Pick-up artistry is making headlines at the moment. Its most notorious proponent, Julien Blanc, was recently deported from Australia for “teaching sexual aggression and misogyny”. In the petition to get him barred from the UK, Blanc is referred to as an “evangelist of rape culture”. It’s an industry that has had its fair share of negative press in the last few years, one that is known for its underhanded confidence-bashing tactics and its flouting of sexual consent.
So when I met Kezia Noble, the lone woman teaching these tactics in a sea of men, I was interested in what she had to say to members of her own sex.
However, Kezia Noble doesn’t have much to say to other women. She’s spent the last five years talking almost exclusively to men – namely setting them up for the dating game with everything from advice about how to present a veneer of confidence when approaching a girl in a bar (“not everyone can just be themselves”) to what to prepare for taking a girl back to your place after all your psychological tricks have pulled off (clean sheets, soft lighting – but not candles because candles are too obvious, snacks so you don’t have to wait for a takeaway to arrive, a bottle of chilled white wine in the fridge).
“I’m not especially successful in my own relationships,” she admits halfway through our interview, looking unsure for the first time since she walked into the hotel café and told me to move where I was sitting to the other side of the room. “I don’t feel like I would have very much advice to give to other girls, but I’m good at telling men the pitfalls to avoid.”
Noble is a teacher of pick-up artistry – or, as she puts it, a “dating expert” – but she’s anxious to stress that she isn’t a by-the-book follower of The Game or a professional manipulator. She started out as a “wing girl” working within the pick-up community, essentially a model for teams of socially awkward wannabe lotharios to practice their lines on. These lines range from the simple to the bizarrely developed; one that proved popular in one pick-up artistry book, The Natural Art of Seduction: Secrets of Success With Women by Richard La Ruina, involved approaching a group of attractive women and telling them a completely fabricated tale about a “catfight” outside the bar that culminates in one of the girls’ breasts popping out of her shirt (“Normally, I’m always up for seeing a ripe pair,” the man in question is supposed to tell the ladies whose attention he has won with his story. “But this one was a saggy, baggy breast like you might see in National Geographic.” And no, I don’t understand the connection with National Geographic either.)
The classic technique, so often employed that it’s moved into mainstream language, is “negging” – essentially delivering a backhanded compliment that’s designed to knock a woman’s self-esteem and make her “want to impress you”. Examples on popular pick-up artistry website Seduction Science (“a free, simple pick-up tip every day!”) include, “Your roots are showing”, “You know, I like the outfit you’ve got on… but I don’t know, your shoes don’t really match. You should’ve warn tan boots…”, and, “Your body language is all closed off; it reminds me of one of those newborns I saw on the Discovery Channel when they came out of the womb – all curled up.” Why nature channels feature so prominently in this community is a mystery in itself.
The all-too-often outright sexist content in pick-up artistry classes and material has led many to conclude that the entire business is toxic. Is Kezia’s work tarred by association, or is she doing something completely different?
“The pick-up artistry scene is fairly anti-women,” Noble acknowledges, “but I have a different clientele.”
She did used to push this sort of content, though, I remind her, having watched video tutorials she has on YouTube that have titles such as “Bitch shields and how to destroy them” and “How to get a girl to have sex with you FAST: I’ll teach you to get past her last-minute resistance”). She did once teach the routines, parrot the sexism served up by people like Mystery and Julien Blanc (“an odious brand of conman who specialises in ‘helping’ lonely, desperate inept men by turning them into repulsive, entitled, sexually aggressive creeps with horrible fashion sense,” according to Lindy West.)
Kezia laughs at the accusation. “I won’t deny it,” she says. “I came from the pick-up community, I started there, and that was reflected in my early content. But everything is completely different now.” How so? She says that the classes she teaches now put the woman first, allowing men to gain the skills they lacked in decoding her behaviour rather than teaching them to break female confidence down and then rebuild it in an image that wants to have sex with them. “Often women tell me that they didn’t even know a man was interested. He was completely in love with his friend but he didn’t show it because he was afraid of being sleazy.” She shrugs and smiles. “I just help people to get round situations like that. I teach emotional intelligence and how to read the signs that women are giving off. General skills, rather than specific lines or routines.”
Helping men to overcome their insecurities has made Kezia a rich woman. “It’s a multimillion-dollar industry,” she says. “And I say dollar because it’s very big in America. My business has done very well for itself. And I’m proud of that, because I left school at 15. I just worked with what I was naturally good at – and people buy it. Especially classes like How to Get Your Girlfriend Back. Those ones are incredibly popular.”
And what was it like entering that community in the first place, with no previous knowledge of it? How exactly did she morph from an average twentysomething into a ruthlessly entrepreneurial pick-up figure with a book, a set of DVDs, and a column in Zoo magazine?
“In 2006, I was minding my own business in a club,” she tells me, “and this guy came up to me out of nowhere. He was fairly charming, I suppose, and he told me he was part of the pick-up artist community and that he ran a boot camp I should come along to. At the time I didn’t even know what that meant – I think I sort of vaguely thought it was something to do with gambling. Anyway, I met up with him last week for the first time in years and he reminded me of what I said when he told me about the boot camp and the classes. I said, ‘I can do that.’ At the time he said to me, well, come along and just give some feedback to the guys.”
“I went there and there were two things I immediately noticed. Firstly, these lines and routines did actually work. That was a surprise.”
Probably the darkest truth about pick-up artistry is that this is true. Some of the “negging’, the made-up lines and the ways of tricking women into sex (“move into comfort-building,” is the advice in La Ruina’s book, which talks about how to generate feelings of security which will eventually lead to sex by lightly brushing a woman’s hand or gripping her arm lightly while telling a story) achieve their goal. It’s hard to imagine how, when I experience it for myself: Any female twentysomething who walks round the pick-up artistry stomping grounds of Covent Garden and Oxford Circus on a Saturday will at some point encounter a nervous man approaching them and starting off a spiel about how “you’re really pretty but you’d look better as a brunette” before asking for their number. But after a few classes, it apparently becomes second nature.
“For me,” says a previous subscriber to pick-up artistry who chooses to remain anonymous, “it was about confidence-building. I was 25, crippled by anxiety, totally confident in other areas of my life but completely abysmal with girls. Then I went along to these classes and they told me about how society puts women on a pedestal, how matriarchal everything is. And they explained evolutionary psychology to me. It was all so tantalisingly simple. It made my problems seem solvable, and seem attributable to society rather than my own personal failings. They made us walk up and down Oxford Street and approach 20 women an hour, back to back, and eventually my fear just fell away. I became confident around pretty girls.”
Surely this could be solved by just forcing yourself to plunge in and chat up as many women as possible on a night out, I suggest. Really it’s a numbers game – and throwing yourself headfirst into rejection is universally known to diminish a chronic fear of being rejected. My anonymous interviewee nods, but tells me that he can’t deny it worked out for him. He’s left the pick-up community long ago, however, because of concerns about misogyny. He still has the piles of DVDs, adorned with hot girls in their underwear aggressively demanding that the male viewer learn how to get them into bed, and the books. He even lends me a subliminal messaging CD that’s intended to instil confidence while you sleep (disappointingly, I don’t wake up as a perfect pick-up artist in the morning). The products are ridiculous, almost comical – but they also speak volumes about the desperation of the men who pay for them, and their own vulnerability to manipulation.
For Kezia, it was the second thing that she noticed at pick-up artistry boot camp that kicked her into action. “They weren’t getting a real, honest female opinion,” she says. “The girls would just stand there and sweetly say, yeah, sure, well done. But I was upfront about it. I thought I’d been so rude that I should just get my coat and leave, because they won’t want me here any more. To my surprise, there was actually a queue of guys asking, ‘Can we talk more to Kezia?’ So I ended up working there full-time.”
It wasn’t long, of course, before she moved out of the pick-up community and away from the influence of the male teachers. Her own brand of pick-up is about building successful relationships, rather than chasing tail. “I mean, there are men who come to me looking to sleep with as many women as possible,” she says. “But they’re in the minority. Most of them go to the male pick-up artists – who, by the way, mostly live with their mothers and don’t even have driving licences, let alone girlfriends.”
So what’s the key to dating for men? It’s all about “conversational witchcraft” and the “Sinatra quality”, says Kezia. Conversational witchcraft is the art of holding someone’s attention, convincing them that you are a worthy and interesting partner through the power of your words – “you could call it flipnosis.” And the Sinatra quality? Kezia laughs again, and crosses her legs delicately before confiding, “It’s the balance you need as a man to attract a woman. And we all know it’s true. Women have to be stuck between wanting to fuck you and mother you.”