Tucker Max is sitting barefoot in the podcast studio of his glass penthouse overlooking downtown Austin — and he’s about to lose his shit.
Max is taping an episode of his podcast, Mating Grounds, a sort of modern-day Loveline that dispenses dating advice to Max’s bro-centric fan base, and his 26-year-old producer, Joe Antenucci, has just admitted that he doesn’t want to commit to the woman he’s been seeing for two months, even though, Antenucci says, that’s what she “probably deserves.”
“Dude,” Max growls. “You’re very presumptive and paternalistic. Don’t tell her what she wants or deserves. It’s this weird sexism, guys who think, I’m a nice guy, but actually they’re sexist because they think, I have to be responsible for everything this woman thinks and feels.”
Max goes on, working himself up: “You haven’t even considered asking her what she wants from the relationship! As long as you’re honest and respectful and she knows what direction you’re going, then she can make a decision about the relationship based on accurate information.”
Meet the brand-new, more enlightened, far less revolting Tucker Max.
Nearly a decade after his wildly controversial 2006 best-seller, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which established Max as an Internet-reviled “dick lit” kingpin, who sold an estimated three million books inspired by tequila-fuelled hook-ups and the notion that women are “hardwired for whoredom,” he has recast himself as a sensitive love guru for the self-aware millennial man. Max’s dramatic rebranding began with his podcast, which has logged more than two million downloads since it launched last August. And he aims to cement his new status with Mate: Become the Man Women Want, a dating manifesto about “how to be a man you can be proud of,” cowritten with Geoffrey Miller, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico.
You’re probably wondering if Max’s unlikely transformation from unrepentant cad to would-be Dr. Drew is truly legit. After all, this is the same author who eagerly courted a reputation as a ragingly misogynist, “horrible piece of garbage,” as he was memorably described by Gawker, thanks to his series of sex-and-booze-soaked frat-house bibles, Assholes Finish First, Sloppy Seconds, Hilarity Ensues, and Belligerence and Debauchery.
Max used to enjoy being portrayed as a villain. In a publicity stunt to build buzz for the 2009 movie version of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, he gleefully incited protests at college speaking engagements, hiring PR strategist Ryan Holiday to e-mail college women’s groups outraged denunciations of Max and his books (sometimes even pretending to be a concerned female student). The guerrilla marketing ploy worked, sparking anti-Max demonstrations and bringing the press coverage he desperately craved. (Max later offered to donate $500,000 to Texas Planned Parenthood, but only if they named a clinic after him. They declined.)
At 39, Max now claims to have put all that behind him. For one thing, he’s a married man — his wife, Veronica, is a nurse practitioner and former CrossFit Games competitor — and the loving father of a 10-month-old son, Bishop.
As for the debauchery of his twenties (and most of his thirties), he says that history is precisely what qualifies him to be a dating expert.
“I had to fail thousands of times before I figured out what I was doing wrong,” Max tells me, sitting on a sectional couch in the living room of the family’s penthouse apartment, beside Max’s standing desk and Bishop’s blocks. “What Dr. Miller and I wanted to do was write a book so that guys wouldn’t have to fail so much to figure it out.”
Mate is surprisingly earnest, advising men to “get your head straight,” read books, and work out — both to become more attractive to women and to build self-confidence — as well as shower regularly and clip their toenails. (Max’s feet are no stranger to a pedicure chair, by my reckoning.) It sounds simple, but week after week, hapless callers to his podcast demonstrate that “guys have no f—king clue,” Max says.
Worse, he tells me, “the narrative in our culture is ‘How do I get girls?’ It automatically starts off with guys objectifying women instead of relating to women.” For this reason, Max devotes an entire chapter in Mate to the female perspective. In an effort to help men understand why women feel anxious and vulnerable about sexual harassment, stalking, and date rape, for instance, he asks the reader to imagine himself as a gay man walking into a bar filled with NFL linebackers. “They are all bigger, faster, stronger, and hornier than you,” he writes. “This is the world of sex and dating for women.”
It’s all pretty rich coming from a guy who once charmed an aspiring model over a romantic dinner of stone-crab claws washed down with a $110 bottle of merlot, then had his buddy hide in a closet and film them having anal sex without informing her she was on camera. “She thought we were dating,” he wrote in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. “I knew better, but she was way too hot to bother correcting her assumption.”
Here’s where Max’s reinvention gets tricky. The mega-douchery inherent in his infamous, blog-baiting prime is still out there, readily accessible. “You could literally pull 100 more quotes out of my books that are in some kind of conflict with what I tell guys in Mate,” he says. “But those stories are why guys will listen to the advice — they know I’m not trying to tell them that I’m perfect. I have done all kinds of messed-up stuff, and I am honest about it and have learned from it.”
Max’s journey from self-proclaimed “raging dickhead” to relationship guru originated three years ago at a Thanksgiving dinner, during which his friend and future coauthor Miller was chatting with a few college-age cousins. They told the psychologist that they’d been mining the Max canon for dating advice. When Miller told him, “I was mortified,” Max says. But he also saw an opportunity to write a book that could steer young men in the right direction.
“I can remember what it was like to be totally lost and totally frustrated and totally sad and alone and not understand how to move forward,” Max says. ”And I can help a lot of guys solve that problem.”
It may not come as much of a surprise, but Max’s toxic bachelor persona masked deep-seated emotional issues. For the past four years, until just a few months ago, Max saw a psychoanalyst four times a week. “I got to the point in my life where I had everything I thought I wanted,” he recalls. “But I was missing something.”
Max’s parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he spent his childhood bouncing between his single mom, a flight attendant who lived outside Lexington, Kentucky, and his father, a successful South Florida restaurateur. His parents didn’t mistreat him, he says. “They were just terrible at being parents. They didn’t really pay a lot of attention, and they weren’t really loving or supportive.”
There was a time, after Max was fired from his job as a summer associate at high-powered Silicon Valley firm Fenwick & West, while attending Duke Law School, but before he managed to turn the raunchy tales he posted on his personal website into his first book, when “I couldn’t f—king feed myself,” he recalls. Occasionally, women he dated would take pity on him and bring him takeout.
Max certainly has regrets (among them, that ugly sex-tape incident). Then again, he says, “Who’s such a f—king saint that they’ve never done shit that they regret?” I ask if he’s ashamed of his reputation. “I mean, you’re asking if I’m ashamed of living my life in a way that I had a bunch of fun. I did a ton of things I wanted and ended up writing a genre-creating, best-selling series of books. So, no.”
It’s a delicate balance: owning up to and making use of his past, while simultaneously trying to put it behind him and move on. The guy who once wrote about drunkenly running naked through an Austin Embassy Suites lobby covered in his own feces is not necessarily the guy you want to look to for life advice.
Before meeting Max, Miller says he wondered “whether this guy was just kind of an asshole or a sociopath or whether he just had this entertaining persona.” Miller was won over at a dinner in Austin with Max and several of his female friends — smart, funny, professional women — which reassured him that “clearly he’s not a misogynist if women like these liked and respected him,” Miller recalls.
When I ask Max if he considers himself a feminist, he says, “It kind of depends on what you mean by ‘feminist.’ If you define feminist as a person who believes that women and men should be treated equally, then of course I’m a feminist. But what I disagree with is the radical gender feminists who believe there’s no biological difference between men and women. It’s just ridiculous. Women can have children, and men can’t. Those are biological differences, and they create different behaviors.”
On the flip side, the so-called men’s-rights advocates who may once have rallied around Max’s offensive oeuvre now bash his podcast online (one recently posted his suspicion that Mating Grounds is “aligned with our female enemies”). When it comes to the battle between “gender feminists” and men’s-rights trolls, Max says, “they’re both f—king awful and I hate both of them.”
In person, the new Tucker Max seems so reasonable, so affable, so generous with pours of sparkling rosé, it’s impossible not to wonder if this is all a put-on. Clearly, it’s no longer cool to be a binge-drinking, predatory dumb-ass, especially amid a wrenching national debate about sexual assault on college campuses. If he wants to remain relevant, this seems like a prudent move. So is the new Tucker Max completely full of shit?
“No,” Max says bluntly. “If my books came out now, they’d probably sell even more because they’d be even more taboo. If I wanted to keep writing and selling books about sleeping with girls and drinking and acting like an idiot, I absolutely could.”
Max insists his advance for Mate was smaller than those for his previous books, not that he’s especially hard up for cash. He says he is now a successful angel investor, getting in early on companies like the office messaging app Slack, data-analysing software firm Palantir Technologies, and insta-delivery app Postmates. Max also runs his own start-up, Book in a Box, which for US$15,000 will write and publish your book, based on your rough ideas and 12 hours of phone chats. Ten months in, he says, the company has already surpassed US$1 million in sales. So maybe he was right all along: Assholes do finish first.
After he wraps up his podcast, I join Max and Veronica for a paleo-friendly 5:30p.m. dinner of beef heart tartare and house-made andouille sausage at Salt & Time, a rustic, farm-to-table butcher shop in East Austin. Max baby-talks to Bishop, whom he calls “Mon-kay.” The family has dinner at the same time as your average Boca Raton retiree because Bishop falls asleep by 7p.m.. A wild night for them now, Max says, laughing, is “like, two bottles of wine.” This picture of domestic bliss was nearly derailed by Max’s bad-boy rep. When a mutual friend and CrossFit disciple first tried to set up the couple, Veronica made the mistake of googling him, and then refused to meet him.
When she finally agreed six months later, figuring a self-proclaimed “asshole” might at least make for an amusing date, he peppered her with questions about her issues with her late father, and they connected, as Max says, “on a deep level.”
“He was able to see into my soul,” Veronica recalls. The Tucker Max she married in a courthouse ceremony earlier this year is “super affectionate and supportive,” she says. “The opposite of how he’s been portrayed.” Veronica still hasn’t read his books, only selected stories, which she deems “hilarious” but also a little sad. “He’s the butt of the joke in a lot of them,” she says. “I can tell he wasn’t as happy then.”
If Mate sells well, Max plans to write a follow-up, Relate, about how to win at long-term relationships. How to not only get but keep the girl. He stabs a forkful of beef heart, his icy blue eyes lighting up: “Because what’s more important than the relationships we have with the people we love?” ■
By Michelle Ruiz
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