As a first-time server, I was completely embarrassed by my clumsiness.
Pick Up Artists were in the news last week, when a couple of coffee shop owners in North Carolina were outed as participants in the online PUA scene. The dudes had a podcast, a blog where they discussed and rated their conquests, and a disturbing Twitter feed where they explicitly stated their hatred for women.
It looks like their coffee shop is taking a major hit after this has come to light: Their community is boycotting them.
I always take a particular interest when one of these PUA stories pops up on the blogs, because I'm reminded of my own in-person brush with PUA dudes. My run-in came in the form of a casting scam.
I'm a singer/songwriter who studied Theatre in college. A couple of years ago I was working in an office job, pretty miserable because I had completely sidelined my creative goals almost immediately after graduation.
I was slowly emerging from a fog of hopelessness after reading The Artist's Way (go read it, y’all), and as a result I started researching casting opportunities and going to a bunch of auditions for every type of project under the sun: plays, singer/songwriter competitions, commercials, whatever.
One day I came across a reality show pilot pitch branded as being associated with MTV and VH1 producers. The website associated with the notice is actually still up. It was an artist development-related concept; they were seeking models, actresses, singers and dancers to participate in a six-week long session of classes to develop talent.
I emailed the contact and began corresponding with a woman named Julie Marie who scheduled a date for me to audition at a well-known NYC rehearsal studio.
When the evening of the audition came, I brought my guitar to my day job so that I could go straight there after work. On the train downtown, I ran into a comedian I used to see at open mics. We had a lovely conversation about the nature of artistic depression, and how good it feels to get back in the game.
I got to my subway stop and walked to the familiar building. In the lobby, three beautiful women wearing NYC Talent Agents name tags directed me to the elevator, which I took to the 16th floor.
In front of the studio door, I found a group of some more beautiful young women waiting. After a few minutes of chatting with each other and realizing we were all there for the reality show, we were ushered into the studio by a tall pale dude rocking a black beanie and a leather jacket (even though the studios were well heated and he appeared to be sweating).
He introduced himself as Bruce with a bro-y flair. As we entered the studio, we saw a few other people seated behind folding tables, all wearing name tags with various famous TV networks printed on them. We hopefuls sat in an audience of folding chairs.
Once we were settled, a short guy with large light eyes emerged from behind one of the tables at the front. He wore a gray suit and had obvious lifts in his shoes that brought him to about 5'0". He introduced himself as Manny and wore a name tag that had the MTV logo on it.
He began reading off of a sheet of paper in his shaking hand, describing the concept of the pilot. He told us that the leader of the project would be arriving shortly, an established music producer named Justin.
As Manny reached the end of his script, the hyped-up Justin entered the room, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a similar slouchy beanie as Bruce, who was now operating a camera at the back of the room. Justin introduced himself. He told us that we would all be filmed performing for each other for the audition.
What proceeded was a pretty great run of performances. The ladies danced, sang and performed monologues in front of the group. There was a lot of talent in the room, including a woman named Carmen* who performed an incredible ballroom salsa number.
I performed one of my original songs, and then another one of the ladies asked if I would play for her while she performed a modern dance because she had forgotten the music she wanted to use. She was amazing!
I was having a blast despite the odd intro, and it seemed like the rest of the auditioners were, too. When everyone had performed, we were dismissed and told that the woman we'd spoken to would follow up by email.
A few days later, dear Ms. Julie Marie did indeed follow up. Congratulations, I was cast! Still feeling some concerns about the vibe at the audition, I started Googling to see if I could find anything about Julie Marie or NYC Talent Agents or Justin’s music production career.
I couldn’t find anything, but I decided to keep rolling with it. I had other auditions coming up, and I decided I might as well keep as many possibilities going at once as I wracked my brain for an exit strategy from my office job. Momentum, baby!
In her email, Julie Marie let me know that we would be meeting in the same rehearsal studio where the auditions were for the orientation, where we would be assigned individual coaches to work with us over the six-week filming period.
For the next month I went to appointments associated with the show a couple of times per week. At the first meeting, Justin, Manny and Bruce explained that they would be coaching us.
Soon after, we were taken on a “group bonding” trip to Dave and Busters, an arcade in Times Square. Oddly enough, some other random dudes joined us -- we were told they were executives from a TV network. Um...OK.
On a different evening, we were taken to a bar, another “group bonding” trip where some other random dudes that we had never seen before came along as well. Sometimes we were being filmed, and sometimes no camera was in sight.
In addition to the bonding nights, we had coaching meetings at a midtown apartment building with a large common area with leather couches and a balcony. I was paired with Justin.
At one session, I played a song for him on my guitar and he began singing along in a pitchy, reedy voice. Hmm...music producer, you say?
In other sessions, where we supposedly were to focus on acting, I was told to work on a cheesy monologue and recite it over the phone. I started asking Justin questions about his musical background. He was evasive.
The ladies paired with the other two coaches reported even weirder “acting exercises” and strange unprofessional conversations. Every time any of us questioned them, the “coaches” emphasized that it was all for the show, and that we would be paid well if it was picked up.
Things were getting progressively weirder, and I started having private conversations with Carmen via text where we expressed our concerns to each other. We decided to continue purely to figure out what the hell was going on.
At a coaching session that ended up being my last, Justin was acting particularly strangely. He kept making sexually suggestive comments instead of pretending to work on any actual coaching. I gave him quizzical looks in response, and reminded him that I had a boyfriend I lived with.
I decided to leave early, and at the elevator he said out of the blue, “You know, you have a nice ass.”
I sighed, and gave him a “Really, dude?” look.
I told him I didn’t want to hear crap like that, that the whole situation felt odd, that if something seems too good to be true it probably is, and that the whole vibe of him, Manny and Bruce felt like some sort of weird Pick Up Artist shit.
His face changed at the mention of Pick Up Artists, although I hardly registered that at the time.
He said, “Oh, have you seen the videos? What are you, some feminist who reads Jezebel?”
Without a clue about what videos he was talking about (I had only mentioned PUAs because of the slimy vibe that had been increasing steadily throughout the experience), I just left, kind of disgusted with myself for the fact that I had wasted my time on something that I knew seemed off from the beginning.
Later that evening, I got a text from Carmen. She explained that she had found Manny’s real name (he was her “personal coach”), Googled him, and encountered some crazy shit and that she was going to email me the links.
When I opened the email, I realized why Justin had been so cagey when I mentioned PUAs. It turns out that he, Manny and Bruce run an online PUA-centric dating coaching website and a YouTube channel with over 100,000 subscribers where they detail their “lays.”
I saw advertisements on their website for in-person, in-the-field coaching sessions. My mind flashed to the random dudes at Dave and Busters and that bar during “group bonding.”
Carmen and I brainstormed a plan of action for telling the other women involved. We found a YouTube video where Justin’s glasses were shown to have a camera embedded in them. We found video of a woman being covertly filmed during sex.
We worried that perhaps some of the less skeptical young ladies in our group might have been filmed with the spy glasses doing things in their “private coaching” that they wouldn’t want to be seen. Carmen told me about “acting exercises” that Manny had her do that were strikingly similar to the footage in the YouTube videos where Justin made it look as though he was hitting on a stranger on the street.
The dudes must have felt that something had shifted with us, because we soon received an email from good old Julie saying that the investors for the show had pulled out, and that coaching sessions would be suspended for the time being. Manny sent us some emails as well as reminding us of some bogus waivers that we signed, and I noticed his writing style was strikingly parallel to Julie's.
I spent the next couple of months trying to figure out if anything legally actionable had taken place and reading way too much PUA material. I watched a YouTube video where Manny directly addresses the camera to talk about dating confidence issues, and I could see that he was just an insecure guy who wanted a woman in his life.
I thought about Bruce wearing his too-cool beanie and leather jacket inside even though it was too hot for those fashionable clothing choices. I thought about Justin’s lisp and awkward demeanor. And I thought about all of their PUA acolytes getting scammed with some click-baity YouTube videos that are just advertisements for for-pay “coaching” services.
PUA ideology is a psychological trap. It feeds off of the insecurities we all feel; it’s a self-improvement scam that strokes the egos of participants by presenting women or "beta males" as lesser than the enlightened alpha PUA masters.
At this point, the whole thing seems comical and I’m even grateful for the weird experience. But I still read takedown articles about PUA douchebags like those Asheville coffee shop owners getting taken down with extra dose of schadenfreude.