Neil Strauss: Beyond "The Game"

Neil Strauss: the celebrity whisperer

Neil Strauss: the celebrity whisperer

Last week's cover story brought you the Wingmen and the Don Juans--Minneapolis guys who go out on the town specifically to practice picking up women.

This week, we spoke with the man who inspired them all: journalist Neil Strauss.

A former writer for The New York Times and Rolling Stone, Strauss spent two years learning the art of pickup from masters of the craft, then documented his experience in the 2005 cult classic "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists." [jump]

Strauss's a new book, "Everyone Loves You When You're Dead," recounts the craziest, most memorable moments from 228 interviews with celebrities. City Pages spoke to Strauss about Marilyn Manson, giant sperm costumes, and men's self-improvement.

CP: It's been six years since the Game was released. Are you still playing The Game, and more specifically, how has the way you play it changed?
I don't know if I use the Game anymore. I think that I don't. Other people say I do.

For me personally, I think the whole experience of The Game was like going to college for my social skills. The more you learn, the better you understand The Game, the less you have to play it. A lot of things guys do--like the routines, the pea-cocking, the far-out, outlandish things guys do--is just a way to start to get comfortable in a situation talking to women.

To me, The Game is the social rules by which people interact, and the understanding of those rules. So once you kind of understand them, you start to do them less and less. It's like learning anything--you do it by the book, and then gradually you start to just become naturally competent at it.

I do feel like part of the message of The Game, to me, is getting lost. One of the things I had hoped--and hope that this is still possible--is that The Game would be the beginning of a men's self-improvement movement, versus a funny blip on the pop culture radar where men were wearing pink feather boas and doing magic tricks in bars.

"We might as well have had sex" - Lady Gaga about Neil Strauss's incisive interview

"We might as well have had sex" - Lady Gaga about Neil Strauss's incisive interview

Because I think it's hard for men to ask for help. But hey, if the excuse to get help is to meet women, that's more motivating than just saying "I'm broken. Fix me."

CP: How has your personality changed as a result of the Game?
What I really think is there was a shell and a haze around the person. And I think that person emerged from the shell and the haze, and the person now can be themselves without fear.

It was more of a real person inside emerging, rather than me becoming something I wasn't. I think that's a key difference. If you're becoming something you're not then you're getting lost. If you're becoming your best self or you're finding out these great things about yourself and bringing them out, and showing everybody who your friends and the people who love you see, then you're doing alright.

CP: What has been the fallout in your own life from what you talked about in your book as the Dark Side of the game?
I think one thing it definitely did was create gulfs between men and women. Because you're studying women so hard--how to attract them and how to communicate with them, and how to walk down that road to building a romantic or a sexual relationship in the right way--that every time you see a woman, you think about these steps. So it makes, I won't say an Iron Curtain--maybe a Velvet Curtain--between men and women.

I think that was part of the learning phase. Once I was in a relationship, that was something I had to untrain myself from, and it wasn't easy. I had to unbrainwash myself of just seeing people as people, and not looking for what we call "sets."

This is probably too abstract for print, but I do think it's a dialectical process. Thesis: shy guy who can't talk to women. Antithesis: talking to and running The Game on every woman in sight. Back to Synthesis, which is just being yourself and talking to people who interest you and not talking to people who don't, and just enjoying life.

I think that's a process one has to go to get to the other side. I think what's damaging is when people get stuck in one extreme.

CP: What's your relationship status?

Yeah, I'm in a relationship. I feel bad if I say her name.

[The Game] has made it easier, because I think you need to have self-esteem to be in a relationship. For sure, it's helped me be more stable and secure and confident in relationships.

At the same time, it's probably made women I'm with more insecure in relationships because they've read the book and see the disgusting things I've done.

CP: How did you use what you learned in "The Game" in order to build rapport with the famous/powerful people you interview? The Game completely changed my interviews. Before, when I was doing the Marilyn Manson book, I was like their little mascot. I was this nervous, shy, frizzy-haired guy who would do anything they asked me to, just because I didn't have a backbone.

While I was researching "The Game," I went to Marilyn Manson's birthday party, and he wanted me to dress up like a giant sperm because he had these two sperm outfits. I remember saying "No" to dressing up like a giant sperm for Marilyn Manson was the moment I realized, "Oh, I'm a different person. I'm not going to wear something ridiculous and dance around the room for his amusement. I'm going to like, have a little bit of self-esteem and self-respect."

I remember my first interview with Led Zeppelin--they were just like completely making fun of me the whole time. If I read the interview it's embarrassing. They were just making fun of the poor, hapless journalist. Then when I went to The Game, I started really connecting with people in a way I never had before.

Even with Madonna, I would run the routines on her. But not to seduce her, to show her that I'm not just another boring journalist--she's going to learn about herself from this interview, we're going to do amazing things, there's a lot she can learn. So it went from almost seeing these people as giant stars up on pedestals, which is how one felt about beautiful women in The Game, to walking up to them and having them look up to you for what you can teach them.

A lot of the techniques I used on women in bars to start interesting conversations and learn about them in The Game, I did with people from Tom Cruise and The White Stripes, to Madonna and Lady Gaga. So you definitely see that evolution in the book.

CP: What's your top tip for cutting through boring conversation and making something interesting--without doing a magic trick or reading their palm?
First of all, even though you're sort of making fun of those things, that is what they like. Look at Madonna and Kabbalah, look at all The Beatles and the Gurus. The things you're dismissing right now are the exact things that they love, right?

If you're doing these things to impress someone, it's going to backfire. You're going to look like an idiot trying to impress someone. If you're doing these things because you believe them and you understand them and you find them interesting and you're coming from a place of curiosity, you're much more natural.

CP: What's your favorite moment from the new book, "Everyone Loves You When You're Dead"?
There's so many of them. My favorite moment is when you get an artist and they're in a vulnerable moment. It was Snoop Dogg when he doesn't have Death Row anymore. It was Trent Reznor when he's got writer's block and he's trying to do his new album. It's getting the artist when they're out of the promotional cycle, and they're really questioning their sense of self-worth and who they are.


Leonard Cohen told me he had "The Game" and loved "The Game." That was definitely one of my proudest moments as a writer.

CP: I noticed on the cover notes for your new book that Lady Gaga said of your interview, "We might as well have had sex." What was that about?
She was talking about the interview, and the amount of interest and knowledge I had about wanting to understand her music, I guess. She also said, "I feel raped," at the end of the interview. But she didn't say it in a negative angry way, she said it like, "You got so much, this is more than I've ever given anyone else."