I was sitting on a fold-out couch, wearing only my boxers, when Daniel's email popped up. There was no subject line, just a simple YouTube link. Over the next hour, I watched all seven videos on Simple Pickup's channel, each three times over. I couldn't quite explain my delirium until I read a comment posted by user SeaWeedBrain013: "You guys are my heroes. I don't understand how your pants can withstand the weight of your balls."
Simple Pickup's YouTube channel is devoted to picking up girls. The stars -- Kong, Jesse and Jason -- film themselves on the streets of Los Angeles, approaching random women, making them laugh, then getting their numbers. In their 16 videos, they've picked up 125 numbers. I counted.
Like all red-blooded males, I'd heard of "The Game," the New York Times bestseller that introduced America to the art of seduction. I'd even read it. Mediocre shows like VHI's "The Pickup Artist" went further in exposing the "secrets" of the pickup community -- for instance, that a "neg" is a backhanded compliment to a pretty girl to get her attention. But these Simple Pickup videos -- these guys -- were literally the first time I'd seen proof of pickup artists in real life. They weren't ridiculous fops like Mystery, the dusty and irrelevant host of "The Pickup Artist," with his feather boas and guyliner. They looked like the dudes who'd gone to Yale with me -- normal-looking and nice, self-professed former nerds. Within a week, every guy I knew had either showed me the videos or been sent them by me. We were enamored with the even-keeled, irreverent way they approached women. More important, watching them had given us the deadly confidence that we could do it, too.
Not long after, I was at a summer concert with friends when a Russian girl with beautiful gray eyes sat across from us. I looked at her and said, "Staring contest, let's go." The words had simply appeared in my mouth. I won the staring contest. Even better, I left with her number.
A breakdown of their game
The Simple Pickup trio look like generic Los Angeles 20-somethings: Kong is 6 feet tall, with coarse black hair and broad shoulders; Jesse is a scrawny Indian-American with a toupee haircut, who likes pulpy orange juice and screenwriting; Jason is Caucasian, but with a Hispanic tinge, and has two nicknames, either "The Pudgy One" or "JDGAF" (Jason Doesn't Give a F*). All three of them live in what they affectionately call "the asshole of Orange County," Fullerton, in a dumpy apartment complex behind an alley.
Their interactions with women, though, are anything but generic. Here's a typical exchange:
Kong: "I am the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be."
Unidentified girl: "Can you back that up?"
Their style is endearing, irreverent and brash. They frequently deal in sexual innuendo, zoom off on absurd tangents, and act out for the sake of acting out. And yet, unlike 99.5 percent of the male population, they get phone numbers, on the street, of girls they have just met. That's the goal of Simple Pickup: to get numbers.
Their videos show a subsection of all the numbers they've gotten. (For those keeping score, Kong has 46, Jason has 36 and Jesse has 43.) While their opening lines vary, they can be bucketed into one of four categories: innocuous questions, fake innocuous questions, direct statements and whimsical remarks. Forty-four percent of their successful pickups use direct openers: "Oh my God. You guys are way too cute. I had to meet you. I'm Jesse." Twenty-seven percent start with whimsical nonsense: "I saw your facial symmetry, and I was like, I need to speak with her." Twenty-one percent of their introductions are "real" questions: "Do you know where the nearest Marie Callender's is?" And 8 percent of the time, they go the fake question route: "Would you happen to know where Starbucks is? You know, I can't lie to you. I just came here because I thought you were cute." The three amass around 10 numbers in every video; the high-water mark is 17. Privacy is respected: Faces are expertly blurred, only area codes can be heard, and ancillary information, like the names of college buildings, are off-camera.
While their conversations display a flow-chart-like efficiency, the trio's ample personalities are evident as well. Jason likes toeing the sexual-discomfort line: "You're like all about piercings, you have one here, one here, one here, obviously your nipples." Jesse likes to be self-deprecating: "[Talking to you] is a nice change from jerking off in my mom's basement." Kong likes to amp up the ridiculous-meter. While dressed up as Harry Potter during one of their "stunt" pickups, Kong tells a girl, "If you make fun of me one more time, I'm going to take my wand and stick it right up your Diagon Alley."
There's no universal applicability with regards to what they say. But that's what's inspiring. Jesse tells me, "When you're having a conversation, you can literally say whatever you want. Girls are very forgiving that way." Besides, what's more important is the foundation: a pitch-perfect tone that's challenging, nonchalant and always loud, clear and pithy. It also helps to have their body language: head held high, strong and confident -- and at the same time, displaying an almost professional sort of disaffection as well, with a shadow of a slouch and laconic, measured smiles.
While the videos mostly show successful pickups, it's surprisingly a reflection of the truth. "We get numbers from 50 percent of all girls we approach on college campuses," Kong says. "It's 50 percent at Huntington Beach too, and 30 percent at Venice."
Jesse chimes in, "But that's because the girls there are a little drunk."
Most weeks, they film their videos in less than two hours. Just a small fraction of the numbers they pick up in real life are interesting enough to make it into a video. And as for failures? "We've all gotten slapped," Jesse says. "But honestly, we laugh about it and move on."
On YouTube, where view count is king, their 16 videos have currently totaled 7.3 million views. Their most popular video, "Internet Trolls Pick Up Girls," has hit the 1 million view benchmark. But as a metric to measure Simple Pickup's reach, it doesn't tell the entire story. What's really important -- and where Jason, Jesse and Kong shine in a way no other pickup artists of their kind have -- is engagement with the audience: They read every single viewer comment (there have been over 38,000) and use the spiciest for inspiration. In July, one fan commented, "pick up girls acting completely gay, if you guys can do that hell I will call you guys my Gods." The next week, they donned booty shorts, neon tank tops and rollerblades, and picked up 11 numbers.
Drawing inspiration from viewer comments, they wear absurd outfits or take on challenges to inject every video with more personality. They've picked up girls while pretending to be paraplegics in wheelchairs, and only using hip-hop lyrics. The trio maintains an active Twitter handle of more than 3,200 followers, makes instructional tapes directly answering viewer questions, and diligently responds to every direct message, whether it's a 20-year-old in Oklahoma asking about how to make the first kiss, or a 30-year-old in Denmark sharing an anecdote about how European women are different.
Of course, Simple Pickup doesn't appeal to everyone. Pickup artists tend to cater to a highly focused, highly invested audience. And just by definition, their videos don't speak to half of the human race. In August, female YouTube commenter fylothea wrote, "Ugh….i can't imagine any girl being down for any of this. also, if you need this video to help you get laid, that's sad. you can't ‘trick' girls into liking you. /facepalm."
Give fylothea credit: She actually watched the video. When Simple Pickup first went viral, I eagerly showed it to one of my female friends, thinking she'd be as hooked as I was to their street magic. A minute and a half in, she turned to me and said, "How can you watch this entire thing?" Of all the videos on YouTube, from NASCAR, to cock fighting, to Megan Fox at a car wash, picking up girls might be the most gender-polarizing.
But that hasn't kept the broader online community from lauding their efforts. Action movie star the Rock has retweeted their videos; Ashton Kutcher has done the same. Klout, the standard in measuring online influence, gives Simple Pickup a score of 46 (Justin Bieber is 99), which is more than "Social Network" star Jesse Eisenberg. Klout defines Simple Pickup as a "Specialist": "You may not be a celebrity, but within your area of expertise your opinion is second to none."
Of course, other pickup videos do exist. SucceedAtDating lays claim to more than 100 videos, one of which has over 400,000 views. Search "Pickup artist videos," and you'll find Sasha PUA, InfieldSeductions and DayGameTV serving up video tutorials of how to get a girl's number. But their video channels can't boast as loyal a subscriber base, higher average views per video, or a sexier production value than Simple Pickup. And while other channels are marred by the ugliness of commercialization -- from in-video product descriptions to online store links -- Simple Pickup doesn't advertise anything except, well, how to get numbers.
Jason, Jesse and Kong are a paragon of Web 2.0 interaction: Their success is tied directly to transparency, feedback mechanisms and user intimacy, and as a result, they're the most fascinating and inspirational pickup artists today. That's something the overall pickup establishment, for all its bluster and soigné, is far behind on. Armed with just a Costco video camera and a voice recorder, Simple Pickup may just force a multimillion-dollar pickup artist industry to raise its standards
The problem with the pickup artist industry
The commercialization of seduction began haphazardly. In 1970, Eric Weber released "How to Pick Up Girls." It was relatively unknown, as was Ross Jeffries' "How to Get the Women You Desire Into Bed," published in 1992. It wasn't until 2005 when Neil Strauss' bildungsroman, "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" -- made to look like a Bible, gold trim and all -- tipped the seduction community into full sales mode. After Strauss' book appeared as Amazon.com's No. 1 seller and spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list, hundreds of companies materialized. Over the years, a caste system for pickup schools has taken shape.
In the top rung are the market behemoths – companies like Love Systems and Real Social Dynamics -- that employ a cadre of teachers running three-day, $3,000 boot camps and $697 super-conferences around the world. The middle rung consists of successful one-man shops. Most are ruthless self-promoters who have seized the cultural moment to soak up fame: Paul Janka, a Harvard graduate turned pickup artist, has appeared on "The View" and Dr. Phil; J.T. Tran (aka the Asian Playboy) was an aerospace engineer who quit to run the company ABC's of Attraction, and was invited to Yale University to give a "Master's Tea," usually reserved for people such as Indra Nooyi, Denzel Washington and Brian Williams. The lowest rung consists of two groups: armchair pickup artists and location-specific coaches. Quality is extremely variable. Up-and-comers exist -- hip-hop dancer and part-time pickup artist Aiden West, for instance, gives three-hour lessons for $45 in Manhattan (participants meet at a Barnes and Nobles for day game and a ... McDonald's for night game) -- but most are snake oil operators hawking recycled wares. Watchdog website PUA Hate lists more than 185 of these companies, which means thousands more probably toil in relative anonymity.
Books are pickup companies' cash cows. An overwhelming majority of males seeking pickup resources don't attend events; they read the books. That's why there are so many: For every top-line publication -- Strauss' "Rules of the Game," Savoy's "Magic Bullets" -- there are 100 other self-published, self-marketed e-books, from "Bang," by Roosh, to "Conquer Your Campus," by Mark Redman. Books are the industry's bread-and-butter: easy to create, easy to disseminate.
And yet, for their relative ease to produce, they are guarded zealously. Most pickup websites contain just two types of pages: teaser testimonials that are the very definition of bombast, vouching failsafe methods for sleeping with supermodels; and a credit card payment page. These pay walls either exist because a company truly values its intellectual property, or because it is selling horse manure. Without any verifiably genuine consumer reviews, and without well-organized discussion forums, how does the average consumer really know what's legitimate?
That's where Simple Pickup changes the game. Their "in-field" videos capture interactions men can analyze and decode; no more relying on blind faith theories in text. The shift adds tremendous value for the consumer, and yet, none of the major pickup companies have truly embraced video, an approach that is short-sighted at best and self-destructive at worst. Body language contributes 92 percent to a social interaction's success; books regurgitate what was said -- a poor substitute for what's more important: how it was said.
As much as reading creates knowledge, it doesn't instill belief. Simple Pickup's videos bridge the gap between insinuating and emulating; and they provide a solution to the pickup industry's tell-not-show problem. What, exactly, does the viewer learn? Well, let's see.
The promise of pickup
Before talking about what Simple Pickup teaches us, it's worth asking why the videos are so damn popular. Why hasn't the pickup artist fad withered away yet? Why are 20-something males hanging on to these videos like they've unearthed the holy grail?
To help answer that, let's turn to the 2009 census data on sexual activity, which showed that 31 percent of the U.S. male population has had fewer than three sexual partners, while 23 percent of males had over 15 sexual partners in their lifetimes. That's quite a spread. The promise of 21st century sexual liberation has been primarily enjoyed by a sliver of the male population -- the alpha males, while beta males (and omega males) feel shut out. The seduction community is designed for men who didn't grow up with an older brother or sister teaching them the ropes; men who don't think they're attractive; men who are simply too scared to even think about failure. By telling these men that there's a quantifiable path toward learning how to be good with women, it gives them a tangible action plan, where before there was blind meandering. Pickup discards external glory -- fame, the money of a hot start-up CEO, the body of an NBA player -- for the simple trappings of knowledge and inner confidence. It's a call to possibility; it's a pathway to attracting the impossible girl of our dreams.
Think of Simple Pickup's videos as the male equivalent of the Hollywood 48-hour miracle diet; after all, men gaining confidence may be the closest corollary to women losing weight. By capturing evidence that they can pick up a girl in any situation, Simple Pickup is essentially saying, "I lost 30 pounds in two days! Here's the proof! And you can too!" They make picking up numbers look easy; when you watch it enough times, you'll realize that it actually is.
It wasn't originally simple for Kong, Jesse and Jason. They used to be a veritable dork squad. "I used to play 'Warcraft' all day," Kong says. "It was 'Starcraft' for Jesse. And Jason – he liked anime. Actually, he still does."
During college, they were antisocial. "It felt very hard to go out there and make new friends," Jesse says. "But once I met these guys, you know what we realized? It's not hard to talk to random people." For the three, what started as daring each other to do stupid things has turned into a lifetime vocation.
"I'm dropping everything for this," Jason says. "Simple Pickup is my life." Their goal is to inspire socially sheltered men to develop confidence and have fun in social situations.
Kong says, "We want to give the message that what seems impossible isn't that hard to do."
Simple Pickup's videos teach Three Big Lessons. The first is that it's not what you say, but how you say it. "When I first tried talking to a girl, I kept telling Kong it wasn't going to work," Jason said. "Then I realized you can get away with a lot more than you think." A devil-may-care attitude and the right tone obviate the need for "the perfect line." Inexperienced college students and "Starcraft" geeks (not mutually exclusive) take note: If Simple Pickup can get a number after telling a girl she likes semen on her back, a normal conversation should be easy.
The second Big Lesson is that looks don't matter. Forget elegance; Simple Pickup's videos demonstrate a universal truth: Don't change your style. You're perfect (and can pick up women) just the way you are. An equally important ancillary point is that race doesn't matter either. Conventional pickup artists are stereotyped (partially deserved) as handsome Caucasian males. Jason, Jesse and Kong aren't traditionally good-looking; all of them (though they might argue this) are just like you or me. And yet, despite the fact that they're not a group of great-looking white guys -- maybe because of that? -- Simple Pickup can talk to women of every skin tone.
The last and most important Big Lesson is to have fun. "Turn everything that you're scared of into something fun," Kong recommends. "If you're fat, go up to a girl and say, 'Hey, I know I'm a fat ass, but I wanted to meet you.'" Laughter and goodwill mollify rejection's sting. Their videos are filled with playfulness; they relish the challenge and the camaraderie, not the end result.
Meanwhile, the pickup community lags behind with Generation Y. It's become too insular, jargon-laden, and costly for the 22-year-old male. At this moment, nobody in the multimillion-dollar pickup establishment offers as much upfront, accessible and motivational content as Simple Pickup. Of course, it's not exactly overturning the industry yet; while Simple Pickup has incorporated as a company, it has no revenue traction. They haven't even released a full-length pickup yet. But even if Jesse, Jason and Kong only ever produce videos, they might already be the harbingers for the pickup artist video revolution.
It may be that pickup 1.0, with its reliance on books, will go the way of the Post Office, the Yellow Pages and pornography: The walled gardens will crumble, armchair charlatans will be exposed, and industry stalwarts will be forced to offer more dynamic content upfront. The business model might even shift to free content online and paid coaching offline. It's a new world, and Simple Pickup is leading the transformation. Of course, they might also just be enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.
Right now, though, on a breezy end-of-summer day in August, it's just a couple of buddies having fun.
The three have just piled all their equipment into Kong's '91 Toyota Corolla. Today, they're dressed as magicians, and with the weather a balmy 88 degrees, it's another perfect day in Southern California. The location this afternoon is Hollywood.
"Kong!" Jesse yells. "Two hotties are coming your way. Go!"
"All right," Kong replies. "Is the camera on?"
Jason starts rolling the tape, standing in plain view just 20 feet away (the girls rarely notice). Kong, who is wearing a black top hat and red suit, gives him a thumbs up. Then he turns toward the stream of traffic, and stares down two girls walking toward him.
"I want you to pick a number between one and 10 ... now!"