It’s an average afternoon at the Z. Cioccolato candy shop in North Beach. The young employees are bored stiff from hours of arranging taffy and playing with toy cows that defecate Dr. Pepper–flavored jellybeans. That is, until Jesse Hull walks in.
Jesse is a 6-foot-2-inch 33-year-old with a goatee and dark, curly hair that he pins back with, not one, but two pairs of sunglasses. He’s flaunting blue and gray snakeskin shoes, Diesel jeans, and a see-through button-down with fishlike creatures embroidered on it. It’s a style pickup artists like Jesse call peacocking, a way to set yourself apart from the masses.
Jesse is one of the many acolytes of Lance Mason, the number-one pickup artist in the Bay Area. As founder of PickUp 101, a two-year-old company that teaches men how to flirt, date, and generally pick up women, transforming average guys into flawless ladies’ men, Mason is the leader of San Francisco’s new posse of PUAs. I’m hanging out with Jesse after my first day at one of Mason’s workshops, which I am studiously observing.
If you haven’t heard of PUAs, you will. You may have already slept with one. They’re men who spend incredible amounts of time zealously analyzing what to wear, say, and do to attract the opposite sex. Yes, there have always been ladies’ men, but the new cultlike community of pickup artists is more than that. Using psychological games and other tactics, based partly on primate behavioral patterns and partly on Tom Cruise and James Dean moves, they’re developing a pseudoscience that is sweeping the nation. Many PUAs post their results and theories in chat rooms like MysteryMethod.com, teach workshops like Mason’s, and brag about their exploits and abilities to pick up high-profile women like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Last year, Neil Strauss released The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. The best-selling book, with its embossed cover resembling a bible, became an instant cult classic. “The PUA thing has grown exponentially since the book,” says Strauss, who is heralded as the number-one PUA in the country, having seduced innumerable women before meeting his current girlfriend, the blonde guitarist for Courtney Love. “In the past, I believed there were guys who had it and guys who didn’t,” says Strauss. “But once you find out that it can be learned, everything changes.”
As sleazy as the PUA trend may sound, San Francisco certainly needs something to pull itself out of its dating doldrums. The city has long been a notoriously difficult place to meet people. According to a poll conducted by San Francisco magazine in 2003, over half of singles say it’s harder to hook up here than anywhere else. In a city of cliques, we fall into ruts and forget it’s possible to fall in love with someone with different politics, career goals, or tattoos. Men let their deeply rooted PC fear of objectifying women prevent them from approaching them. Online dating seemed like a solution, but it often dissolves into the tedious task of résumé swapping, rarely providing the chemistry-induced adrenaline rush that good old-fashioned flirting does.
Still, many women are understandably turned off by the whole idea of PUAs. “Lines are disingenuous,” says Lisa, a 26-year-old graduate student I met in a café in Oakland. “I don’t use them, and I don’t want guys to use them.” Moreover, Bay Area women accuse the men here of flighty relationship hopping, and PickUp 101 may exacerbate the problem. Practice makes perfect, and some women could end up as lab rats for a zealous PUA climbing the chick ladder, hoping each conquest will be better than the last.
But Mason offers more than “a line,” in part because he knows the women here are different. “They’re smart, independent, and they have their lives together,” he says, “and they expect the same from men.” With a reputation in the PUA world for sincerity, his style is more Bay Area–friendly than most. While he teaches routines for beginners, he encourages men to abandon those routines once they feel comfortable enough to rely on their own instincts.
But even if Mason’s weird science does work, what guy is going to humble himself to take a class on meeting women? When I first heard about Mason’s workshops, I imagined a room of clueless Silicon Valley techies and Marina Triangle slicksters bragging about how fast they can get women into bed. But I discovered that these guys, like most of us, are simply looking for validation from attractive people—they’re just being more proactive about getting it.
Z. Cioccolato is supposed to be my first chance to observe a PUA in action, but suddenly Jesse is pushing me to participate. I’m terrified and uncomfortable. Even if I do get lucky, it feels a bit wrong to hit on strangers for sport. But the first thing PUAs learn is that women want to be picked up. As Will Smith says in Hitch: “No woman wakes up saying, ‘God, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.’” Besides, Jesse claims to have once been shy himself, unable to meet women who weren’t friends of friends. But now he’s acting like he owns the place.
Jesse locks in on his target, a darkly tanned clerk who’s arranging stuffed animals. I follow, my lower back in a knot, a response Mason says happens when we try to be “cooler than we are.” This is why, I’m now realizing, PUAs-in-training need routines.
“I’m looking for a gift for my 8-year-old niece,” Jesse says, using step one from one of the pickup routines he learned from Mason. “Any recommendations?” The girl points to some T-shirts, “Paris Hilton really likes these.”
Jesse now has to get her laughing: “Are you kidding? I don’t want my niece dressing like Paris Hilton!” The comment is also a subtle “neg,” a PUA term for a line that playfully cuts a woman down but doesn’t actually hurt her feelings. Negs make the suitor seem less needy, and differentiates him from every other guy fawning over her. The girl laughs on cue, and Jesse slaps her a high five, establishing “kino,” PUA-speak for touch. Jesse squeezes her hand—a test—and she squeezes back, signaling that he should move on to building rapport.
Suddenly, the young woman working the fudge counter slingshots a stuffed monkey at Jesse’s head—she seems to want to flirt, too. He catches it like Willie Mays, in a move that screams alpha confidence.
Impressed, I try my luck with an overly made-up 20-something woman who just walked in with her mother. “This stuff is great, but it’s hard to get out of the sheets,” the mother whispers, pointing to some body chocolate. Attempting to create banter, I weigh in: “Totally, it’s so sticky.” The daughter chuckles and touches my shoulder—kino—an invitation to flirt more. But I clam up, acting like what PUAs call an AFC: average frustrated chump. Jesse notices and swings in with backup. “Uh-oh, here come the party girls,” he calls out to the women as they turn toward him. Somehow, it works. They giggle and start chatting with him. The employees laugh. Anyone walking into the shop would immediately notice that Jesse is controlling the room. In fact, after a grandmother toddles in, it takes just a few flirty lines before she proposes to him. “Oh my god,” says the fudge clerk, beaming. “Who is this guy?” Jesse leans over to me and says: “Imagine. Life could be like this all the time.”
I first arrive at the PickUp 101 “mansion” on a Friday morning. It’s really just an apartment on Powell Street, but PUAs like to call their homes mansions: if you aspire to be Hugh Hefner, you have to psych yourself up. Inside, it’s a bit of a disco frat pad: a velvet love seat sits invitingly in the corner near a tropical aquarium and a wooden wine rack. A disco ball hangs above black leather couches, which frame a gas fireplace with flames leaping up from behind crackled glass.
Eleven men, who have traveled from as far away as New York and as nearby as the Marina, sit patiently, hoping that this $1,700, three-day workshop will help them reach their full player potential. Most of them are software engineers, but there’s also a lawyer, an actor, a professional gambler, and a firefighter. They run the gamut from attractive and stylish to dorky and clueless. Since this is an advanced class, the students have all been to at least one other pickup class before, so they know the jargon. As “Rico Suave” and “Sex Machine” blare in the background, I hear guys say things like, “I opened this three-set but was forgetting to kino. Luckily, Bob was winging for me, and he distracted her friends so I could isolate and run the cube.” It’s the kind of language you’d expect at a Dungeons & Dragons conference, not in a rehash of last night’s exploits.
Mason runs different types of trainings, covering everything from how to dress to managing multiple relationships, but this weekend is on Day Game. The more common Night, or Bar, Game involves being entertaining and overtly sexual, but Day Game is more subtle and thus more difficult. The key is establishing an emotional connection without seeming creepy. “Nothing kills attraction faster than being creepy,” says Mason.
Mason, 33, has big, sensitive blue eyes that have made hundreds, if not thousands, of women swoon. His smile says all-American farm boy, but his dress—faded jeans with a massive belt buckle and a button-down with an embroidered ram on the sleeve—reads like an Esquire take on California frat. He’s charismatic and charming; his posture exudes confidence.
But that wasn’t always so. As a UC Davis engineering student, Mason was a total AFC. He had had two long-term relationships with girlfriends who chose him more than he chose them. He was dissatisfied, but afraid to break up.
At the time that his brother was getting a divorce, his second girlfriend was pressuring him into marriage. That’s when things started to click. “I realized deciding who to spend my life and raise a family with is the most important decision of my life,” Mason says over lunch at the Steps of Rome Caffe, a restaurant known for its flirty waiters. “I needed to make it the focus of my life.”
Like a mad scientist, Mason threw himself into learning everything he could about women. He read books, studied films, and approached women constantly, logging what worked and what didn’t. Before long, he says, about half the women he approached were accepting his advances, but he didn’t want a relationship yet. He spent seven years learning about himself and what he wanted in a woman. He established some guidelines. No going out on three dates in a row—that’s how you fall in love. “I recommend everyone date multiple people at once before settling down,” says Mason. “That way, you see your partners for who they really are, rather than projecting onto them.”
Then in 2002, he discovered a community of guys who were studying the same thing. While it had not yet gone mainstream with the release of The Game, the PUA community was holding workshops and posting blogs. Mason signed up for a class with Mystery, the most hyped PUA at the time. Strauss, who was working with Mystery then, says Mason popped out as a star. Mason quickly gained a reputation as a skilled ladies’ man who had a mastery of the pickup techniques but also maintained his respect for women. Men started coming to him for advice on everything from maintaining a marriage to initiating threesomes. After a while he didn’t have time to respond to all the e-mails and phone calls, so he quit his computer job and started PickUp 101. Now in its second year, his business is quickly expanding, with nearly 10,000 people receiving his regular e-mails, and 30 workshops a year held here and in New York. Every workshop is booked solid.
It’s easy to see why PickUp 101 is attracting so many men. Mason’s motto is “Ladies’ men aren’t born; they’re made.” He helps guys looking for more action or even a wife, but also men who are depressed or too terrified to talk to women. “Half of it’s confidence,” Mason says. “If you’re not good with women, then early on you probably experienced failure, and each failure reinforced that you were not good with women. I teach men how to be cooler than they think they are.”
Mason sells himself as proof that it’s possible. “I’ll walk into a bar and establish rapport with a woman,” he says in his opening speech of the workshop, “and I don’t care if Brad Pitt walks in and makes out with her. When she goes to bed that night, she’s going to be thinking about that moment with me. That’s how powerful this stuff is.” What man wouldn’t be intrigued?
For our first day, Mason has created communication exercises for the students; they rotate among stations and act out hypothetical situations, overseen by Mason and his assistants, many of whom were once students themselves. Since it’s only men, they all take turns in the female roles, creating moments most women would pay to see. “So how did that feel when I touched your elbow?” asks Eric, a New Yorker with a Sting haircut, after running a pretend pickup on George, an actor. “Well, I liked the way it felt,” George says earnestly, “but you were a little too close to me, which felt invasive.”
At one station, men rehearse “deep rapport” stories—tales about their past that show their sensitive side. Mason says they’re one of the most powerful ways to quickly build a connection. “I don’t even use these stories with women anymore,” he says. “I don’t want them to get too attached.”
The deep-rapport stories flow for over an hour, creating a full-fledged therapy session. Alex, a former opera singer, tears up as he recounts singing Beethoven in Spain. Jesse weeps while describing a relative’s death. When I ask Jesse if it’s disingenuous to be rehearsing a supposedly sincere moment, he takes my question seriously. “We all have stories we tell over and over because they explain what we’re about deep down,” Jesse says. “Just because we tell them a lot, or even rehearse them, doesn’t make them less sincere.”
But it’s more than learning what to say. “You can have the worst line ever,” Mason explains, “but if you create a powerful impression with your body language, you can make any line work.” Throughout the day, he spends hours correcting the way the students walk, stand, speak, and breathe. “It’s not that hard to be the coolest guy in the room when you know this stuff,” says Mason. The tips are obvious—shoulders back, smile when entering a room, make eye contact—but it’s amazing how difficult it is for the students to break their simple habits of slouching and frowning.
Saturday: time to put the skills to the test. After a couple more hours of rehearsal and a brief round of chanting “Let’s go meet some women” along to the Rocky theme song, the class is sent out to Union Square, the San Francisco Centre mall, and the Marina. I hit Union Square with Dominic, a 33-year-old professional gambler from Cleveland. Before Dominic discovered PickUp 101 a few months ago, he rarely left the house. He’s a big guy—240 pounds—with acting skills that are worse than Keanu Reeves’s on a bad day. But he already looks less robotic than yesterday, and more important, he’s willing to try. Half of pickup is approaching people. Dominic sees two tall, sleekly dressed women buying coffee, and he pounces, using the three-step opening combo he’s been practicing all morning.
“Excuse me,” he asks, “do you have the time?”
“Uh, sure,” one responds disinterestedly. “It’s 1:30.”
“Thanks,” Dominic says. “I should hire you as my personal assistant. You could, like, help me plan my day. Wait a minute, can you type?”
The woman says nothing. Her friend cuts in. “I think you can do that yourself.” And they walk away.
Ouch. The lines came off too stiff, which, according to Mason, equals creepy. I run up for moral support, expecting Dominic to be sulking. But he’s smiling. “At least I tried,” he says. “This is actually kind of fun.” And therein lies one of the biggest secrets of pickup: realizing that rejection isn’t that bad.
Wandering Union Square, I see more of Mason’s students scouting for live test material. I follow Gordon, a 39-year-old programmer from the South Bay. He’s 5 feet 8 inches with a pudgy, round belly, but he’s wearing a pair of Stacy Adams alligator-skin shoes, which he says bring him luck. He’s approaching a woman in a puffy gold jacket, who is standing by the heart sculpture across from the Westin St. Francis. With her athletic body wrapped in tight designer jeans, she’s way out of his league. “Don’t even try,” I want to shout after Gordon as he strides ahead. But it’s too late.
“Hey, do you know where an ATM is?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I think over there,” the woman responds, pointing vaguely toward Market Street.
“You don’t know, do you? Damn, I was totally going to hire you as my tour guide,” he jokingly replies.
The woman laughs.
“So you’re not from around here are you?” he asks, touching her shoulder.
“No, I’m from Vienna, but I just moved here three months ago,” she says with a smile.
Gordon takes the bait. “You know what I love about this city….”
Oh my god, I think. It’s working. Short, pudgy Gordon is getting positive feedback from the sexiest woman in sight. He’s standing up straight and leaning back slightly so as not to convey neediness, and looking pretty slick in an innocent kind of way. After talking to her for a solid hour, he leaves with a phone number and a date for Monday night. We high-five, and I see how this can become an addiction. Pickup is the perfect male bonding exercise: half the rush is showing off.
After four hours out in the field, the PUAs retreat to the mansion. The place is abuzz with stories of phone number exchanges and comical rejections. “I just never thought any women would want to talk to a guy with my body type,” says Alex, a PickUp 101 convert who subsequently quit his high-paying tech job to work for Mason full time. Mike, a fit, attractive Marina guy in square, wire-rimmed glasses who had been fumbling all his lines during the morning practice sessions, seems especially happy. He approached a woman and, deciding to just toss his lines, told her how beautiful she was. She gave him her e-mail address. “She just opened up,” Mike says in disbelief. “It was amazing.”
Not everyone had success—i.e., digits—but everyone had a good time. Part of Mason’s strategy is to get his students to be more social in general, so the guys talked to all kinds of strangers, not just beautiful women. “It’s amazing how much we feel like we’re in these little boxes, separated from everyone,” says Daniel, one of Mason’s first students, “but we’re just not.”
The next day, Mason brings in women to offer feedback. One of them is Yuko Yamazaki, Mason’s girlfriend, whom he met at a 24 Hour Fitness seven months ago. A no-nonsense, 26-year-old software engineer who struts around in high-heeled boots and a miniskirt, she doesn’t seem the type to fall for canned lines. I can’t resist asking what she thought of Mason’s initial pickup. She says he asked how her iPod worked while she was lifting weights—not exactly what one expects from one of the best pickup artists in the country. But his body language must have been good. “After he got my phone number, I went and called my friends,” Yamazaki tells me, blushing. “I told them, ‘I just met the smoothest guy ever.’”
She’s a big fan of PickUp 101 and helps out at many of the events. “Some of my friends think it’s weird,” she says. “But when they meet Lance, they see that he’s helping men treat women better.”
The other female assistants, who found the company through a job posting on Craigslist, are fans as well. “Guys need it,” says Luanne Hernandez, a bubbly 22-year-old who has worked at two other PickUp 101 workshops. “Women get good advice from Cosmo and their friends, but guys don’t have anything.”
Hearing from these two makes the whole thing seem less scandalous, and the more I ask women what they think, the better I feel about it all. “I think it’s necessary and called for,” says Natalie Mock, a 28-year-old from Berkeley who says guys try to pick up on her all the time at her restaurant job. “Most guys just go off their instincts, which is generally a bad idea. If these classes are done in a way that’s thoughtful to the woman, then I support it.”
Even skeptics are getting converted. “Dolly,” author of the popular sex blog The Truth about Cocks and Dolls, was put off by PUAs at first. But after she met more, including two from San Francisco, she wrote a letter to the Village Voice defending them, in response to the paper’s negative article on the subject in March. “PUAs try to create a fun, positive, and exciting experience for the woman,” Dolly wrote. “The credo many follow is ‘Leave her better than you found her.’ What’s so bad about that? That they want to get laid, too? Guess what? Guys have always wanted sex and will continue to want sex. You can’t fault them for finally discovering methods that are successful.”
To further inspire us for day three, Mason shows a clip of a true natural: playboy Howard Hughes, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator. In the scene, he picks up a cigarette girl, using many of the techniques Mason teaches, creating a near-orgasmic sexual tension in under two minutes. “Hughes is better than me,” Mason admits. “Hollywood understands attraction. You guys can learn from this.”
Watching DiCaprio, I’m intrigued by the power of these techniques and eager to cash in on the action. I hit the women’s shoe section at Macy’s. After making several methodical laps, I force myself to approach a woman in light brown, knee-high leather boots. She’s the exact type I never approach cold: stylish, confident, gorgeous. I want to try the “movie-moment method” on her, a technique in which the suitor says something fearless like, “There’s just something about you. I had to meet you.” But I wimp out.
“Those shoes really bring out your skin color,” I say, smiling and standing tall. “You think they have them in baby blue for me?”
“Really?” she says, and I remember that I’m in San Francisco. What was I thinking?
“No, I just came over here to flirt with you,” I tell her, using a line I saw Jesse try.
“Oh, OK,” she says, laughing, but perhaps slightly intimidated.
At this point I’m supposed to transition into building rapport, but this woman’s beauty is making me forget the techniques. Luckily, she initiates more banter.
“Look at my crazy teal socks,” she says.
I remember to toss out a “warm read,” an intuitive comment based on observation. “Oh, I see. Those must be, like, your inner playfulness hiding behind your cool exterior.” Warm reads are what PUAs call chick crack, and indeed, she giggles.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true.”
She likes me. She really, really likes me. But just when it’s getting good, her family arrives. “Well, nice meeting you. I’m shopping with my family today. Have a good day.” We wave and smile. She’s gone.
My confidence boosted, I spend the day approaching women everywhere—Macy’s, H&M, Borders. I’m not going for phone numbers yet, just having basic conversations: baby steps. A tall, stunning brunette exiting Macy’s seems genuinely touched when I run across the street to tell her she’s beautiful, but she says she has a serious boyfriend. A pale, leggy woman wandering Union Square entertains an awkward 10-minute conversation, but won’t offer me any IOIs—indicators of interest—so I abandon ship. But no matter. I’m having an epiphany: I can talk to anyone.
But then, eerily, I run into two guys from Real Social Dynamics, another local pickup group that hosts trainings every weekend. I watch as the short, unshaven guy with an annoying accent and his friend sporting black nail polish and lots of jewelry—classic peacocking—approach two Scandinavian-looking girls who have already been hit on by PickUp 101 guys. I’m with Daniel, one of Mason’s assistants, and he explains how their techniques differ, as if they’re from a rival kung fu school. “We don’t try to entertain the girl as much. They’re acting like it’s a club in the middle of Union Square.”
It turns out that Mystery Method, one of the most well-known PUA groups, is also running a workshop here this weekend. How many Howard Hughes aspirants can Union Square hold at once?
A few minutes later, the Scandinavian girls see me scribbling in a notebook and run up to find out what the hell is going on. “Excuse me,” one says, tapping my shoulder. “Guys keep approaching us saying weird things, and I just saw one of them hiding a video camera.” It was inevitable: they’ve spotted Derek, the PickUp 101 intern, trying to film a live pickup to be analyzed later for training purposes. I’m not sure if I should blow the guys’ cover, but I had run Mason’s techniques on the girls myself earlier that day, and my guilt gets the better of me. I admit what’s going on, expecting to get slapped, but instead they’re into it. “That’s so cool,” they say. “Teach us how to pick up on guys.” Apparently, they don’t read Cosmo in Sweden.
I chastise myself briefly for getting involved in this cult, but only until I spot a petite blonde in a head scarf. She has huge blue eyes and she’s handing out fliers on the corner of Stockton and Post; it’s a perfect opportunity to talk. I beeline toward her, tossing aside my qualms, but run head-on into another moral quandary. She’s a Hare Krishna, and her fliers explain the group’s tenets; soon I’m debating human potential and the cosmos with her. She tries to make me a “servant of Krishna,” but her body language is terrible. Besides, getting converted to one cult is enough for a weekend.
I remember a cute girl I saw yesterday working at the Borders café and go find her. I had complimented her on her tattoo, but then chickened out and left without making conversation. She’s not stereotypically beautiful, but there is something irresistible about her short, curly hair, square glasses, and nose piercing.
This has to be executed perfectly, I tell myself as I walk toward the café like a cowboy strolling into the O.K. Corral, not showing an ounce of indecision.
“I saw you yesterday,” I say in an unusually low voice. “And I had to come back and talk to you.”
She smiles, and before she even says a word, I know that I’ve succeeded. Soon, we’re exchanging contact info, and Jesse, who just happens to be in Borders coaching another student, watches the whole thing.
“That was awesome,” he says afterward with a brotherly high five.
Every successful pickup builds on itself. I feel so on my game that when I walk downstairs to the magazine section and see the woman I met earlier at Macy’s, my lines come naturally.
“Hey, are you stalking me?” I joke.
“I think you’re stalking me,” she says, jabbing me.
And we chat. When she asks me what I do, I have a rehearsed answer from one of Mason’s identity exercises. The key is to set yourself apart. “I’m really lucky right now because I get to surf all the time,” I say. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve dreamed of being a surfer.”
By saying this, instead of just telling her I’m a freelance writer who has written about surfing, I’m surprising her—and showing my sensitive side, appearing vulnerable. Correspondingly, she opens up and tells me about her childhood in the Bay Area, Guam, and Hawaii. The surfing line was a good call. When the conversation ends, she offers me her e-mail address. “So if you’re ever in San Antonio, let me know,” she says, grinning.
“OK. Great!” I say, dazed. “Wait—San Antonio?” As a typical Bay Area commitmentphobe, my first reaction is relief: the pressure is off. But then I find myself religiously checking my e-mail, hoping for a reply from her—or the Borders barista. No dice.
Turns out flirty banter is one thing, but closing the deal is another. Mason reminds us that even with a killer pickup, you need the personality to back it up. But I refuse to believe I don’t have what it takes. Still, instead of replies from my crushes, my in-box is filled with e-mails from Mason, reminding me that another $1,700 workshop could get me closer to the perfect pickup. Hmmm. For now, I think I’ll stick to my instincts—Mason’s mansion is always there if I need it.