction mechanism is evolutionarily calibrated to respond to more of a man's social value. In other words, when I hang out with a woman, I don't hang out with her because I need to be protected. Men, we respond to her replication value. Women, they respond primarily to a man's survival value or social value. The purpose of life is to survive and replicate and we've got 28,000 days -- all of us -- approximately, give or take, to make that happen.
But survival and replication have a different importance in today's world than, say, in hunting and gathering days, right?
Well, the purpose of life is to survive and replicate, whether you know that or not. If you don't survive long enough to replicate, well, then your genes will not replicate. It's very simple. Our brains, when you're looking at it from an engineering point of view, every single circuit, every emotional circuit that exists -- there's got to be a good 300 of them -- every one exists for a social purpose.
You want to hang out and share challenges with people who can help you in this life. From a woman's perspective, there is nothing more helpful than having a relationship with a man who can take care of her. Not that she needs to be taken care of. But it certainly would be nice to have someone in your corner that you can truly trust and has your best interest in mind. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone in your corner that would remove the weight of the world from your shoulders?
To give you direction and advice. And help you with all those other emotional things like the need for sex, the need for companionship. The need to be hugged.
But men need that too, right?
Of course. One of my students in the show is a 45-year-old virgin. [Pauses] Wow. It's not even about sex at that point, it's about hugging. That man had just not been hugged enough.
I've read that, as a teenager, you were a Dungeons and Dragons devotee and a virgin until age 21. So how did you transform into, arguably, the world's most well-known pickup artist?
Who said "arguably"? [Laughs.] I'm teasing, I'm teasing. Well, I was a late bloomer -- went through puberty at 16 and a half and lost my virginity in my 21st year. In order for me to get social, while I was a kid, I used -- and was fascinated by -- of all things, magic. This is how it all started: I read a book called "501 Magic Tricks." What was amazing was it wasn't four or five or six different ways of screwing with someone's head and showing the holes in their perception. There were 501 ways, all in one book. It was mind-altering to me.
By my 20s, I was doing hundreds and hundreds of magic shows all around the world and when I was in my mid-20s, I went down to Florida because I wanted to perform magic on a cruise ship. And while my promo pack was out there and being looked at, I needed to make some money. So, I started working in a restaurant doing what we call intimate interactive illusion. But how the hell do you walk up to a group of strangers and say [adopts dopey voice], "Hey would you like to see some magic?" I needed to come up with a way of making it cool, adding a personality to it.
What I ultimately discovered was that I could remove the magic from my interactions and keep their attention. People would be captivated -- they would gravitate toward me because of my fascination in things.
So, maybe it's no great surprise that you've become skilled at interacting one-on-one with people. But how good is the average guy at summoning that kind of charisma and confidence?
I'm less concerned about confidence than I am about competence. Charisma is a very ethereal word ...charisma. It's more about what value you have for a woman and how you can systematically demonstrate it to her without appearing as if you're one of those seedy players wanting to brag. It's not about bragging, so you disqualify yourself by throwing out what we call a "neg."
I was just about to go there. Explain for a minute what the "neg" is.
A "neg" is a concept. A "neg" is a statement or action one would make to briefly disqualify oneself from being considered a potential suitor. It's not an insult, I'm not putting the girl down. For instance, if I'm in a group of people and I say, perhaps to my girl of interest, "Hey, can you pass me that napkin, please? Thank you." I go to blow my nose and I look at her and I say, "What, are you gonna watch?" She'll laugh, of course, and I'll blow my nose. I'm not insulting her by doing that but I am disqualifying myself as being considered a potential suitor. Her friends know I'm not after her -- I'm blowing my nose in front of her!
Then the friends are disarmed and she's gonna think to herself, "He's not after me." If she's particularly beautiful, she's gonna wonder why. The only solution to why is either that he's gay, in which case he's not threatening, or he's so accustomed to beauty that he must have beauty in his life. So he must be pretty selective and a hard-wired attraction switch gets triggered.
One "neg" that I've seen you do is to walk up to a woman and say, "What do you have going for you other than your looks?"
I would never just walk up to her and say that, no. But, three to five minutes in ... My job is to first disqualify myself then to get into a conversation where I can demonstrate higher value. Once you've done that, she'll start throwing subtle indicators of interest. Subtle cues like scratching the back of her hand. That area of the hand gets itchy when a girl is attracted to a man from ape days, you know -- it means, "Groom me." That's a subtle indicator of interest. Once we get that, then and only then, can we qualify her. I'm being social, I'm showing that I have social values, and once she has qualified herself -- I ask, "What do you have going for yourself more than your looks?" -- and she starts answering. Well, that's an indicator of interest. She's actually trying to qualify herself. Then and only then can I give her indicators of interest.
The theory of "negging" is controversial. I've heard it criticized as simply veiled insults and misogynistic.
Those are the people who haven't seen it in action. The result of any "neg" is laughter.
Doesn't this kind of scheming ultimately harbor a more deep-seated sense of inadequacy in men? Don't you start to worry about having the "real you" discovered?
You've never met me in person, have you? And you wrote that question down on a piece of paper before you met me. Here is the word that I don't enjoy, "scheming" -- I'm not a schemer.
What word would you be more comfortable with?
Let's go through it again. What's the question?
OK ... would this kind of scheming create a sense of inadequacy in men -- a fear of being found out?
Wow. Did you write that? Snap out of it, woman! Oh my god. Let's come up with better questions than that -- that just doesn't fit into my reality. Are there people out there who scheme? Perhaps. Are there people out there who don't like themselves? Yeah. I like myself, I'm a good person.
This is really how I see it: If you don't learn these skills, if you don't learn what knowledge already exists in the Venusian Arts, your chances of survival and replication in this life will be compromised.
OK, how is this question: When you start looking at women as "targets," as a power to be overthrown, do you lose any intellectual respect for them?
That's a very loaded question. That doesn't fit into my reality. Forgive me, I don't look at women that way. So you'd have to ask someone who does. That's just not even in my reality. I have a lot of women in my life -- do you know what they'd do if I talked like that, if I thought like that? They'd kick my ass!
But if you can, as you say, so effectively summon virtually any woman's interest, wouldn't you start to lose respect for them?
In my life, I am very fortunate to have choice. If I'm not in a relationship, there are women who are actually kind of keeping track of that. So that they can, you know, jockey for a position.
That's just not my reality. The misogyny thing, of course I'm going to have to deal with the preconceived notions of the stereotype of a player. But that's why we don't even call it the pickup arts. We call it the Venusian Arts.
If your method is as effective as you say it is, do you worry about it getting into the wrong hands and being abused?
Well, I can't worry about it. Are there bad people out there? Yeah. Aren't there people who want to use any tool for evil?
Is it at all lonely, though, having to always follow these rules, rather than telling it like it is, saying things as you feel them?
Wow, yeah. Yeah, it is. How unfair is it that when I see a woman from a distance, I may not know her name and my god has given me attraction circuits in my head that make me want to mate with her. Even though I don't know her name, right? Women don't generally feel that. They have to know the man's name and his Social Security number.
I might disagree with that. I know plenty of women who aren't that way.
Uh, are they cute?
Well, that's the end of my questions, is there anything else, though, that you'd like to add?
[Snickers.] You're funny. Have you ever been to a club?
How many boyfriends have you had? Have you had more than one?
So you're one of us then. You're sequentially monogamous. You've had more than one man in your life.
These are just statements. I'm trying to understand who I'm speaking with. What city are you in?
San Fran. OK, there's a [seduction] lair there.