A decade ago, writer Neil Strauss embedded himself in the underworld of “pick-up artists” or PUAs, where men crafted the art of seduction into a foolproof science.
Strauss entered the community a nerdy music journalist—pale, skinny, and debilitatingly awkward around women—and became its most successful exponent.
He was reformed as “Style,” a peacocking Lothario who dated models, had sex with countless women, including a porn star, and ranked number one PUA in 2003.
The Game, his 2005 book describing the PUA scene and dispensing self-help for hapless dweebs, sold 2.5 million copies.
By the time the book came out he had left the community and settled down with a girlfriend, Lisa Leveridge, who played guitar with Courtney Love.
But Strauss remained a distant ambassador and reputed advocate of the sleaziest PUA techniques with silly insider-y terms like “Anti-Slut Defences.”
The community referred to a vast lexicon of seduction strategies, a glossary published in Strauss’s subsequent Rules of the Game that made flirting sound like a covert operation.
Ten years later, Strauss, now 46, has reformed himself again as a husband and father who is mawkishly devoted to both roles. This is a man who once described himself on his MySpace page as “a selfish prick…a hot, rich, pampered intellectual with a big dick and a marathon tongue.”
He writes about his latest transformation in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.
Out this week, it’s the story of a recovering PUA (turns out the seduction techniques Strauss internalized had lasting psychological damage) whose inability to be monogamous sends him on a soul-searching trip from sex addiction rehab to “swing parties, harems, communes, and moresomes.”
In person, Strauss doesn’t scan as a “selfish prick” in any way. Quite the opposite: He is disarmingly polite and maintains a self-effacing sense of humor while earnestly discussing his traumatic upbringing, cheating on every woman he’s ever been with, and being approached by fans of his former alter ego.
Minutes before we meet at a posh hotel in downtown Manhattan, a hotel staffer greets Strauss, with a knowing reverence, by his PUA moniker, “Style.”
“It’s a weird thing, but I’m just nice and grateful,” he tells me in his high-pitched, nasally voice. “You have to be grateful that a book that came out ten years ago can still be controversial—that people are even reading it! And ‘The Game’ led me to ‘The Truth’ because it opened me up to self-improvement.”
Strauss’s appearance also defies expectations. He described himself in a 2004 New York Times article exposing the PUA community—a precursor to The Game—as “far from attractive” with a nose that is “large for my face” and a “pale, skinny body.”
In fact he is tanned with broad shoulders that strain his denim shirt—the result of daily surfing near his home in Los Angeles. His smile reveals a set of Chiclet-like teeth: white and symmetrical, with softly rounded edges.
A salt-and-pepper beard offsets his shaved head. The “small, beady eyes” he described in The Game don’t look small or beady at all behind his round, wood-framed glasses. Indeed, he pulls off the aging L.A. hipster look better than most.
Several of these features—buff shoulders, shaved head, polished teeth—have held up since their initial refurbishing, when Strauss’s PUA mentor, Mystery, ordered him to improve his looks.
But the platform shoes and peacocking ensembles have been replaced by a uniform of skinny jeans, loose silver wristbands, and a rope around his neck with a key to the beach where he surfs.
Strauss tells me he's obsessed with keys, mostly because his mother denied him a set to the house he grew up in. It was one of many ways she tried to control him.
Keys crop up meaningfully for Strauss in The Truth. After he cheated on his then-girlfriend Ingrid De La O with her best friend, she told him they would only get back together if he attended rehab for his sex addiction. Ingrid gives him a symbolic key (for trust) when she picks him up from rehab: “a charm for healing childhood wounds,” he writes
The Truth opens with Strauss in his late teens, scouring his father’s closet for pornography only to discover that dad has an amputee fetish.
He confides in his mother, “a cripple,” who in turn tells Strauss that she hates her husband for sexualizing her deformity. She claims she never knew about his proclivities until after they married, and forbids Strauss from discussing their secret with his father.
“I’m also not permitted to know my mother’s age, where she went to school, what her past jobs were, or why her leg is deformed,” he writes.
Reflecting on his upbringing in therapy helped him come to terms with how his mother prevented him from being emotionally intimate with anyone but her.
Having listened to his mother’s complaints his entire life, it makes sense to Strauss that he became a music journalist and celebrity interviewer with a huge capacity for empathy. (Before The Game, which was pitched to him by his editor, Strauss had co-authored Mötley Crüe’s biography and ghostwritten the memoirs of Jenna Jameson and Marilyn Manson).
“You really start understanding that your software was programmed by your childhood experiences,” he tells me. “You learn that most of your thoughts are completely wrong.”
In rehab, Strauss is resistant to therapists diagnosing his every sexual desire as a pathology.
Does he think he was truly a sex addict?
“I believe I had core intimacy and relational issues relating to my family of origin that I worked really hard on. Does that fit the diagnostic criteria for sex addiction? I don’t know.”
Either way, pathologizing his sexual fantasies did little to curb them. It only reinforced their attendant shame. Weeks after leaving rehab and getting back together with Ingrid, he began secretly pursuing sex with someone else.
“That was the pattern of all of my relationships,” he says. “I’d be really in love and then as soon as things got serious I’d get overwhelmed and resent them for making me feel trapped. So I’d distance myself and they would cling more, then I’d resent them more and start seeing someone else before ending the relationship. ”
After splitting with Ingrid post-rehab, Strauss considered that he simply wasn’t the monogamous type. He needed to be unshackled from committed relationships. Freedom was “the one feeling I never had growing up,” he writes.
He sought out a prominent psychiatrist who scanned his brain and determined Strauss had devoted so much intellectual and emotional energy to seducing women that he was still wired to prey.
The game was “so deeply ingrained, you’re not going to be able to just walk out of here and stop it,” the shrink said.
Strauss reluctantly accepted his fate and then indulged it, immersing himself in various polyamory and swinging communities.
He attended spiritual, New-Agey orgies, some less sexy than others (“Flaccid wands and hairy cathedrals were everywhere”); he took Viagra and Ecstasy at an Eyes Wide Shut-themed sex party; he lived in a free love commune in California—a short chapter roughly 300 pages into the book that’s written as a graphic novel.
It’s hard to believe these raucous adventures were motivated purely by soul-searching. Surely some of it was simply color for the story, I suggest.
“No, because a lot of it isn’t even in the book! I really wanted to find a better way to live and be free, but I realized that being free and unattached is a trap. It’s like being a bird that can’t land—at least for me. It’s exhausting.”
The Truth was originally going to be a book about how marriage is anachronistic and monogamy isn’t natural, but that changed as he was writing it.
“I thought it was going to be about how marriage is broken, not that I was broken,” he tells me.
“The Game is a book about trying to heal low self-esteem with the bodies of others, and The Truth is about healing from within,” he adds, slipping into therapy-speak.
This is the new Neil Strauss, the reformed self-help guru determined to teach men how to be their best selves.
I ask about Strauss’s Stylelife Academy, founded in 2006, where for roughly $2,000, you can learn how to “naturally attract women with unstoppable confidence” in “the most comprehensive, all-encompassing full immersive seduction program you’ll ever experience,” according to its website.
Strauss says it’s been some time since he’s contributed to the Stylelife curriculum. “I had a business partner so I couldn’t do anything about how it was run, but I literally regained control of it a few weeks ago so that’s all going to change. It’s nice to have confidence in yourself and the skills to socially interact, but manipulation doesn’t have to be a part of that.”
He’s referring to the infamous manipulative tactics employed in The Game, like “negging” a woman with a backhanded compliment that temporarily lowers her self-esteem and suggests arrogant but appealing disinterest.
“I definitely set a lot of justifications for manipulation that I truly believed at the time!” he says, laughing sheepishly. “Anything you have to justify with some kind of overly logical argument often means there’s no justification for it.”
He used to believe that there were good and bad pick-up artists. “The good ones are shy nerds, and the bad ones are the ones we see in the news—misogynistic, hateful, really damaged.”
‘Bad ones’ include Julien Blanc, an American pick-up artist who employs all kinds of vile tactics and language to inveigle women into bed. “Man, I will teach you how to shatter her lack of consent,” Blanc once tweeted. “Pay me and rape them all.”
Blanc’s controversial seminars got him was kicked out of Australia last year.
“That’s the scary thing about the world we’re living in today,” Strauss says. “Pre-Internet these people were filtered, and now it’s so easy to live in terror because every vocal opinion has a platform. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s all the more reason for people to do that kind of inner work, so they aren’t so easily seduced by the wrong crowd online.”
But he doesn’t know Blanc beyond what he’s read in the press.
“The worst of these guys I’m loathe to mention because I don’t want to give them any more attention than they already have.”
Does he feel at all responsible for propagating PUA techniques in The Game?
“Certain things are picked up as symbols, and I think The Game just happened to be labeled the douchiest book, maybe deservedly or maybe undeservedly. I can’t tell because I’m too close to it. I’d say the world it describes might deserve that label, but I don’t think the book does.”
Of course, Strauss wouldn’t be who he is today had he not written The Game.
“I’m super-grateful for that experience, even if there was a dark side”—meaning his relentless infidelity.
Strauss has reinvented himself so many times that one wonders what bizarre underworld he’ll inhabit next, what persona he’ll try on. Doting husband and father certainly suits him.
In 2013 he married Ingrid. (The couple buried “Style” as part of their wedding ceremony.) They live with their eight-month-old son, Tenn, in Malibu.
He is still a nebbishy journalist, albeit a very wealthy and successful one with three HarperCollins book contracts to fulfill.
One of them involves a “super controversial entertainment person, but the book’s insane,” he enthuses. “It’s probably so insane that it will never come out.”
Strauss’s phone rings: it’s Ingrid. He smiles stupidly as he picks up to say he’ll call her right back. The ‘Game’ player is well and truly vanquished.