ALPHA V. BETA

The Secret World of Pickup Artist Julien Blanc

Julien Blanc and his employers were underground successes in the pickup artist community—until one of their videos set off a firestorm. Are these men misogynists or just plain lonely?

12.01.14 10:58 AM ET

If 25-year-old Swiss-American pickup artist Julien Blanc is indeed the most hated man in the world, it’s partly because he’s given his detractors such a deep well from which to draw evidence of his depravity.

Not too long ago, Blanc and his employer, a Los Angeles-based company called Real Social Dynamics—which claims to be “the world’s largest dating coaching company, teaching roughly 1,000 programs a year to men in 70 different countries”—had been fairly unknown outside of the semi-underground subculture of PUA (“pickup artists”), men who obsessively study and practice techniques to convince women to sleep with them. Then DC activist Jennifer Li stumbled across one of Blanc’s teaching videos and started tweeting out the most offensive ones with the hashtag #TakeDownJulienBlanc.

Perhaps Blanc’s most egregious act, according to Li, was a video filmed in Tokyo that shows Blanc pulling the heads of Asian women into his lap and forcing kisses on a cashier who nervously laughs and tries to pull away. “If you’re a white male, you can do what you want,” Blanc tells a group of students as they watch his video and take notes. Just “yell ‘Pikachu.’”  

Critics of the video found a number of troubling posts on Blanc’s social-media profiles, including several photos on Twitter of Blanc’s hands around women’s necks with the tag #ChokingGirlsAroundTheWorld and a chart detailing types of domestic abuse with the caption, “may as well be a checklist.”

Though many of Blanc’s social accounts and posts have since been deleted or made private, the Internet is, as they say, forever, and activists and looky-loos scrambled to see and save as much as they could. Between Real Social Dynamics’ company-wide channel and each instructor’s personal one, there exists hundreds of videos where one is sure to find something incendiary.

Blanc’s Twitter was set to private, but not before someone archived and posted what they claimed was his entire feed. A sampling: “Times like these just make me want to choke fuck some whore behind a dumpster,” and “I’m not really like this in real life… #JustKidding”.

When the curious could no longer access videos like Blanc’s “My Girlfriend Passed Away"—The Twisted Humor That Inevitably Knifes Through To Her Panties,” attention moved on to other RSD instructors, including the company’s cofounder and president, Owen Cook (who goes by the PUA handle ‘Tyler Durden,’ after the Fight Club character). In one video, Cook describes forcing sex on a “slut whore slut” whom he had been in a sexual relationship with. “I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m never seeing this bitch again. I don’t care.’” he tells an audience of chuckling men.

It was with this ammunition that Australians organized protests at events where Blanc was scheduled to appear. Venues quickly dropped RSD seminars and Australia revoked Blanc’s visa, effectively booting him from the country. Blanc has also been denied entry to the U.K. and Singapore, and Brazil, and similar efforts to ban him have been mounted in Japan and Canada.

Blanc’s main argument during his only interview, a televised apology on CNN, was that his social profile isn’t an accurate representation of him or his RSD curriculum. “I don’t do this, I don’t teach it,” he told Chris Cuomo. He said as much last year, before the activists and media had descended: “If you look at my Twitter, it’s really fucked,” he told one group of students. He called his feeds, “obnoxious shit,” “meant to shock.”

Blanc’s assistant, Glenn, who says he is living proof of the transformative power of RSD’s teachings (but asked that I not use his last name), was with Blanc during the “choking” incident and said it was taken out of context. “It’s not like he’s just walking up to a woman and choking her. It was playfully teasing,” Glenn said. As for the Tokyo video of Blanc pulling women’s heads into his crotch, Glenn explained, “it was just a night out and he had already had a longer interaction with them. He was just partying with those women. He wasn’t seducing them.”

If, as Blanc and his boss argue, these posts and videos are only for promotional purposes, what does that say about the nature of their business and the clients they serve? To find out, I contacted both Blanc and Owen Cook, the RSD cofounder. Cook replied to several emails and said an interview sounded “cool.” The only issue was whether “we can get [Blanc] calm and able to talk lol.” Later, Cook said he and Blanc would be in New York City the next night; would I like to meet up? I accepted.

Whether RSD decided to circle the wagons, Blanc just wasn’t ready, or Cook was gaming me like he does women at the club, I’ll never know. They stood me up and Cook stopped responding to emails. Though I wouldn’t speak with Cook again, a picture of Blanc and the company he works for became clearer through interviews with RSD clients, former instructors, and other self-described pickup artists, as well as internal documents reviewed by The Daily Beast.

***

The pickup business has changed over the years as different methods and styles of seduction come in and out of favor. Gurus sell themselves as experts with experience, usually with the same backstories as their would-be followers—stories of heartbreak, loneliness, and social anxiety.

Eric Weber’s 1973 How to Pick Up Girls was the handbook that started it all. Even considering the original introduction, which notes that some women are so beautiful, they make normal men “consider rape for an instant,” the book’s suggestions are downright quaint compared to the ones taught by Weber’s successors. (The rape line was removed in later printings.) In it, Weber suggested approaching a woman with lines like: “Excuse me, but you look beautiful.”

“The social convention of not talking to a stranger was fairly rigid at the time,” Weber told me. “I know that since I wrote the book, there’s been ‘game theory,’ a desire to exploit a female’s natural sense of masochism. That all is a turnoff to me. One of these guys recommended that you walk up to a girl in a bar and say, ‘That dress looks awful on you.’ I hate that,” Weber said.

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Anyone who has read Neil Strauss’ bestselling 2005 exposé on the seduction community, The Game, or tuned into VH1’s 2007 reality game show “The Pickup Artist,” will recognize this technique as ‘negging,’ the most famous PUA tactic for piquing a woman’s interest, whereby a man turns his “target’s” supposed feelings of inadequacy into desire for acceptance and attention.

Canadian-born Erik James Horvat-Markovic (handle: “Mystery”) was the soul-patched, fuzzy-hatted hero of the reality series and Strauss’ book, which brought negging (as well as peacocking, HBs, sarging, and countless other pickup terms) into the zeitgeist. Mystery’s method was formulaic: Love was a game; follow a series of steps and any woman could be yours.

Real Social Dynamics came along in 2002. RSD’s origin story, at least as Strauss tells it, can be found in The Game. RSD founders Cook and Nick “Papa” Kho (who provided the business savvy and the capital) serve an important role in Strauss’ bible for pickup newbies (it’s actually designed with an imitation leather cover and gold embossing). They’re the villains.

Strauss paints Cook as an awkward, doughy, conniving wannabe who, he claims, led a coup to overthrow Mystery by stealing his methods and fomenting conflict in a Hollywood mansion that had become the group’s headquarters. RSD did well, Strauss suggests, by crowding classes and using unskilled former students—some allegedly still virgins themselves—to teach courses.

RSD’s success taught the rest of the community two things, Strauss writes, “The first was that anybody could run a workshop. It didn’t take any special talent to point two girls out to a guy and say, ‘Go approach them.’ The second was that the demand for seduction schooling was elastic. Guys would throw any amount of money at the problem to solve it.”

Despite Strauss’ depiction of the company, The Game made Cook and Kho mini-celebrities in the PUA community. On company questionnaires, many students still report the book as their introduction to RSD. Instructor Jeff Allen responded to questions about RSD and Strauss on a forum like this: “We used to hang out then he wrote a book and was mean and then we didn’t hang out, but now we are all friends cause we made a shit ton of money—the end.” Last year, Cook wrote that The Game “showed me that I was capable of taking any quality of press and turning it into millions of dollars. At this point any type of attention AT ALL just drives in more interest to RSD.”

After the book’s release, according to former instructor Nathan Kole, RSD pivoted toward something known as “natural game.” It combines pickup techniques supposedly inspired by evolutionary psychology with self-help pseudoscience. With a vernacular all its own (“intent,” “freedom of outcome,” “congruence,” and “state” are big), RSD eschews the mechanistic methods of previous schools, trading rote lines for spontaneity and memorization for gushing self-confidence and social manipulation.

Eric Hendriks, an anthropologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who has studied the seduction community as a socio-cultural phenomenon, told me that RSD’s “natural game” method actually objectifies women less than other dating schools do. The teachings of the overall seduction community “revolve around endurance, sober abstinence from naïve romanticism, critical self-observation,” and “never-ending development of the self,” Hendriks wrote in the journal Cultural Analysis in 2012. RSD is leading its followers on a quest, where sex is often not the end goal but the means to self-actualization, according to Hendriks.

Hendriks told me, “RSD instructors tell students they need to stay true to their personality, enhance their personality, become more expressive, that they shouldn’t objectify women, and should strive after their own goals, so they shouldn’t sleep with as many women as possible if that’s not what they want.”

Hendriks took an RSD course for research purposes and says he didn’t see any evidence that Blanc was a misogynist—or that he promoted aggression toward women in his classes. “He teaches students to be subtle and calibrate their actions so the girl doesn’t feel uncomfortable,” Hendriks said. Blanc’s assistant and half a dozen other RSD clients I spoke to for this article—even the ones that were unsatisfied with RSD—agreed that Blanc could be obnoxious, but he didn’t seem like a woman-hater. And they all agreed Blanc was undeniably good at picking up women.

Blanc isn’t a natural-born seducer. In marketing material, Blanc claims he was “the shy stuck-up guy with horrible skills with women who would get stifled in every ‘normal’ social situation.” On a podcast on knowledgeformen.com, Blanc says that he couldn’t talk to people, couldn’t speak up, and was always uncomfortable in group settings. After reading The Game in 2007, he says, he started going out in Switzerland and practicing RSD methods.

By 2009, according to the podcast, Blanc was in college at  “a top school in Europe” and “hated everything about it.” He was still working on his pickup technique, and felt there was nothing for him at university. “It was eating me up inside,” he says on the podcast. So at the age of 21, Blanc channeled Chris McCandless from Into the Wild and dropped out. He moved out of his parents’ house and landed in Los Angeles with $4,000 and a suitcase. On the podcast, Blanc says he couch-surfed and lived in his car for several months. Then he got a job as Owen Cook’s assistant and everything changed.

Cook’s story isn’t so different from Blanc’s. Born in Ottawa, Canada, Cook studied philosophy at Queen’s University. After a college breakup, and the realization that he had no friends and few social skills, Cook says, he discovered the growing online PUA community and soon moved to Los Angeles to start his own business with Kho.

From 2010 to 2012, Blanc says, he and Cook were so inseparable that Cook’s longtime girlfriend joked the two were lovers. Cook taught Blanc the business, and Blanc’s talent with the opposite sex rubbed off on Cook. By 2012, Blanc had taken over Cook’s overseas boot camps and was being sold as “a prodigy of the game.”

As former RSD instructor Nathan Kole puts it, “Julien was [Cook’s] creation.”

***

The team’s newest member was branded a “bad boy” from the very beginning. In a post announcing his wingman’s promotion, Cook posted a video of Blanc “infield,” hitting on women. The video makes Blanc appear to be (in Cook’s words) “a TOTAL ASSHOLE who swindles women out of their hopes and dreams. :) Why??  Well cause it’s not totally untrue, but mostly because we thought it’d be funny.”

In the video (which The Daily Beast reviewed but which has since been put behind a private setting), Blanc corners one woman, and tells her, “You’re a deadbeat, white-trash whore. That’s all you are.”

Jonathan Jacobsen, a pickup artist known as “Manwhore” who has taught RSD seminars and has known both Blanc and Cook for years, told me Blanc’s offensive content was engineered to attract frustrated, even angry men, and keep them coming back for more. “This was Tyler’s [aka Cook’s] baby,” Jacobsen said. “There’s a resentment that a lot of modern guys have towards women for a myriad of reasons, and that sort of dark energy was kind of attractive to them.” As the company president and Blanc’s mentor, it stands to reason that Cook was likely behind his protégé’s self-branding.

Critics of Blanc have focused on how this kind of marketing devalues women, but PUA experts and students say it can be just as dangerous for the men involved.

“Calling women sluts and bitches and whores, this way of talking about people like its normal—this stuff does get picked up by these guys,” said Mark Manson, a dating coach unaffiliated with RSD. “I have seen the harm it can do. The guys that invest time and energy, sometimes they just get weird.”

Former RSD instructor Nathan Kole says he saw firsthand how this “alpha male” marketing can damage students. Kole now lives and works as a dating coach in Austin, Texas, but was with RSD for eight years until 2012. “One of my sayings is ‘Don’t be weird,’ because they started putting on different personalities that aren’t themselves,” Kole told me. “It’s like a caricature of a ladies’ man.”

One RSD student, James, who considers the boot camps he attended “a waste of time,” told me that after following Blanc and Cook’s teachings for two years and after approaching thousands of women, he finally walked away from PUA. “I felt sick about it. It wasn’t who I was. I was putting on a douche persona trying to get girls. And that was too stressful. I’d rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for who I’m not.”

When I asked why he stayed as long as he did, James said hopelessness kept him hooked. In his view, “only very, very desperate people” sign up for this, he said.

Between 2011 and 2012, Jason (not his real name), a college student at the University of Iowa, spent around $7,000 on RSD workshops and two RSD boot camps. Born in Kuwait, Jason languished in college in the States (“It was a cultural thing”) and says he became clinically depressed. He dropped out of school and took the tuition money to RSD.

Blanc was one of his boot camp instructors, Jason said, though Blanc didn’t strike him as sexist or dangerous. But Jason thought his coaching was terrible. “It was just bad advice.”

Under Blanc’s instruction, Jason got up the courage to talk to a few girls one night—which he counted as a huge success. As he was talking to the women, Jason says, Blanc whispered in his ear, “Now call her a bitch,” and, “Call her a baby tiger.” Jason did as he was coached, and not surprisingly, he lost the girl.

“I was like, ‘Why did you make me do that? It was working fine until I called her a bitch,” Jason said.

Blanc once explained his method as “giving emotional spikes,” Jason said.  

“I don’t get it. It’s not backed by science. It’s bullshit,” said Jason, who is now back in college finishing a double major in psychology and sociology. “You know what actually ended up helping me? Counseling. Going to therapy.”

***

RSD’s mission, apart from making money, has been framed as helping men to gain the confidence to approach and sleep with women. Indeed, when asked about their goals, a majority of RSD clients said they simply wanted to be able to go up to a woman without fear, according to over 100 questionnaires from 2009 and 2010 reviewed by The Daily Beast.

RSD offers a number of pricey products in service of that mission.

As a private company, RSD doesn’t disclose its financials, but it was listed as one of Inc.’s fastest growing companies in 2009, reporting $3 million in revenue. Overhead is low. Instructors are contractors, not salaried employees, so RSD doesn’t have to pay for health insurance or other benefits like retirement. When instructors travel for seminars and workshops, they don’t stay in hotels, but lodge with unpaid interns or volunteers, usually fans of RSD who also drive them to and from events. RSD uses around 200 unpaid interns worldwide. For every service provided by instructors, RSD reportedly takes a healthy cut. “The majority of it goes to Nick and Owen, to the company,” former RSD instructor Kole told me.

Boot camps are where the company makes most of its money, according to several people in the pickup industry interviewed for this story. For these three-day events, students pay $2,000 to $2,500 based on the city, to be part of a group of three or fewer students with a single instructor. Together, they hit up bars and clubs to work on their game. The instructor is supposed to model their technique then coach students—sometimes literally whispering in their ears—as they attempt to chat up women.

Reviews of these events are mixed. The RSD forum is full of positive boot camp experiences. Even former students who told me the boot camp wasn’t worth the money conceded that it forced them outside their comfort zones. For one man, it was the first time he had ever approached a woman. Another said just the act of spending money on self-improvement made him determined to break out of his shell.

According to an internal document reviewed by The Daily Beast, in 2009, more than 500 men signed up for RSD boot camps, paying over $900,000 in total (some students took more than one, some received a discounted rate). “Roughly a third” of the tuition goes to instructors, according to one former coach who asked not to be named. The rest goes to RSD.

In addition to boot camps, each instructor apparently has the opportunity to create and sell individual self-help style products on the website. Blanc’s PIMP program, a package of videos and other extras that sell for $200 to $500 based on the number of add-ons, promise girls will be begging to sleep with his clients. “I’m going to help YOU turn into THAT GUY, who no matter what, will get RAW MAGNETIC ATTRACTION from every girl you meet…” RSD instructor Jeff Allen’s product is focused on online dating. These all use the classic email marketing technique of seemingly endlessly scrolling pages with hyperinflated guarantees, the type of thing you used to find in the back of a men’s magazine. RSD reportedly takes a healthy cut of these programs, too, according to former instructors.

Finally, RSD organizes the larger “world summit” for $1,500 and small group sessions called Hotseats, where for $300, teachers will deconstruct their own game for students, using hidden camera footage of the instructors as they hit on women “in the field.” Joy R. Butler, a business and entertainment lawyer based in Washington, D.C., says RSD could be putting itself at risk of being sued by the women in these videos over a right-of-privacy violation. “Also, blocking out their faces doesn’t protect them from any wiretapping claims that might be applicable,” Butler said.

But so far, there have been no such claims. In fact, the company has only ever been sued once, as far as I can tell, and that was in 2005, before RSD adopted their liberal refund policy. (Now, unsatisfied customers simply have to ask for a refund, and many do, though they are banned from RSD afterward.)

In 13 years, only two complaints about the company have been made by customers to the Federal Trade Commission: one reporting that RSD won’t stop sending marketing emails, the other saying it deceptively added extra products to a shopping cart during online checkout. (No action was taken by the FTC over the complaints.)

The majority of RSD clients, however, seem to be getting exactly what they pay for.

***

Since the international outcry over Blanc’s videos, RSD has made a concerted effort to control its image. Cook posted, amended, then deleted a sort-of apology over the controversy and refused all interviews.

RSD also pulled Blanc’s video that sparked the initial outrage, as well as dozens of others featuring Blanc and other instructors. Moderators have quickly deleted any posts about Blanc or the recent controversy on RSD’s forum, explaining to members in private messages that they hamper the company’s efforts to contain the problem. The RSD Facebook page, and all the local RSD groups, known as “inner circle,” have been switched to private. A lawyer for RSD reportedly contacted sites hosting archived RSD material demanding its removal. The largest collection is hosted on 8chan, which has refused to take down its users’ posts. 8chan’s lawyer responded to the RSD’s takedown notice with a letter that read in part, “Julien Blanc may bully Japanese girls, but he will not bully our client.”

The owners of RSD and the other instructors who work as contractors for the company seem understandably nervous. Jeff Allen, 38, who has been with RSD since 2003, wrote in a now-deleted comment on Facebook, “Imagine you worked 12 years building somethin and then some fuckin new guy comes along and destroys the business by being a fucking moron.” Allen sparked his own controversy last year when Jezebel profiled him and his “rape van” and posted several stories from women who claimed he lashed out when they refused to sleep with him. (A year later, in a video entitled “RSD Jeffy Response to the Haters,” Allen discusses the article—“it was a pretty fucked-up article, they were trying to like, brutalize—like pickup was bad and me as this fucking lunatic who waves his dick around. I mean, guilty as charged”—and says Jezebel found some bad dates to come out of the woodwork and bash him.)

One instructor, Alex, based out of Australia, posted to the RSD forum: “Since these misogynistic themes started popping up in RSD, I stopped calling myself RSD alex... its a dark day in my home country for the company I contract to.” His personal page, as well as his profile on the RSD forum, his Twitter, and his YouTube videos have all been wiped of content or taken down.

Over the weekend, in an email obtained by The Daily Beast, co-founder Nick Kho advised RSD’s inner circle to “just stick to the mission,” and stay away from the media. “Anything that you are doing that is not approved by our executive team is in total disregard for our media message and ruins everything,” Kho wrote. “We have a stronghold on a gameplan to revitalize the company. Our plans include a strong focus on revitalizing our image, content, and business model. In order to make this happen, we must stick to our vision of staying strong and offering amazing content to clients while making sure that we stay close to our values. Help us do so. The team is still together. We will grow. Just stick to the mission.”

Though Blanc’s RSD events page is now blank, his position with the company seems secure. He appears to have the support of RSD management and its practitioners, maybe now more than ever, according to the forum and private Facebook groups. 

What remains to be seen is just what the controversy means for the future of RSD and its leaders, who have been talking for years about transitioning the company into the mainstream self-help field.

“I’m looking to expand RSD into other areas where we can have a greater impact and make the contribution we've been put here to make,” Cook wrote to RSD members over the summer. “I love showing you how to get pussy from girls on the street, but there’s so much more I want to show you.”