He welcomes me at the door wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and gold leather boots, a hangover from Mystery's insistence that his pupils always wear something that can be a conversation starter.
Strauss, now in his early thirties, has slept with hundreds of women, including a porn star in a bar who dragged him into the loo because she couldn't wait to have him. He pulled a woman's phone number while shopping for envelopes in the erotic environment of an office supply store, only to Google her and find she was the reigning Playboy Playmate of the Year. He got invited back to the hotel room of twin Goth burlesque dancers. He had on rotation a curvy Latina spitfire, a cool indie rock chick and Jessica 1 and Jessica 2, college students in a Miami hotel suite. And during a synthesis of his real job and new persona, he seduced Britney Spears during a Rolling Stone interview.
That he is very much an anti-hero is clear from the number of tricks and ruses he uses to bend women to his will. As pioneered by Mystery, he carried at all times a greatest hits packet of staged photos that he had 'just' had developed and which chronicled in one impressive roll his athleticism and daring (sky-diving), his tenderness (him with a puppy), and his close friendship with a celebrity. He used 'waking hypnosis' to lead girls up a 'Yes Ladder' ('Can I ask you a question' leads to 'Are you adventurous?' leads to 'Can you prove it?'). On Britney he used 'chick crack' - women's addiction to tarot, astrology, runes, word association games - things that most men are not interested in, but that he mastered in devotion to his cult. She didn't know this. All she knew was that they obviously shared a deep connection. He never used the cell phone number she gave him. By the time he met the love of his life, Lisa, he already had two huge manila envelopes of phone numbers, which he lovingly discarded in front of her the first night they spent together.
He had gone so deep under cover as to lose Neil Strauss the writer entirely, morphing instead in to 'Style'. When, a year into his life as Style, he published an article in the New York Times about the Pick-Up Artist culture, he lived in terror that he would be booted from the brotherhood. Instead, reality was so warped that the community was simply proud that one of its own had managed to get an article published in the New York Times.
Disciples of Eric Weber, author of the 1970 bestseller How To Pick Up Girls, the PUA community is a sub-cultural phenomenon: Casanovas with laptops, whose chronicles and code words flourish on the internet, with websites, conventions and lairs from Los Angeles to Edinburgh.
Under preposterous monikers like Extramask, Papa and Twotimer, natural-born nerds become seductive superheroes, mastering the skill not just of picking up chicks, not just making them fight to take you home, but of even making them feel OK about being fucked and chucked - the PUA's code of honour says: 'Always Leave Them Better Than You Found Them'. Clearly, this display of ethics is subjective - self-serving, even. But to PUAs, all interaction with women becomes mathematics - they make seduction pie charts and venn diagrams, as pioneered by Mystery, a one-time 21-year-old virgin from Canada turned Angeleno sex god. He wears top hats and eyeball jewellery he paints himself. And yet his hit rate is so high that it was with his seminar earnings - men pay $2,500 to learn at his feet - that he and a few select PUAs eventually launched a new millennium Rat Pack (Papa, Mystery, Style and 10 other PUAs rent a $30,000 a month mansion in the Hollywood Hills, conveniently located next to the Sunset Strip nightclubs).
'Men,' he says, 'are a hundred times worse than you can imagine. We are thinking the worst, shallowest thoughts, all the time. Every guy is - the interesting men, the rock stars. The good thing is that women have such high expectations of men that it inspires us to live up to them. That's what I learned about male-female relationships. I read Simone De Beauvoir's Second Sex before I wrote The Game. I wanted to be as honest and frank about male sexuality as she was about female sexuality. Unfortunately, male sexuality is a little bit uglier.'
Take the key PUA tactic of 'negging', in which, tapping into female insecurity, you offer a woman a line that is both compliment and insult: 'I like your skirt. I just saw another girl wearing the same one a moment ago.'
Bearing in mind that men are notoriously wary of self-help books about relationships, it could be said that The Game is a male self-help book in disguise, the camouflage being its smart humour and graphic sex scenes. Men are now, in many ways, sexually neutered, as they find themselves on equal footing, financially and career wise, with their prey. With no power advantage, men have to display something above and beyond. Watch any successful womaniser and they act out instinctively what the PUAs have devoted their lives to learning. Techniques such as negging and peacocking have always existed, but this is the first time the alphabet of male seduction has been painstakingly translated and written down.
The PUA alphabet turns out to be a dizzying cacophony of mind games, all designed to make a woman feel intimately connected to him, painstakingly mapping her psyche for manipulation. And in this day and age it's easily done. Mass culture over the past decade tells us that where once the underlying female instinct in falling in love was the search for security, now we are enslaved to the idea of a soul mate - there is one true love for us out there, one unmatched connection. Luckily for the PUAs that connection is, with the correct training, easily faked. Hence a combination of creative thinking - the pre-prepared photos, the runes, the word association - and obsession with scientific statistics. Men who, in their failure to seduce, were never considered masculine, creep their way in. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and if you have the key, how far do you go with it?
These are issues that aren't bothering the clientele of the Cattle Ranch, an exceptionally unpleasant Sunset Strip bar where Mystery is sending out his students to practise their technique. On a mechanical bull a wasted woman in a denim mini is now flashing her knickers; there is sawdust on the floor, though you can hardly see that for the scrum of tipsy girls in halterneck tops slamming jelly shots. The women here are poorly made-up and lairy, but they are myriad. Which is the point for the PUAs in training: go not for the best but for the most. When we arrive, trembling men come up to Strauss, or rather the legend known as Style. They ask him where he got his infamous flashing-word T-shirt (a conversation starter). A man who looks like Andy Bell from Erasure is wearing a bowler hat and carrying a Dr Seuss lunchbox.
(A lot of the grooming advice makes the followers appear effete - a trick. A favourite opening line is: 'If I wasn't gay you would so be mine!'). The man swings Dr Seuss in front of my eyes. He really wants me to notice it. Finally he asks another girl, 'Can you hold this for a sec?' A conversation starter.
Another man, ginger and buck toothed, introduces himself. I put out my hand to shake. He sloppily kisses my cheek. I recoil.
'Hey! That's too forward.'
'I'm from England!' he protests. Others have travelled from as far as Australia.
Strauss rescues me: 'I need you to be a pivot.'
'OK,' I say, not quite sure what I have agreed to. Turns out a perfectly cute young man has been talking to a girl, but now she is focusing on someone else. It is my job to stand near the young man and look fascinated by everything he says. He tells a joke and I laugh uproariously. She looks at me looking at him, and refocuses.
Finally, as final call is announced, Neil introduces me to Mystery, who has forgone the top hat for a ski cap.
'Hello Emma!' He fixes me with an unwavering stare and Clintonian double-palmed handshake. There is no one else in the room but he and I. And then, just as quickly, he drops my hand as if it were a bag of cold chips on the high street, and turns his back on me to speak to another girl. I am unanchored. I am bewildered. But mainly I want Mystery to pay attention to me.
'I wonder,' says Strauss, as we head back to the car, 'if that was accidental or on purpose. Whether he was negging you or not.'
There are groupies now for pick-up artists, which seems rather to be defeating the purpose. Indeed, it seems that Strauss got out in the nick of time. The house the PUAs rented in the Hollywood Hills disintegrated in a mire of internal fighting when Mystery fell in love with a Russian make-up artist who ultimately rejected him. He had a nervous breakdown. Now back in the game, Mystery's legend has travelled so far that two siliconed Latinas have made the journey from Miami to be picked up by him, both fighting for his attention. He takes the two of them home.
The only pick-up artist Strauss has ever met who was better than Mystery was Tom Cruise, who he interviewed for Rolling Stone. And though the actor's intensity was devoted not to seduction but to Scientology, Strauss felt they had a lot in common. It is rumoured that Cruise's character in Magnolia is based on PUA master Ross Jeffries.
Would women, I ask, be able to work the equivalent to The Game?
'But you already have it!' says Neil. 'It's the cover of every woman's magazine, of Cosmo and Glamour: "Six tips to get a man". "Six tips to keep him faithful." It's already part of your culture.'
He's not wrong. But there's a difference in the dedication required when shelling out for a magazine and spending, as Strauss did, two years learning how to pick up women. Was his writer's hat a convenient cover for an activity that is decidedly uncool, a bit sad even?
'I went in totally embarrassed. I could never have told anyone I was taking a course on picking up women when it's something I should have known how to do. I used to hang out with rock stars and go to cool parties. Instead, I was meeting Grimble and Twotimer at the Saddle Ranch ...'
We speed up Sunset past the Beverly Hills Hotel.
'But it gave me the confidence to approach Lisa.'
The negging didn't work on Lisa, the woman who, in the uplifting end of The Game, he falls in love with only to find her immune to his learned skills. Negging just pisses her off. In fact, nothing worked on Lisa, a guitarist who, like her boss and band-mate Courtney Love, tends to be the real alpha male in any room. Strauss couldn't get with her until he left the culture of the PUA behind.
And now, a year into the relationship and out of The Game, he has Lisa lounging poolside at his LA mansion. It is a Laurel Canyon beauty, with two floors (rare for LA), large Art Deco rooms and a garden strung with fairy lights and scented with jacaranda trees.
Lisa is in a blue grey T-shirt dress, form fitting, no bra. It hugs her curves - real curves. She has Debbie Harry bleach-blonde hair with dark roots and a broad New York accent. Lisa is what is known as an amazon; such an amazon that she puts Courtney Love in balance when they share the stage. Driving to a birthday party for the producer who has optioned The Game as a movie, Strauss proudly points out the Guitar Centre's huge billboard of Lisa leaning against Courtney, her fabulous guitar and ass on prominent display.
'Neil wasn't my type when I met him,' she laughs throatily. 'I always said my next boyfriend I got with would be really tall with lots of hair.'
Neil is 5ft6in and has a shaved head. Lisa doesn't give a damn that, in the two years before he met her, he slept with a lot of women.
'I don't care about someone's past if they're completely devoted to me. It means I'm more special than those hundred people they slept with. I feel bad for those hundred girls that didn't make the cut.'
Before Lisa, Strauss had had only two girlfriends. His job as the rock critic of the New York Times did nothing to enhance his confidence.
'I live in LA,' he sighs, 'I wanted a nose job.'
And yet, I note, when we take a booth table at the party, as soon as he got confidence he led a pack of men in search of what is referred to incessantly throughout the book as 'The Perfect 10'. Do the PUAs believe there's a science of a 10?
'Everyone's 10 is different,' he shrugs.
Isn't it always a stripper or porn star?
'Yeah,' says Lisa, suddenly irritated, 'it's always, like, some 19-year-old girl.'
'It is not!' says Neil.
'I have a question,' says Lisa. She wants to know if PUAs go for the 10s because growing up as nerds it was the girls who intimidated them the most. 'And once you realised you had no emotional connection with those skinny bims you grew up idealising, you decided to go for someone cooler?'
'But a hot girl isn't dumb or smart!' protests Neil. 'What about Hillary?' he asks, 'the girl who was a cool dancer?'
'The burlesque dancer.'
But if it's always a stripper or a porn star - or even Britney - you're talking about women with low self-esteem. Is it so amazing that you can pull them? Would the tactics work on ... Arundhati Roy?
'You have this perception,' says Neil, 'that it won't work on someone classy. But many of these women were smart. As much as guys are dogs, most people's 10s were always someone they could have a conversation with.' There is a real tenderness to the chapters in The Game on falling in love with Lisa that leaves you thinking of Strauss's time in the cult as a literal manifestation of the Courtney Love lyric, 'I fake it so real I am beyond fake'. Every technique in the book will work if all you want is to sleep with women. But they all go out the window when you fall in love.
When they got back from Spain, Neil put together a photo album for Lisa. It starts with their first kiss, which, as part of a tactic he tried on her, he took with a digital camera in a variety of poses ('Make a sad face! Now make a happy face! Now let's kiss!') It ends with Lisa asleep on his bed, in her underwear, one arm wrapped around her guitar, at ease. For real.The Game
, by Neil Strauss, is published by Canongate.