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Secrets of the Seducer The real-life man behind the film 'The Tao of Steve' uses his own brand of Eastern philosophy to get dates . . . lots of them. The relationship part has been a bit tougher.
By LYNN SMITH, Times Staff Writer
SANTA FE--Duncan North says it all began 20 years ago in a Georgetown fern bar. He and his companions, 16-year-olds with fake IDs, were on the make. While the others were tall, athletic and handsome, however, North was an overweight student of Eastern philosophy who yearned to be cool. He wanted to be Steve McQueen, Steve Austin and Steve McGarrett rolled into one--a self-contained hero who always got the girl without trying. Whenever he saw a girl he liked, he'd introduce himself as Steve.
As North tells the story, a beautiful girl walked into the bar. His friends tried "to pick her up with all the usual one-liner things, like, 'You're pretty.' 'You have nice hair.' 'You smell good.' 'You're smart.' Laughing at everything she said." He realized he didn't have a chance. Then, he decided to practice the Taoist concept of desire-lessness--not trying to make something happen (so that, paradoxically, it might happen later.) "They started talking about politics," he says. "This woman said something I really disagreed with, so I argued with her. I was funny and playful, but I made some accurate, fact-driven point about politics. . . . Then, I left to go outside and smoke a cigarette." A few minutes later, the girl followed him outside and gave him her phone number. To the 16-year-old, it was as if he were Newton and an apple had fallen on his head. Something momentous had just occurred, but what? He analyzed the events, then jotted down what would become his rules for dating, a unique blend of spirituality and manipulation he calls the Tao of Steve--a guide that would lead to many successes, in the short term. Basically, the theory dictates that to be successful with women, men must do three things: rid themselves of desire, exhibit excellence and then retreat. When he tried the theory out later, it worked, he says, every single time. North's love life might have remained his own business were it not for filmmaker sisters Jenniphr and Greer Goodman, friends who used his life and theory as the basis for an independent film, "The Tao of Steve," a crowd tickler at this year's Sundance Film Festival and one whose popularity is growing by word of mouth. North helped on the screenplay, writing himself into the fictional protagonist, an overweight, pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding slacker named Dex, who works as a part-time kindergarten teacher in Santa Fe, and pursues women, including a friend's wife, with astonishing success. North says the movie is, oh, maybe 86% true. His perceived powers of seduction have attracted national attention. In just the past few weeks, he's started writing a book and advice columns in a local paper and on the Internet ("Ask Duncan" http://www.taoofsteve.com) peppered with references to Oedipus, Plato, Aldous Huxley and Oscar Wilde. Playboy online has published his secrets of "scoring with smart chicks," complete with a kind of Cliff's Notes on Socrates, Kant and Nietzsche to get guys started. He is negotiating with 20th Century Fox for a television show. He has an agent. "It would be great to have all this attention for pulling children out of a burning building. But getting all this attention for following my selfish desires is a mixed bag," says North. He warns potential followers to take his advice with a shovel of salt.
Nevertheless, and contrary to the conventional wisdom of social scientists and the image makers of Hollywood, it is clear that many women are looking for more than just a sculpted body or a bank account. "Whatever it is, he's got it," Jenniphr Goodman says. Goodman says she observed his dating techniques up close in the mid-1990s, when she and her husband rented a room from North in Santa Fe. "He was the most successful charmer of women I'd ever met." According to Goodman, one woman he met had previously dated only high-powered rock stars and doctors. North, then teaching kindergarten, confided to Goodman, "I think she digs me." She laughed, "Give it up." Within a month, the woman had succumbed to his charms. Another time, North found himself competing with his roommate, a muscular, chiseled-jaw young man, for the affections of a Vargas girl look-alike. "She's out of your league," the roommate said. Naturally, North got the girl. They had a two-year relationship. The stories go on and on. "Another friend who even portrayed herself as a fatist"--someone who discriminates on the basis of weight--"ended up in Duncan's lap, chasing him, blah blah blah," Goodman said. He has dated a "significant percentage" of the women in Santa Fe, a town of 70,000, he says. The relationships do not always end well, and some do not end when they should. One husband demanded North quit dating his wife; jealous boyfriends have been known to accost him at his door.
Friends say he doesn't engage in public displays of affection and juggles relationships simultaneously. "Very often the women had been totally forewarned about everything they were getting into, but they went for it every time. You just can't believe it happens over and over," says North's friend of 17 years, Bob Grahn.
One of the women was Greer Goodman, who played North's character's love interest in the movie. She met him through a cousin who played Frisbee golf with North. "We got into an argument about religion," she says, "then he went to his room and did that whole retreat thing." She was aware of his reputation but dated him for a few weeks anyway. "I guess it was his intelligence and his humor," she says. "I was interested in the fact that he had no faith in love."
Even though North moved to New York partly to keep dating her, their relationship never flowered, she says. She was on to "the type of person he was," someone apparently unable to turn off his particular skill. "I wasn't super good in that relationship," he admits. Contrary to feminists' suspicions that North manipulates women because he dislikes them, the Goodmans say he is very "pro woman." Says Greer Goodman, "Just because someone seduces people, doesn't mean they have contempt for them."
North admits, almost sheepishly, the stories about him are true. But he denies his goal is to collect notches on his bedpost, or that he consciously practices the Tao of Steve anymore. After so many years, the philosophy has become as much a part of him as gravity, he says. "At the heart of the upper levels of the Tao of Steve is having a good rap"--a flirtatious banter, he says. "It's not about any rules sort of thing." If he had a single message for men seeking advice, it would be: Don't bore women. North is quick, dark and witty, a Falstaff in sneakers and shorts. On a hot, late summer afternoon, he leans back in a chair in his airy bedroom office, sipping water, smoking and trying unsuccessfully to keep his forelocks from falling into his eyes. Two huge dogs lie loyally nearby.
He lives with two roommates in a salmon-colored house his father owns, up a salmon-colored dirt driveway on a rise below the blue Sangre de Cristo mountains. "I'll play a song for you about these mountains," he offers, in his smooth baritone, leaping up to select a Paul Simon disc from a shelf above his desk. Other shelves on a wall and behind his bed hold a set of Britannica Great Books, and more volumes on Chinese philosophy, Western thought, and Scrabble. He quit teaching youngsters last year to work on the movie script. Now, he pursues his new vocation as a writer. As he talks, his cell phone chimes intermittently: a friend whose party he missed because of a TV appearance; an old girlfriend from college, hoping to reconnect. He pulls out her picture, a smiling blond sitting next to a young man with smoldering, movie star looks. It is North at age 22, minus about 110 pounds. He is uncomfortable talking about his weight, which has fluctuated roller coaster style from 195 to 290 pounds and back again on his 5-foot-11-inch frame. He currently weighs in at 245. Perhaps, he ventures, suggesting what he's about to say may be total bull, it's a way of putting up an emotional barrier. "I don't have a lot of boundaries," he says.
"I definitely get in less female trouble the heavier I am. When I'm thin, women will approach me. That's a whole new category of trouble." Actually, many of his relationships are platonic, he says. At one point, he gave up women to "date God," Greer Goodman said. Still, North says, he is just as amazed as anyone by his way with women.
The Tao of Steve aside, he doesn't really know how to rid himself of desire, the No. 1 rule, he says. "I've just become conscious of things that guys do that women see as these big red light indicators of their desire. Like stand too close. Look at their chest when you talk to them. Agree with everything they say." Neither has he mastered the art of leaving. "That's the only thing I consciously have to remember is the retreating part because over-talking is my biggest problem on a date," he says. Say he's on a date, and the girl is "laughing, laughing, laughing. I should leave at the biggest laugh, but instead sometimes I hang around for dessert." Pursuing excellence--the real goal of the Tao of Steve, he says--is also elusive. "I've been working so hard that I'm completely self-absorbed. So, I'm sure I'm going straight to hell now."
He believes the main reason women like him is that he genuinely wants to connect with someone. Plus, he says, "you get all my faults and insecurities in the first half hour." Other possible explanations abound. Social psychologist Debbie Then of Los Angeles wants to know more about the type of women he attracts. For instance, some women don't want to compete with good-looking companions, so when they're on the street, they know people are looking at them. Plus, they don't have to fend off other women, she says. Greer Goodman thinks North just realized "women are into guys that are smart or good with children, that like animals or interesting people."
Some of his friends think the movie smoothed the rough edges of his character, such as an irritability and complexity that make his relationships difficult. Even so, North says, observing a larger-than-life, fictionalized version of himself was an "out-of-body experience. We all have this fantasy of looking at ourselves from the outside. But when we actually get it, it's creepy."
What he saw was behavior he wants to change. "I see a guy who dates too many women," he says. "Mostly I see a guy who thinks he has all the answers, and I don't think anybody has all the answers."
He just ended a three-year relationship, which he doesn't want to talk about. He's not seriously involved with anyone at the moment, he says. His knack with women is a double-edged sword, friends say. "You see he is single. He didn't get the girl, and he's upfront about that," Grahn says. "There's something missing in the relationship deal."
North says he would like to be married, monogamous and perhaps have children someday. "I think it's hard to do life alone," he says. "It's all about ultimately finding the right person."
* * *
Lynn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. * * *
Achieving a State of 'Steve': Here's How According to Duncan North's tongue-in-cheek definitions, a "Steve" is the epitome of male coolness (a la Steve McQueen); a "Stu" is the opposite (a la TV's Barney Fife); a "Phil" is the typical American male; and a "Ray" is a "Steve" gone bad (think Ray Liotta in "Something Wild" or Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend"). Are you a Steve? A Stu? A Phil? Or a Ray?
1. You are at a bar. A beautiful woman says something you think is wrong. Do you: A. Argue with her, then go outside to smoke a cigarette. B. Smile and nod. C. Start thinking of reasons she might be right. 2. You meet two women, woman A and woman B. You really like woman A. Do you: A. Direct witty remarks at woman A. B. Ask probing questions of woman B. C. Buy them drinks. 3. You start hanging out with a gorgeous woman. How long before you tell her how beautiful she is? A. Two minutes. B. Two hours. C. After you've slept together. 4. A woman you really like says that she wants to be "just friends." How long do you hang with her while hoping she'll change her mind? A. Three weeks. B. Three months. C. You've stopped hanging with her already. 5. You're at a bar with your girlfriend when some guy starts trying to pick her up. Do you: A. Ignore him. B. Ask him to leave. C. Get into a fight. 6. You're having a huge argument with your girlfriend. You are right and she is definitely wrong. Do you: A. Fight to prove you're right. B. Give in and say you're sorry. C. You don't let arguments get huge. 7. You see a personality test in the paper to determine how cool you are. Do you: A. Take the test to determine how cool you are. B. Decide you're too cool to take a test. C. Take the test to determine how cool the paper is. Answers here:
Tell us how you did =)
-- cin (cin@=0).cin), August 30, 2000
oh damn formatting!
1. You are at a bar. A beautiful woman says something you think is wrong. Do you: A. Argue with her, then go outside to smoke a cigarette.
B. Smile and nod.
C. Start thinking of reasons she might be right.
2. You meet two women, woman A and woman B. You really like woman A. Do you:
A. Direct witty remarks at woman A.
B. Ask probing questions of woman B.
C. Buy them drinks.
3. You start hanging out with a gorgeous woman. How long before you tell her how beautiful she is?
A. Two minutes.
B. Two hours.
C. After you've slept together.
4. A woman you really like says that she wants to be "just friends." How long do you hang with her while hoping she'll change her mind?
A. Three weeks.
B. Three months.
C. You've stopped hanging with her already.
5. You're at a bar with your girlfriend when some guy starts trying to pick her up. Do you:
A. Ignore him.
B. Ask him to leave.
C. Get into a fight.
6. You're having a huge argument with your girlfriend. You are right and she is definitely wrong. Do you:
A. Fight to prove you're right.
B. Give in and say you're sorry.
C. You don't let arguments get huge.
7. You see a personality test in the paper to determine how cool you are. Do you:
A. Take the test to determine how cool you are.
B. Decide you're too cool to take a test.
C. Take the test to determine how cool the paper is.
-- cin (cin@=0).cin), August 30, 2000.