‘Keys To The VIP’ Unlocked The Modern Manosphere
10:33 AM EDT on April 6, 2023
Cocoa Butter Chris is thinking. He’s standing, somewhat sheepishly, between two women at Mink nightclub in Toronto. Catherine’s to his right and Stephanie his left. Cocoa Butter Chris is trying to get some digits.
So far tonight he’s struggled, though in fairness, Mink is not a place designed to facilitate human connection. It’s loud and dark and cramped. You lean into someone’s ear and say something and then they lean in and say something back, and then you repeat the dance until, through much trial and error, you’ve ascertained the object of your affection is a Manitoban Libra in town for a bachelorette party.
Chris moves with an operator’s precision, grimly determined, like a waiter on a busy Saturday checking his tables. He’s trying to get a number, any number. As soon as one interaction wraps, he’s on to the next. He is cold, though I don’t detect any leering creepiness, just someone timidly grinding it out. But we’re not seeing any of the Chris we saw in his room earlier. That Chris was hot shit and he knew it. That Chris slathered cocoa butter all over his upper body and called himself The Architect, on account of he invented the game. Despite the bravado, he has not yet been greeted as a liberator.
This is going better, though. There’s at least playfulness. He asks Catherine how her Corona is and she says good and they cheers to that. Catherine introduces Chris to Stephanie and Stephanie says Catherine is her baby, and that she wants to take her home and put her in a crib. And here’s where we see Cocoa Butter Chris thinking, looking inward, then, failing that, up to the heavens for something to say.
What comes to him is: "Oh my god, I was thinking the same thing."
The women laugh. Cocoa Butter Chris laughs and assures them he’s joking. Catherine and Stephanie say something to each other, Chris nods the way you nod when you don’t know what the person said, and then there’s deep, deep silence. He wishes them a good night and moves along. Dejected, maybe, but on the bright side, Yakov the Trapper also struck out minutes earlier. The round will end in a tie. Two zeroes.
Keys To The VIP, an Alpha Males Productions joint, ran on Comedy Channel in Canada from 2006 to 2008. Creator Alen Bubich came up with Keys To The VIP with his friends Sheldon and Peachez. They based it off their time going to clubs in Guelph, Canada, where they would give each other challenges while trying to pick up women. Get a number without uttering a word, that sort of thing. And that’s what contestants do in the show. Through CCTV cameras we see them flit about the club and talk to women. Most of the men move through the club as Chris does, as most young men do, like human bumper cars. Drinks spill and knees knock. It is remarkably raw, though hard to say just how real the interactions are. Certainly some are genuine—you cannot fake that level of disinterest—though hopefully the producers made the women who constitute the show’s largely agency-less subjects nominally aware that something was being filmed. The show does not make the viewer hopeful for that level of care.
The crux of pickup artistry is a sort of sorcerous transactionality, the idea that convincing a woman who does not want to have sex with you to have sex with you—and that is as far as this horizon extends—is a matter of simply saying the right combination of words or wearing the right outfit. It’s video-gamey, equal parts adversarial and conspiratorial, and as such, the pickup artist mindset necessarily precludes interiority.
There were many reality shows like Keys To The VIP during the Bush years, all of them masquerading as social experiments that were ultimately built around the promise that viewers tuning in will see someone get fucked with. In one, Joe Millionaire, women competed for the affections of a man they presumed to be a millionaire, but who was in fact a construction worker. On Average Joe, Miss Missouri USA agreed to star in a Bachelor-type show that turns out to be stocked with regular guys, an attempt at omnidirectional humiliation. Presumably you know about MTV’s Next. It’s hard to figure who the joke is on, and who is in on it. The likely answer is everyone, to varying degrees.
What compels someone to regard the VIP and seek the keys, knowing what’s coming? What convinces him to risk public embarrassment? Perhaps some unholy concoction of naivete, post-9/11 nihilism, and strange advice from skeevy agents. Contestants are often actors looking to break into the industry, which I think is informative; whatever masculinity or romance projected through these people is, in and of itself, a performance, orchestrated by someone else.
The idea that manhood—reinforced at that time by either shirts with big, dumb words on them or the some mix of faux-hawk, scarf, and sleaze—is inherently something that must be performed is not all that novel nowadays, though I’d argue that pickup artistry’s brief, inglorious moment in the sun is both a key to understanding the evolution of that idea, and a useful entry point into the modern Manosphere. It is no coincidence that the meta-performance of PUA shit emerges at the beginning of the internet era and the end of the End of History. Just look at who was President of the United States at that time: a Connecticut-born Yale grad trotted out as an exemplar of John Wayne bullshit. An antidote to the Clinton urbanity. There he is, pretending to clear brush and dancing like a jackass with the Kankouran West African Dance Company. He was along for the ride, performing, the same way everyone else would soon learn to be. Over a decade later, the chief concern that Andrew Tate and jackals like him use to prey on people is a sense of powerlessness, a frustration with the false agency of modern life.
In this way, reality TV has shone a light on the masculine psyche better than any other art form this century. The artifice doesn’t nullify the performance, it deepens it. Here, we see the realness of Keys To The VIP under all that body spray. To live in the 21st century is to simply wait somewhere loud and crowded for someone to come over and try to pull one over on you and extract your data. And you wait and you assume it is coming because you’ve been warned and you signed a sheet. And you signed the sheet because so what if it happens, you’re not gonna let it ruin your night, at least you get to put on a show. Purgatory, then, is a nightclub in Toronto.
In a lounge across town, Alen, Sheldon, Peachez, and a soul-patched man named Chris sit next to each other on white leather chairs, in a grim simulacrum of a club, and critique the fellas’ performances for the viewer to enjoy. Each man is presented to you as a Winner, embodying a distinct archetype, "descending from the four corners of the male perspective," per the show’s intro. Alen is a "cold, calculating master of pickup analysis," Sheldon is a "mysteriously coy, unorthodox philosopher," and Chris a "hopeless romantic man of integrity." And the critiques match the archetype. So Alen will say something about how women want jerks, or Chris will disagree with the concept of makeup, or Sheldon will say something punny and dad joke-y, but in calm, hushed, stoic tones.
Peachez’s thing, aside from a propensity for smoking unlit stogies, is that he’s an "ex-all-star jock-inspired pickup enthusiast," which is to say, he just really enjoys sports. He triangulates his character to Keys To The VIP’s sticky vibe in a fittingly hackneyed way. Everything he says on the show is sports-related. I’m not kidding; everything. A contestant will get the cold shoulder and Peachez will compare it to Scott Norwood missing a field goal in the Super Bowl. Peachez best exemplifies the Sunday morning NFL pregame show vibes the show is going for. He laughs at everything with any inflection of a joke, automatically and with verve. Every laugh is a belly laugh, a physical act. He is often falling out of his chair. It is always on cue, and forced. And so is every interaction between the men. There is no warmth, no camaraderie. The show’s articulation of the alpha lifestyle is hilariously unappealing. Perhaps that speaks to the answer to what actually motivates the contestants: alienation, a lack of compassionate homies to tell them how bad an idea it would be to do this.
But whatever male stereotype they seek to champion on the show, the analysis is mostly mean-spirited. For example, Chris compared Cocoa Butter Chris to Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, and minutes later said, in prehistoric times, Yakov would be “mammoth food.” And he's supposed to be the man of integrity!
At the end of the night, they tally up the points and declare a winner, whose prize is a night out with the VIP Girls. A night out with the VIP Girls is a limo ride and bottle service, and all they ask is that you yell into the camera and slurp vodka off various tits and bellies. But neither Cocoa Butter Chris nor Yakov The Trapper won a night with the VIP girls; their game declared wholly insufficient. They can leave the game knowing that the show's winners get roughly 15 seconds of screentime in the titular VIP before the episode slams shut, so they’re not missing too much glory. Instead, the prize goes to the production assistant just off camera, holding cables and wearing a “You Look Guilty” t-shirt. His facial hair is elaborate.
Lots of people had t-shirts like that then. It’s a form of peacocking, a pickup artist technique where you attract women by wearing, say, ski goggles on your forehead outside of any skiing context, or the kind of hat that Linda Perry used to rock. Peacocking’s biggest evangelist was a guy named Mystery. It’ll shock you to learn he also had a soul patch. He hosted a show on VH1 called The Pickup Artist around the same time Keys To The VIP was on air. The show was kind of like The Bachelor, only guys competed to be Mystery’s friend, and along the way he taught them how to get laid (by negging women). He also taught them how to separate the woman from her friends, and how to offer the chance to hang out without explicitly saying it’s a date. Of course, lowering someone’s self-esteem, separating them from their friends, and using misdirection to obfuscate your intentions are tried and true tactics of both big-game hunters and cult recruiters.
Meeting someone is a messy and fraught enterprise, and what pickup artistry offers is the tools to sidestep the messiness and potential pain. Tools to convince a woman of your worth, and conversely, your target of her own worthlessness. It takes the frankly miraculous act of mutual attraction and McKinsifies the shit out of it, stripping humanity from one of life’s great pleasures. Inherent to the philosophical outlook of PUAs is that everything worthwhile and pleasurable must come at the expense of another. It applies a competitive framework to something cooperative. You either get someone’s number or you do not; the interaction itself is meaningless unless the end result is achieved. It assumes that the person you are interacting with has no real worth, yes, but then it also assumes that you have no real worth. It is fantasy stock market. It is a coping mechanism.
Pickup artistry eventually faded, though its principles have been revived and weaponized more recently by the warriors of the online right. I’ve been thinking about Keys To The VIP ever since Instagram decided I was a particular type of vulnerable. I was high one night, and immediately after watching 20 seconds of a Jordan Peterson video just to hear what the goober sounded like (if Kermit the Frog really had to sneeze but couldn’t), my feed was swamped with posts where there’s a picture of Tom Hardy and the text is like, “If your friends don’t have 401ks, you’re trash.” A little deeper than the Massive Thinks-wave accounts, you are confronted with the Steven Crowders of the world and various proponents of elective lengthening surgeries.
A little deeper than that, you find valorizations of mass shootings, and there appears a smooth onramp towards all manner of rotten, far-right politicians and movements by and for the power base in the country’s disaffected young men, promising to deliver pain to The Other. In the Bush years, The Other lived in the Middle East. Now, the imagined enemy lives in a city you’ve never visited, and withholds their body from you. Maybe enrolling in Tate’s Hustler’s University for $50 a month can resolve this tension.
Keys To The VIP works in the way these politicians work, on the thesis this world is populated with Alen Bubichs and Cocoa Butter Chrises. Wolves and sheep. It invites you to sit around with the former and laugh at the latter. It feeds off the insecurities and unassuredness of young men, whose personalities have not yet fully formed and who think it best to fill it with the indefatigable belief in one’s ability to overcome anything and, most importantly, anyone. If you are lucky, you learn to fill up that space with good deeds and intimacies and an appreciation for the beautiful, fragile possibilities of the human condition. If not, you end up looking up to Tate, or Jordan Peterson, or Elon Musk, or any other merchant of internecine manhood.
These are the men bell hooks talks about when she writes of capitalism’s drive to exploit male anger for militaristic purposes. That dynamic remains true, though the anger is now pointed in a different direction. The War on Terror didn’t require mass participation in any literal sense, and as conditions have deteriorated and the promise of a straightforward path to a prosperous, dignified life has eroded, the anger has turned inward, on ourselves and on each other.
It is telling that Yakov nicknamed himself "The Trapper," and in his intro longed for a return to hunter-gatherer times. Really, he was a decade-plus ahead of his time. It’s a common refrain in this sphere, one whose political implications are as obvious as they are troubling: There is a natural social hierarchy, threatened by decadence, able to be overcome only through power centralized around the infliction of violence. You know, soft times, hard men, that whole fashy cycle.
Yakov says the hunting urge is in men’s DNA, and instinctual. He’s misguided, of course, because I think what he longs for most is a return to the physical world, to be touched. But in the same way the unemployed worker is taught to blame the immigrant, and not the owner, for their predicament, the pickup artist blames women for their loneliness, and not the men exploiting that loneliness to sell protein shakes and 12-course classes on negging.
Cocoa Butter Chris is in his 30s now, I’m sure. I wonder what he thinks of the show and his time on it. On Keys To The VIP, he said he was working three jobs. He seemed like a decent kid just dealing with insecurities. I wonder what he ends up watching and reading when he scrolls through Instagram, and if his experience on the show has made him more or less resistant to the pull of the modern Manosphere. The soul patches and ski goggles have been swapped for Bugattis and horrible investment advice, but the call remains the same. I hope he’s earned the right to feel good about himself. So many don’t want that for him.