This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Neil Strauss’ life resembles a peculiar three-act play. And like any good piece of theater, it took off in New York City. During the early 1990s, fresh out of Columbia with a psychology degree, Strauss became a culture reporter and music critic for The Village Voice. His witty and incisive reviews attracted the attention of The New York Times chief music critic Jon Pareles, who brought him over to the Gray Lady. Strauss soon was anchoring “The Pop Life” column, penning hundreds of articles on everything from the resurgence of avant-garde jazz bassist Henry Grimes to Michael Jackson’s last single. For more than a decade, Strauss tapped into the national pulse for Times readers.
From there, he branched out, producing thoughtful feature stories for Rolling Stone and Esquire, among others. “I’ve been kidnapped by Courtney Love, made Lady Gaga cry, shopped for Pampers with Snoop Dogg, gone drinking with Bruce Springsteen, tried [and failed] to prevent Motley Crue from being arrested, flown in a helicopter with Madonna, soaked in a hot tub with Marilyn Manson, been told off by Prince and tucked Christina Aguilera into bed,” Strauss wrote in 2011 of his wide-ranging career. “This is my job.” In short order, he had risen to become a linchpin of the New York cultural scene. “He was funny, smart, insightful and perpetually curious,” recalls Pareles. “And before anyone else, I think he understood the nexus of image, celebrity and stardom that being a pop star has turned into.”
But then, in a move that surprised Pareles and many others, Strauss ditched that career to co-author a memoir with Jenna Jameson, then the world’s biggest porn star. He resurfaced soon afterward in Los Angeles in a different guise — and so began Act 2. In 2005, HarperCollins published The Game, a deep dive into the seedy world of the seduction movement, a subculture of secret male societies that until then had existed largely on the fringes of Internet chat rooms. Strauss became so engrossed in that world that he eventually morphed into one of its de facto leaders, teaching other men something he seemed to have quickly mastered — the “art” of the pickup.
Men of a certain demographic thrilled to his reinvention as seduction guru. Marketed in part as a kind of how-to manual for picking up the maximum number of available women using methods that ranged from the quirky to the outright dubious, The Game was a runaway success, reportedly selling 2.5 million copies. It turned the respected music critic into a mass-market brand with millions of devoted followers.
Some of the doors the book opened were in Hollywood. Though many people dismiss Strauss as a creep (or at least a sellout), his track record of success is strong, with lots of entertainment industry connections. He collaborated with Entourage writer Cliff Dorfman to create a drama for FX; his book Emergency got optioned, with Robert Downey Jr. attached as producer; and his 2011 anthology of unscripted and often hilarious celebrity interviews, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, was a remarkable departure from standard, fawning industry fare. And he’s now closing a deal with Vice’s cable channel for a pilot of a one-hour talk show that would feature him doing in-depth interviews on camera.
The Game, however, is what he’s best known for, and it remains high on Amazon’s list of all-time best-selling books on “romance.” Most men are “average frustrated chumps” — “A.F.C.s” in seduction lingo — Strauss wrote in a 2004 essay for the Times pegged to the book. For better or worse, the rest of us became familiar with terms like “negging” (gently insulting women to pique their interest) and “peacocking” (wearing some outlandish piece of clothing to stand out in a crowd). The rules of the seduction were Byzantine and mysterious, but Strauss eventually mastered them by studying with the movement’s leading lights, professional Don Juans with names like “Mystery.” For a man who had at times felt insecure about his short stature and thinning hair, Strauss seemed pleased with his transformation. “My days as an A.F.C., it seemed, were finally over,” wrote Strauss.
Unlike ‘The Game,’ a how-to manual on picking up women that has sold 2.5 million copies since it was published in 2005, Strauss’ latest best-seller, ‘The Truth,’ is all about finding meaning in relationships.
Only they weren’t. not really. Because Act 3 was fast approaching — a dramatic reversal that would upend Strauss’ world, throwing everything into doubt and leaving him searching for a surer footing. That journey, which included orgies and swinging, is recounted in his latest book, The Truth, An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, which has been selling strongly since it hit the Times‘ best-seller list in November. It marks a complete reversal of his former self. An unvarnished account of his struggles with sex addiction, the book details his transformation from serial cheater to (gasp) committed partner. No longer a practicing pickup artist, Strauss is married to his longtime partner, Ingrid De La O, a half-Mexican, half-German former model and actress in her 30s, and the two are raising their toddler in Malibu. The self-described nerd who became rich and famous selling pickup tips in crowded arenas now is preaching vulnerability and truthfulness through the auspices of a life-coaching business he established called The Society. “I saw my own happiness,” says Strauss, who declines to state his age, though it’s widely reported to be roughly 47. “If I can share that with other people and benefit from it as well, then great.”
It’s a Tuesday evening at an outdoor mall in Encino, and Strauss, studiously casual in skinny jeans, hoodie and high-top sneakers, listens to a computer programmer named Chris talk about his own difficulties with women. These aren’t the tactical “how to” problems of seduction. They’re messy and fraught with real emotion. Half a dozen guys in their 30s and 40s sit around a table raptly listening in. Raised in a strict Christian household, Chris tells the group that he doesn’t know whether he should have a family or a girlfriend or — he blushes — maybe just sex. Strauss tries repeatedly to get Chris to talk about his feelings, but Chris isn’t able, or doesn’t want, to make the connection just yet, and he toggles between dissatisfaction with his job and loneliness. “If I don’t feel something, I don’t pursue it,” laments Chris. “You don’t know what you feel,” Strauss responds sharply. “You need to figure out the difference between what you want and what you need.”
Traditional group therapy, this is not. But the manufactured bravado and maybe even machismo that swirled around Strauss during his seduction years appear to be gone in this setting, replaced by a seemingly humbled and caring empathy. “What does the adult Chris want to do?” Strauss gently asks, engaging the other men who, just like Chris, are here to learn from the master.
If Strauss is a master of anything, it’s reinvention, and this latest act is the most brazen — after all, Strauss still will counsel men on how to make themselves more attractive to women, and he’ll still do seminars on the finer points of seduction now and again. (At the end of March, The Game was outselling The Truth, according to BookScan.) But he insists that this isn’t what really interests him these days, and it’s not what has brought these men to a small, windowless office space tonight. They’ve come because they want what Strauss’ third act seems to have delivered: peace of mind. This night is all about relationships, says Strauss. Exuding a restless energy, he tells this group what he tells all the men who still come seeking his advice these days: The Game is what you want, but The Truth is what you need. It’s a clever marketing ploy, but, at least to this observer, it has the ring of sincerity.
“This isn’t comfortable,” says Strauss with a grin, injecting some levity into the serious business at hand. “But you have to get to that place of discomfort to make any kind of growth.”
There are a few jittery glances, some nervous laughter, but no one flees. A videographer records the session. Takeout sushi from Katsuya is on the way. Strauss says he wants to help the men connect with themselves, to “know what’s really going on inside you.” It’s a far cry from the auditorium-sized crowds of sex-starved bachelors, eager for hot pickup tips. Instead, he asks them to rate their priorities — relationships, career, family, money — on a scale from 1 to 10, followed by negative emotions: anxiety, sadness, guilt and so forth. “It’s impossible to talk about relationships without talking about your childhood,” he says. He challenges another man, also named Chris, to get in touch with his sadness and pain, and Chris, choking up, replies that he “sees it in the mirror,” adding that he wants to reconnect with his wife. Strauss instructs him to go into another room and do some “inner child work” on his own. “You make it sound as if your wife almost resents you for existing,” he tells Chris. “I don’t think she does, but you guys are creating that story. Go tell yourself you’re loved, tell yourself what you need to hear.”
Strauss at home with Ingrid and Tenn.
After the runaway success of The Game, Strauss came face to face with his own sex addiction. He realized he had unresolved family traumas that centered on a deeply dysfunctional relationship with his mother, whom he describes in the book as being callous about his romantic interests, dismissive and witheringly critical of his father and overly dependent on Strauss himself as a source for her own emotional well-being. He and Ingrid were dating after meeting at Chateau Marmont, but he found himself constantly attracted to other women and sometimes succumbed to temptation. He writes that he was diagnosed with “Axis I sexual disorder, generalized anxiety syndrome and depressive disorder” and eventually wound up in an in-patient sex addiction facility facing a brutal emotional reckoning with his past. He also writes about how a particularly painful confrontation with his mother, who refused to show up at the therapy center to help in his recovery, left him reeling. One side effect of all this introspection, he writes, is that it radically altered — and not in a good way — his relationship to women. “I am no longer attracted to or turned on by random women; instead, I am triggered by them,” he writes. “This may be the first step in my downward spiral.”
He wanted to stay with Ingrid, but things began to feel strained and forced. “My sexuality is boiling over,” he recounts in a style his readers have come to love. “I’m attracted to any woman under 300 pounds and some cartoon characters.” Eventually, Strauss reluctantly broke it off with Ingrid, ditched therapy and plunged into a series of alternative lifestyles: super-fit swingers, polyamorous Bay Area yogis and drug-induced orgies. One of his first stops was a nudist resort near San Francisco, where he was “surrounded by excessively happy naked men whom I can’t imagine functioning effectively in the outside world.” Later he attended a swingers party hosted by former child star Corey Feldman, who asked him, “So are you just in it for the numbers?” After an awkward start, the orgy began, only it wasn’t the Eyes Wide Shut vision of abandon he’d envisioned. “In actuality, it’s impossible to kiss anyone without multiple noses, feathers, horns and bells poking, tickling and obstructing,” he writes. “Real life is never like the movies.”
But Strauss persisted in his quest, losing friends and a chunk of his self-esteem along the way. However, when these experimental forays failed to deliver peace of mind, Strauss did an abrupt about-face and turned back to his relationship with Ingrid, who, mercifully, and after much soul searching of her own, took him in. The Strauss who emerged is, by the looks of it at least, more healthy than not. “There are times when I’m in the bathroom with Ingrid getting ready for the day, and I’m so happy I get what we’ve come to call an R.O.L. — a rush of love,” he writes. He regained more than he had lost and decided that he wanted to pass on what he had learned to other men facing similar challenges.
Some acolytes of The Game might have a hard time coming to terms with their former mentor’s near-complete reversal, but Strauss insists it’s all part of a continuum. “A lot of people see this as an endorsement of monogamy, and it isn’t,” he says. “It’s about healthy versus unhealthy.” The workshops are an amalgamation of what Strauss himself went through. Part group therapy and part shock treatment, they seem a little like a 12-step program on speed. Sessions like this are available to members of The Society at different pay rates, depending on their interest. “A lot of stuff I’m teaching and sharing is what I learned in sex addiction rehab,” he says. “But it isn’t just for addicts. Everyone is suffering from trauma, and we all have wounds, whether we realize it or not.”
Strauss (right) moderated a Q&A with Courtney Love and ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ filmmaker Brett Morgen at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Strauss on display in Encino breaks the tedium and dogma of traditional therapy in vicious fashion. He wastes little time getting to the heart of each man’s predicament. “It’s different from therapy, where you can talk and have space,” he says, “I don’t want to let them get lost in rationalizations or explanations or defenses; I just drill down into the heart of what’s going on.”
He pushes hard on a software engineer named Jose, urging him to discuss his father’s lengthy abandonment and a childhood spent with a promiscuous and volatile mother.
“You’ve been less free than anyone here,” Strauss tells him.
Concedes Jose, “I don’t remember much before the age of 12.”
“I don’t blame you. It’s easier to just not remember,” sympathizes Strauss.
Within a few minutes, the intense back-and-forth yields epiphanies. “I always thought it was my dad who screwed me, but maybe my mom did, too,” says Jose. Strauss, perhaps reflecting on his own impatience with bad parenting, replies, “I think you were raised by children.” Then Strauss proposes a radical idea: “My thought is that you should set a wedding date with her,” he concludes, without much more in the way of deliberation. “But you should do it for yourself, not for her.”
The Society is the business Strauss created to fit his new identity. After an interview process (conducted by his small staff), and for $197 a month, men can become Society “ambassadors,” a level that includes monthly consultations, conference calls and other privileges, such as the recent in-person meeting with Strauss in Encino. Strauss won’t give specifics but says Society members number in the thousands and hail from more than two dozen countries. For $1,000 a month, you can be a “Society 100” member, which entitles you to attend four special meetings a year, called “quarterlies,” held in destinations around the world that focus on specific issues like health or money and feature guest speakers and Strauss himself. As the name suggests, there are roughly 100 men at this level, including NFL players, CEOs and an Oscar-winning actor. All applicants are pre-screened and selected after intensive interviews. Members attend the talks in person several times a year, while ambassadors get edited video presentations after the fact. “I’d like to not go around the world doing The Game seminars talking about the same thing all the time and being tired of the sound of my own voice,” says Strauss, “so I take them with me on the journey.”
Twelve thousand dollars a year for intermittent access to a pickup artist turned life coach might seem like a big ask, but plenty of guys are willing to drop the cash. Six months after the Encino meeting, most of the men still are participating. But not all. After nearly two and a half years as an ambassador, Jose left the group this year. “They were kind of repeating what they said for the last three years,” he says. “Some months it’s how to be a better partner, and some months it’s about how to pick up girls.” Jose didn’t end up proposing to his fiancee. The couple is trying to conceive, however, suggesting some of Strauss’ advice got through.
With Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee in 2011.
The morsels of takeaway wisdom Strauss passes on can sound both simplistic and deeply felt: You can’t recover from PTSD if you’re still on the battlefield; you have to learn how to re-parent yourself. And while some of the men perhaps would benefit more squarely from professional help — the subject matter, after all, is the terrain of psychologists and psychiatrists — Strauss says the years he spent in therapy count for something, too. “I have to be better for me,” he tells them, and in those moments he seems hipper than Tony Robbins (he had group sex, after all) and far more real by dint of experience. “The Game was about, ‘How do I get women I like,’ and this one is about, ‘How do I stop having women in my life?’ ” he says. “Ironically, I’m trying to unlearn everything I tried learning. This book is my way of trying to break with the past.” Pareles, his former Times colleague, says he remains deeply appreciative of Strauss’ gifts as a reporter and writer but puzzled by his trajectory. “I’m glad he found something,” he says. “He ended up in a place I wouldn’t have expected, and it’s not a place I generally visit.”
Strauss sees Society meetings in part as a new form of experiential learning. In 2012, right after it was formed, Strauss took a group to visit North Korea. Another trip involved parachuting with the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team. This year, a group ran a marathon in the Antarctic. Recent featured guests at meetings have included John Smart, a futurist who gave a presentation on intelligence; FBI agents; and work coach Tim Ferriss. Olivia Fox Cabane, a charisma coach to Fortune 500 companies, spoke to Society members about how to win over people. And David Deida, author of The Way of the Superior Man, talked about how to be appropriately masculine in the modern world.
“The Society has accelerated my growth in clarifying my purpose in life,” says Jon Eckfeld, 45, a teacher and aspiring novelist in L.A. who attended the Encino meeting in the fall and hopes to become a full-fledged member soon. However unlikely Strauss’ last act seems, and however cliched or unqualified his advice may appear to the casual observer, the message he is delivering to men feels believable and admirable. “All the questions I had been asking before were the wrong questions,” says Strauss. “It’s just about knowing yourself and doing what’s true and best for you and the people who love you.”
Another Encino attendee, Damien Burke, who became interested in the pickup community when The Game came out, says he found it initially “misogynistic and abusive and objectifying.” But Strauss was compelling, and Burke became a Society ambassador in 2012. After four years, Strauss has earned more than Burke’s admiration — he also has earned his trust. Burke, who calls Strauss “my vanguard, my explorer,” says that when the two talk, it often comes back to the theme Strauss hits again and again. “It’s relationships,” says Burke, 35, who is trying hard to revive one himself. “They are the crucible in which all your struggles take place.” And Eckfeld, while still single, says The Society, and Strauss, have helped him achieve a “higher level of consciousness.” Burke became a full-fledged Society member in March after attending an “experiential” seminar in Florida that was, he says, “mind-blowing.”
There is a rather vague but irresistible positivity that infuses Strauss’ presentations, which his followers have adopted. “The best way I can describe it is the unknown unknowns,” says Burke, channeling Donald Rumsfeld circa 2003. “The scary thing is the things we don’t know we don’t know, and this program is constantly introducing me to things I didn’t know I didn’t know.” But that’s also part of Strauss’ appeal — his journalistic forays into strange new worlds have given him a kind of psychological, or anthropological, street cred with his followers. And he’s the first to admit that he’s stumbling along toward the truth alongside the rest of them. “It doesn’t mean I’m right — it’s just my perception,” he says. “I’m trying not to speak to them intellectually but emotionally. I’m trying to bring them toward an epiphany. Sometimes it’s gentle, and other times you’re diving in to crack them open.”