Pickup artist Vince "Hollywood" Kelvin seems at home under a red spotlight created by the "open" and "sale" signs of competing pizzerias, bars, and souvenir shops on Powell Street. Kelvin, a Los Angeles resident, is here on one of his routine trips to San Francisco, where he leads monthly pickup artist (PUA) boot camps. According to his site, seductioncoaching.com, he teaches men how to "Get laid like a rock star!!!"
"With bracelets like that, you have to at least stop and say hello," Kelvin says to a petite brunette. She giggles. Kelvin saunters over to her. He gesticulates like an Italian chef miming a recipe. They chat intimately for less than a minute. She gives him a kiss on the cheek, and she's off. His students are impressed.
Amid a glut of dating apps, sites, and services, Kelvin, 46, is practically teaching a classic art: He shows men how to approach women in person. With a heavy French accent, pink hair, and enough accessories (and notches on his belt) to evoke the drummer of a forgotten hair-metal band, Kelvin leads groups of 10 to 30 local men around Union Square as he performs live PUA demos.
Kelvin's students are capable of running a small country: They're successful architects, computer engineers, and CTOs, but, in an embodiment of the shy-nerd cliché, effective communication with the opposite sex eludes them. The motley crew ranges from divorced 50-year-olds to cherub-faced 20-something almost-virgins. They come looking for a cure to what Kelvin calls "approach anxiety," the fear of initiating contact.
Over the past 10 years, Kelvin has coached more than 2,000 Bay Area men. There's even an invite-only, secret Bay Area PUA Facebook group with 200 members. Half want to get laid. Half seek dating advice. It's a more vulnerable version of locker-room talk, with questions such as: "I've been on three dates with this girl, we haven't made out yet, how do I make sure I stay out of the friend zone?"
It's good business for Kelvin, whose fees range from $200 to $2,000 for seduction-coaching seminars, boot camps, and private sessions. His services stretch to Europe and even Australia, but he's found a home base in the Bay Area, where he leads up to a dozen PUA boot camps and seminars a year. Kelvin says that his San Francisco clients tend to be intellectuals who overanalyze every situation and can't get out of own their heads as they dissect and evaluate each interaction while it's occurring — a kiss of death for chemistry. They're also very shy, reluctant to make advances unless they're absolutely confident that they won't get rejected.
"Part of the problem is that the guys beat around the bush, that's why they don't get the bush," Kelvin says.
Nearly all of the aspiring PUAs cite a book that came out in 2005, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists as their first encounter with the craft.
"The Game basically tells you to cut the girl down with backhanded compliments nonstop. The idea is to bring yourself higher than her," says Sam, a quality assurance computer engineer in his early 30s. (Kelvin's PUA students asked that we not use their last names.) "When I'd try that, girls would say, 'You're a jerk.' ... Maybe that style can be pulled off by super-masculine alpha dudes, but I don't think it works for most guys — definitely not for software engineers."
According to Sam, Kelvin's techniques are more playful. He's found results by giving girls genuine compliments, allowing him to stay in the present and carry a natural conversation, rather than worrying about coming up with the next clever half-insult.
Kelvin's students believe he's pushing a softer, cuddlier system of seducing women, if such a thing can be said to exist in the calculating world of pickup artistry. Whatever the case, the birth of "Hollywood" Kelvin almost certainly has something to do with his first wife.
In 1991, Kelvin's wife, Erika, who'd been his college sweetheart, disappeared from their L.A. home. He says that, after a spat, she went out and never came home. Weeks later, she was found dead. He says police told him and Erika's mother that she might have overdosed, though he says she wasn't particularly fond of drugs. He says he was devastated and felt "stuck."
The future life coach's response was to seek a life coach. Within a year, he became a self-help devotee, following Tony Robbins on speaking tours, studying self-improvement, and eventually teaching it. In 1998, Kelvin received Robbins' Leadership Award.
Since then, Kelvin's been married and divorced three times. "I like weddings," he says. "The anticipation, the ceremony." The marriage record also makes it easier for him to relate to his divorced and relationship-minded clients.
"He's into harems, but I respect him because he'd never misled a girl," says Sam. "He's very giving. I call him the Dalai Lama of dating."
Four years ago, Sam's modus operandi was to get a drink at the bar, hold up his beverage as a shield, and wait. "I was happy if a girl bumped into me once a year." He and his friends passively sought eye contact before considering approaching a girl, and that rarely happened.
"At some point in our lives we all got rejected and took it personally," says Sam. "It's a downward spiral, you lose your self-esteem and then your posture is off."
Kelvin's drills eliminate the fear of rejection by forcing students to deliberately induce it and get it out of the way. One exercise is to tell every woman in the bar that you have an ice cream cone melting in your car — a crude invitation to perform oral sex or simply a bad joke. Either way, getting rejected makes you realize that it didn't kill you, and you become less sensitive.
During a weekend-long bootcamp in February, Kelvin and 10 protégées meet for a pep talk in his room at the Clift Hotel. "Keep moving your hands when you're talking so it's natural when you touch her hand for the first time." After a few more tips on how to "escalate" the exchange from eye contact to conversation to touch, Kelvin draws a map of the bar layout on the hotel-room mirror and marks the guys' positions with X's. "Don't huddle together," says Kelvin. "We need two guys in every part of the bar."
He warns them not to move in on each other's women, because that "disqualifies both of you from the potential to be special."
Sam is in attendance as well. At the bar, a buxom drunk girl in a short dress throws herself at him, but he declines; she's not girlfriend material. He's now rejecting the types of girls he was merely hoping might respond to him online just a few years prior.
Critics of the pickup artist movement focus on the calculation and manipulation required to achieve the debatable goal of putting notches in belts. But if there's something cynical in the approach, it may be inherent in the rules governing online communication.
"If you say something weird in a bar, you laugh it off, there's nuisance there," says Mathias Crawford, Human Computer Interaction Fellow at Stanford. "Online it's very high stakes and you've just blown your one chance to make an impression." A bad pickup line sent via an online dating site can disqualify you. But in the flesh, there's an immediate chance for a rebound. You can save the interaction by laughing at yourself, and you can get immediate social cues that tell you to modify or continue your behavior.
According to Crawford, many PUA tactics are an extension of the rapid-fire results that people have grown to expect online. "A lot of what happens online is application-based [or task-specific] work: 'I'm buying something. I'm posting something,'" says Crawford. "The things we do through computer-mediated devices extend and deploy themselves in our lives. If you develop this transactional model, you start to expect those types of transactions in real life."
For commitment-oriented PUA students like Sam, Kelvin's self-improvement curriculum is a tool to become more competitive in attracting the best quality of girlfriend possible. For others, the tried and true PUA tactics are simply a way to maximize their chances of getting laid, while putting out the least amount of effort. Crawford, incidentally, finds many PUA tactics objectionable. He views formulaic PUA lines as a way to de-personalize what should be a very spontaneous, human interaction. He finds much of it disrespectful and "gross."
Kelvin, meanwhile, believes that he's actually helping women by training men to be better communicators. "I've witnessed too many guys act so creepy or unpleasant," he says. "To me, women are saying, 'Please act normal, please be the masculine polarity.'"
For Seth, a handsome 30-year-old graphic artist from the Midwest, Kelvin's PUA boot camps were a liberating force. Seth came from a Muslim upbringing. He believed that sex was acceptable only within the context of love and commitment. Yet he was routinely unfulfilled in a string of mediocre long-term relationships.
A year after training with Kelvin, Seth has slept with more than 30 women. He says that he's always upfront about his intentions and has finally internalized the notion that women like sex too. Seth feels there's a deep reciprocity in his encounters, however brief they may be. "I provide them with an escape from decision-making," he says.
Kelvin says that he empowers men like Seth by helping them understand what they have to offer women. He says that men need to learn which archetype works best for them: the romantic hero, the alpha male, the intellectual, or the bad boy. Ideally, Kelvin wants them to learn to be all four.
It's Tony Robbins for the club set, except the goal isn't necessarily spiritual self-realization so much as the enlightenment of the orgasm.
How does Kelvin approach women? "I'll make the first step. You're free as a woman. ... I come from a place of abundance," he says. He doesn't view relationships as power plays. Just play.