The woman who has the secret to make any man fall for you. . .
Hermione Hoby takes lessons in seduction from Arden Leigh, New York's female pick-up artist
There's no way I can be the first to make this observation, but New York's Meatpacking District remains ridiculously well named. The cobblestones don't run with animal blood any more but the meat market – the human one that is – is in nightly full throng.
On a sticky Wednesday evening, the heels are vertiginous and glossy, the skirts are bandage-tight and the chat-up lines are even more obvious than the outfits. This is the kind of environment in which Arden Leigh thrives. Arden is an anomaly, a female "pick-up artist".
It's a role made infamous by Neil Strauss, an American writer whose "how to" book, The Game, caused a storm when it came out in 2005, advising men to use techniques such as "negging" (undermining the confidence of an attractive woman so that she's more vulnerable to your advances). Arden is the female Strauss, having built a career out of seduction. She now earns a living teaching women "how to get him, keep him and make him beg for more".
Arden won't tell me her age but, satisfyingly, she looks just like you would think a professional seductress should look: she's wearing black stilettos, a short wraparound red dress, immaculate make-up and scent with a hint of jasmine. Hanging out with her makes me feel like I'm 13 and she's my older, infinitely cooler sister who is sneaking me into bars for the night.
Not that Arden is anything other than charming to me – after all, making people feel good is, she insists, the essence of pick-up.
"At its core, it's considering what the other person wants. And rather than seeing that as manipulative, we can see it as generous. Someone is trying to create positive, exciting feelings in you."
The way she tells it, the art of introduction and flirtation seems straightforward. "A pick-up artist is someone who goes after what they want and strategises about how best to achieve it," she says.
Arden believes this can apply to anything – she talks, for example, about "picking up" a business contact – but the more common pick-up is sexual.
We're on high stools in a bar on the street and Arden is explaining the first step: how to make an approach. There are simple, concrete things she teaches, such as body language: if your arms are crossed over your chest, for example, you're going to repel people. And then there are the more nuanced things, such as confidence.
"Here's the thing about confidence," she says. "You wouldn't tell a boxer in a ring to just go out and be confident. The boxer trains every day."
In the introduction to her book, The New Rules of Attraction, she explains that she wanted to fill what she saw as a conspicuous gap in our culture. Women now, she writes, "are capable of creating powerful careers for ourselves without a man's aid, but we're often at a loss when it comes to our love lives".
Her fascination with seduction stems from years spent being "shy, awkward and geeky". She suffered social anxiety and didn't lose her virginity until she was 22.
"Being out with large crowds of people was kind of intimidating," she admits, and this applied to approaching men too. She dabbled in relationship-advice literature, books such as Why Men Love Bitches and The Rules, "and none of it helped".
She was infuriated by the passivity they advised: "You know – 'Don't show too much interest' and 'Don't call him before he calls you' – I was like, am I just supposed to get a great boyfriend from sitting still? Because that hasn't worked so far."
Then she read Strauss's The Game. "It just made so much more sense," she says. "Here's a bunch of guys talking about what to do, breaking it down and giving a number of steps."
As her twenties progressed, she immersed herself in seduction, and now she is, as far as she knows, the only woman "who coaches women with a methodology that is specifically derived from pick-up".
Central to this is the idea of marketing. She writes: "Just as a company spends much time and energy creating its brand in order to convey its message to its potential customers, you must do the same with the image you project."
This makes me feel a little queasy.
The idea of consciously modifying my behaviour to make people fancy me just makes me feel . . . well, hopelessly at sea. Nonetheless, I ask Arden how she'd advise me to market myself.
"Your personal brand has to be something you carry with you throughout your life. You have kind of an Audrey Hepburn/Zooey Deschanel thing going on," she tells me. I squirm a bit. "We could work with that and make it more deliberate."
But do women really need this advice? Don't men just tend to approach women? Yes, says Arden, but they are often not the ones you want. "Know what you want and go after it clearly," she yells above the noise of the bar.
"I consider myself a feminist in that I empower women with a set of tools for their personal agency. I think that's one of the most feminist things you can do."
The techniques of a pick-up artist, of course, don't tend to be associated with feminism. The fundraising website kickstarter.com recently came under fire for featuring a campaign from another American pick-up artist, Ken Hoinsky. Among the more printable of his objectionable recommendations are: "don't ask for permission" and "be dominant".
"Hoinsky's posts were problematic, to say the very least," Arden says firmly, and she has no doubt that the male pick-up culture is misogynistic. Nonetheless, she insists, "that isn't the fault of pick-up", but rather the type of men it attracts.
"I think a lot of men who are drawn to pick-up feel that women are the gatekeepers to sex and they have to pull the wool over women's eyes to sneak their way in. That creates this adversarial relationship. But it's really about making a connection, about having the confidence to approach someone and create a safe space for them to feel attraction to me."
For the past few months, Arden has been in a relationship with fellow pick-up artist Mystery, or Erik von Markovik, the star of the VH1 reality TV series The Pickup Artist, but they seem to have an agreement that both of them will pick up people casually. Work's work.
We're still chatting at the bar when she tilts her chin at a couple behind me. "I could steal that guy out from under his date's nose. But do I want him? No."
We leave and start walking. After a moment, I realise that Arden is no longer beside me. I look over my shoulder and there she is, instantly absorbed by a group of smoking men and women. The women eye her warily. The two men are supremely good-looking. They're what Arden would term "high-value targets".
Chris is tanned with dark locks slicked back in a short ponytail. I can see him lounging on a yacht in a Versace ad. The problem is, I think he can, too. When Arden introduces me, he says: "Oh, I've just been working with another Hermione." He pauses and takes a drag. Exhales. "Emma Watson."
If I've understood Leigh's advice, I think this is when I'm meant to widen my eyes, touch his arm and say: "Oh, my god, are you serious?" – in other words, make him feel good – but it's such a grand-piano crash of a namedrop that I just smile a tepid smile like I haven't quite heard. I'm terrible at this.
Arden, though, is in her element. About five minutes later, we are inside the bar and she has Chris's number. I can't even explain how she's worked this fast. We go on to another bar (in a whisper behind their backs, Arden points out how swiftly these two ditched their original female companions) and then on to the beer garden at the Standard hotel.
Finally, around 1am, I bail. I just think the Meatpacking and me were never meant to be.
The New Rules of Attraction by Arden Leigh