"Most men are so lonely now. They idolise women, but not in a good way," Kezia Noble, the world's leading female seduction coach, tells me. "Sometimes we're fixing years of emotional trauma. And we're teaching equality."
On her website, Noble describes herself as both a 'female pick-up coach' and 'celebrity dating coach'. A day's bootcamp with her - like the one I'm in west London to witness firsthand - costs £397. A '7-Day Mastery Course', that will help attendees become 'The Ultimate Man', costs £4,000. She claims to have helped more than 100,000 hopeless would-be suitors overcome their fears of rejection and dating and teach them the secrets of attraction.
A couple of hours before we meet I arrive at the living room of a modest townhouse, where chairs face forward in neat rows occupied by 13 men of surprising diversity: white, Asian, black, aged early twenties through to fifties, all chatting awkwardly. An advertising board stands in the corner, emblazoned with the shiny form of a woman who turns out to be Kezia, along with four bullet points outlying what the day's bootcamp will provide.
• Achieving goal alignment
• Getting real results
• Accelerating your success rate
• Delivering an honest insight into the female mind.
There's a 2005 book that you've probably heard of called The Game. It's an account by former Rolling Stone journalist Neill Strauss of the time he, a self-proclaimed 'loser', immerses himself in the pick-up artist community, a scarcely believable troupe of misfits, one-time introverts and semi-psychopathic womanisers who built an underground subculture - complete with its own dialect, rulebook and dress code - with the focus of manipulating women into sleeping with them.
Its release caused considerable controversy , with the New York Times describing it as being "far more frightening than funny" and feminist author and speaker Clarisse Thorn saying that "some of the tactics in [the book] make my skin crawl." Despite all that, it ended up topping the New York Times's bestseller list with more than 2.5 million copies sold.
The Game brought the spirit and teachings of a previously hidden Internet community to a huge Western audience. Today, 'pick-up' is an industry worth tens of millions of dollars, a global network of seminars, bootcamps, instructional videos, books and - of course - websites and forums, all headed by so-called experts in attracting women. Almost all of them male.
But Kezia, of course, is a woman - the supposed alternative to the seedy, underground boys club that founded it all.
I'm here to find out if that makes any difference.
The day is to be broken up into a mixture of theory and 'actual infield training', the latter of which I have been politely, but firmly told I am not allowed to attend. This requires going out and approaching women on the street during the day and in bars and clubs at night.
But first: the classroom stuff. The fundamental belief of pick-up is that, through regular practice, learned confidence and meticulous attention to empirical details - like approaching women so many times that rejection becomes meaningless - any man can transform himself into an alpha male capable of attracting whichever woman he so desires.
A solidly built man with dark skin, a tweed blazer and the air of someone always freshly showered stands at the front of the room, jabbing impatiently at his iPhone while another coach introduces him as Vio. Vio is here to address the group for the first segment: 'Approach Attitude'.
"Firstly", Vio says, putting the phone to rest. "We're here to improve ourselves."
Heads nod while hands grip pens and A4 pads, Vio's every word etched with sacrosanct focus.
"We let women have a level of power over us and they start to believe it," he continues. "But really women are just as scared as you are."
Then Vio addresses a dark-haired man in the front row with a geometric sleeve tattoo and hunched shoulders. He is Romanian, and mentions recently going through a heavy break-up with a long-term girlfriend.
"Have you been out with the boys yet?" Vio asks.
"You should, it's good for you. Learn how to be with the boys, and then focus on the girls. Do you have any friends?"
"Not here… not in London."
"I know in your case it's tough right now," he says, before launching into a story about his own former discomfort around women, engrained in him after being rejected endlessly for the colour of his skin. His transformation, he explains, arrived at age 18 after learning dominant masculinity cues from watching every single James Bond film.
I glance around the room for someone to share a raised eyebrow with. Not so much as a flinch.
Then there's talk of vision, of self-belief and getting into 'state' - meaning to focus and prepare for talking to women. And then the big one: the difference between 'alpha' and 'beta'.
In pick-up circles the concept of alpha and beta is a big deal. Betas are 'pussies'; they're weak and prone to being 'friend zoned'. In the lingo of The Game, they are known as AFC's - or Average Frustrated Chumps.
Alphas are in control. They are confident. They are leaders.
No one wants to be a beta.
"You're going to have to become semi-delusional. I mean it. You're going to have to believe in yourself so much that when a woman knocks you back it doesn't phase you."
Vio ends his speech with a question: "Who here wants a long-term girlfriend?"
All 13 hands reach for the white ceiling, as the room passes into a heavy silence.
"Good. We're here to help you find the woman of your dreams."
Like many subcultures, the jargon woven into the culture and dogma of pick-up is a scattered patois of acronyms and colloquialisms, constantly evolving. Groups of women are 'sets', appearance and fitness is known as 'outer game'. 'Pawning' is to use a woman who you are not genuinely interested in as 'social proof', social proof being a popular psychology term relating to humans desiring that which is desired by others - in this case, a woman wanting you because she's seen that another already does. The list goes on.
Kezia will be joining us soon, but first there is a module on one of the more controversial aspects of pick-up: Day Approach, the idea that any woman is open and receptive to being approached, if it's done correctly (an example of a recent controversy surrounding Day Approach is the case of Julien Blanc, an American pick-up artist and coach who was banned from delivering a seminar in the UK in late 2014 after a video emerged of him groping and harassing women in broad daylight on the streets of Tokyo).
The class is led by a slick young double act called Matt and Sam. They look a bit like 'urban street magicians' - all ripped jeans, delicate scarves and slicked back hair. You can almost hear the 10,000 positive affirmations they said in the mirror that morning still ringing in their ears. Their speech is littered with go-to phrases and buzzwords like "express, don't impress" and "practice makes permanent."
Undeniably, they are captivating.
A common thread between all of Kezia's coaches is their impressive yet slightly disconcerting charisma. A shared intensity that makes annunciation just a bit too clear, eyes just a bit too wide, clothes that feel selected for clinical effect, body language that is smooth and rehearsed. Like charm with the contrast turned up +10.
The Day Approach mantra, scrawled as an acrostic across a whiteboard.
Sam, one of the magicians, with the slick blonde hair, begins to explain the secrets of becoming adept at Day Approach.
"Always, always approach from the front," he says, as all heads nod.
"Make sure you hold eye contact [A uthority] and start off with something like, 'I know this seems strange' [E mpathy], to let her know that this isn't something you do all the time.
"It's vital that you speak slowly and clearly. No girl wants a nervous, stuttering wreck approaching her."
Sam goes on to discuss playing compliments and the importance of the 'false time constraint' - giving the impression you have somewhere to be, or someone to meet, even if that isn't the case, to let a woman know that you won't take up much of her time [S afety].
By this point, Kezia has entered the room and is standing silently at the back. It is almost time for the group to finally meet her.
The science, or 'model', behind pick-up takes most of its inspiration from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, an approach to personal and psychological improvement that started in America during the 1970s. In a nutshell, NLP is based on the idea that excellence and influence are learned skills - if you can understand how successful people act, speak and carry themselves, then you too can model yourself into a success, by copying their gestures of body language and patterns of speech.
Its efficacy is a point of contention. A 2009 study by the University of Glamorgan concluded, somewhat sassily, that "NLP masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works[...] There is spectacularly no evidence to support NLP beyond personal testimony and anecdote."
Nevertheless, the pick-up community believe the idea that you can influence how people view you and react to you by altering your mannerisms as gospel.
Kezia, dressed in black, blue eyes and cheek bones high, introduces herself to the room. She invites the members of the group to practice their Day Approach on her so she can offer them the feedback they have paid for.
A handful of nervous recruits enter the arena, wielding their minutes-old skill on a woman who sends most into anxious raptures the minute they make eye contact.
One of the 13, a squat man of about 35 with black spiky hair, a shiny blazer and nervous eyes goes first. The living room lights reflect in the sweat beading around his forehead as he makes his approach.
"Sorry, I couldn't help b-but notice you. You have lovely eyes, lovely hair."
"What about my eyes?"
"They're like a Disney Princess'."
Others take their turn. Kezia's legs, eyes, hair and face are the main points of attention. Feedback is given - too close, not enough, more eye contact, nerves, nerves and nerves. Rinse. Repeat.
Heads nod, notes are scrawled.
With that the group splits and heads to a shopping centre under the guidance of the coaches to practice, leaving the two of us alone.
"Hi Kezia, I'm Fin from Esquire," I say, using my best Day Approach skills.
"I know who you are."
Kezia Noble is 34 and 5'5". She began her career 10 years ago as a 'wing girl' - an attractive woman used by pick-up artists to show potential conquests they are desirable and socially accepted. Now she employs 23 different coaches and wing girls in London, Europe and America to help with her operation.
Her speech is thoughtful and clear, unsullied by 'errs', 'buts', 'likes' or inflections. If she doesn't care for a question she will stare directly at you, awaiting clarification. It's quite disconcerting. She can put you both on edge and at ease simultaneously.
You want to believe what she says.
"People think what we do is strange, but then they scroll through a stream of virtual profiles on Tinder like it's normal," she says, sat regally on a black leather sofa.
"We're not connecting anymore. We as a society are curating our lives entirely online and it's making people miserable. What we teach are practical, real world skills about how to interact with people in person. I like to call what we do 'organic pick-up'. We're not teaching the tricks that others are doing."
Perhaps the most notorious among those 'tricks' is 'negging'. In the pick-up community, negging is a control tactic that essentially boils down to giving a backhanded complement purposefully to create a feeling of insecurity in a woman, which then causes her - so the theory goes - to seek approval and validation and put a man's social value above her own. It is supposed to be particularly effective with attractive women because they are not used to being questioned or mocked.
That's a nice dress. I've seen loads of women here wearing the same one. But yeah, it suits you would be an example of a neg.
"Negs are horrible, and they don't work", is Kezia's reply. "Being mean is not endearing to a woman. What we teach is to make a woman feel special, but not to idolise her. Maybe tease and have fun with her. You don't have to agree with everything she says."
"I just want to say," she adds, "there's a primitively attractive quality about a man pursuing a woman. It's real, it's bold, it's confident and it's rare. And while some might see the concept of the 'micro-behaviours' that we teach as odd, these men need them to rebuild their confidence."
I ask her whether encouraging men to practice and create what essentially amounts to a forced façade can really be decribed as 'real'.
"Look, this is marketing," she replies. "These guys need to learn how to market themselves. What we teach is unapologetic truth. If you're a bin man, fine! Own it! We don't want these men to be ashamed of who they are, to feel unworthy."
Kezia ends with this. "One thing I'd like to make very clear, is that we never, ever blame the woman. If she shoots you down, no problem, but don't become bitter. Don't let that taint your view on women.
"It's your fucking fault." she adds, not unkindly.
Soon the groups arrive back from their venture into a brave new world. Most seem mildly deflated, confronted with the difficulty of adopting a ready-made, charming persona.
"It's hard being an introvert," says George, a Scotsman with glasses and very red hands.
"I have Asperger's," a 23-year-old member of the group tells me. "I struggle with social cues, especially when it comes to women. I want to get better."
When starting out on this story, I expected - maybe hoped - for the men seeking help to be simple, greasy caricatures, two-dimensional sleaze bags being whipped into a frenzy of flesh and female consumption. Instead, spending time with the 13, I sensed a combination of acute desire for change in their own lives, mixed with an even greater sense of loneliness. What Kezia and her coaches are ultimately selling is a structured dream they were desperate to buy into and believe. Whether it would work for them - whether they would emerge as 'ultimate men' or fail to improve upon their beta selves - could only be answered in the weeks and month that lay ahead, with the collateral damage of women who never signed up for the experiment in the first place impossible to calculate.
Before I leave I'm introduced to *Anthony, an articulate American in his mids 30s in a flannel shirt, with dark curly hair and a wide, confident stance that seems newly acquired. He tells me he has just completed the 7-day Day Mastery Course as we stand in the kitchen, the hum of a fridge party to our conversation, the day outside falling into 5pm gloom.
"I feel great," he says. "I felt like before I truly believed that I was boring. I was looking inwardly. But I feel like already my life is more enjoyable, and that's down to the course.
"If your behaviour and intentions don't align with meeting new people, then there are no new people in your life. Anxiety is selfish."
Anthony ends our conversation with an anecdote.
"I was in a bar the other night, talking to a woman. It was going great, we had amazing chemistry and I found myself telling her: 'I just have to say, you have incredible legs.' She loved it!"
He leans in, elated, his eyes just a bit too wide, his body language just a bit too smooth.