In the late nineties Leah Reich was working for the video game website IGN, which was the most popular website on the internet for 13 to 18 year old boys at the time. She started reading and responding to the site's mailbag, and before she knew it she had become the trusted advisor for thousands of lonely teenaged boys. Former OTM producer and TLDR co-creator PJ Vogt (who was one of those boys) talks to Leah about the trials and rewards of being a counselor to confused, budding nerds.
PJ: In the mid nineties, through no real fault of her own, Leah Reich found herself Advisor in Chief to hundreds of thousands of lonely teenaged boys. Leah was a writer at a video game website called IGN. In the mid nineties, IGN was the most popular website on the internet for 13 to 18 year old boys. It had started as a place to find video game codes, and expanded into a series of websites that together served as a kind of lifestyle magazine for young nerds.
REICH: There was sci-fi. there was video games. There was all the things that supposedly dudes were into, but it was a very particular kind of dude, right?
PJ: I was that kind of dude. A nerd in the last few years before being a nerd had any kind of social cachet. Remember the scene in Return of the Jedi where Han Solo is delivered to Jabba the Hutt as a frozen Carbonite statue? I used to lie awake at night, literally unable to sleep, fixating about how I might one day buy a life-sized Han Solo in carbonite replica -- retail price, 6,999. I cared about Star Wars, Back to the Future 1 and 2, playing computer games online, and not much else. I read Leah every day. She had started out on the non editorial side, then convinced IGN to let her run the site’s mailbag column, chatting with readers about video game culture. But because she was the only woman on the masthead, nervous young boys started asking her nervous young boy questions. She remembers the first one.
REICH: Someone said "you seem really cool and I don't have anyone else to ask this so I'm just gonna try this, and I'm gonna ask you about girl.
PJ:This was an insanely ballsy thing to do. Teenagers organize their entire lives around just trying to avoid embarrassment. IGN’s editorial voice was pretty sarcastic. There was no reason to think a question like this would go over well.
REICH: And I remember thinking I could answer him. Because why not? And I probably should because he wrote me and that was brave. And also I was like these are 14 year old boys. I mean, they can be little jerks in the worst way, and be big jerks in the worst way, but I thought, yknow maybe they can not be. Like what happens? So that was that first one.
PJ:Many more followed. It wasn’t all just sexual frustration. There were tons of letters. A few from girls, most from boys. Boys who were gay, or had gotten someone pregnant. Boys who were suicidal. Leah would go to her Mom, a doctor, to make sure her medical advice was sound. But what made reading Leah so good was that she wasn’t an expert. She was a person who we felt like maybe we could be friends with one day. You could ask her about really anything.
REICH: Like a 15 year old who would write and say "I think I got my girlfriend pregnant, I don't know what to do." And then I would take that opportunity to say, "Okay, so you're 15, you think your girlfriend's pregnant, here's the thing about sex: sex is awesome, it's totally great" But like sex is not just about what you do while you're having sex. Sex is also about feelings, it's about possible repercussions. It's about health. And maybe if you're 15 you need to decide whether you're adult enough to do all the parts around sex, not just the sex part. And the 15 year old emailed me after the fact and he said "my girlfriend's not pregnant" and said "we got a test, talked to her parents, all this stuff turned out she wasn't pregnant. But I thought about everything else you said and I think you're right, I don't think I'm ready to handle it. So we're gonna take a break and not have sex for a while."
PJ: Leah was 24 years old. Writing for a video game site. Before long the advice questions overran the rest of the mailbag column, it became all advice. And then there were too many questions for just one column, so Leah created spinoffs.
Ask Leah was everyday, and then Tough Love and What's Up With My Penis were a couple times a week
PJ: Tough Love was advice about the heavy stuff. What’s up with my penis was exactly what it sounds like. Nervous teenage boys asking about bumps, rashes, whether unorthodox masturbation techniques were causing them irreparable damage. Ask Leah was the catchall. You wrote there if you had a question that wasn’t about something big and terrifying that was going on with your life or your genitals. That was the one I remembered having written into, as a geeky teenager in the late nineties. I didn’t remember the letter itself, only that I’d signed it with a really embarassing pseudonym. I remember being so anxious about writing it, just because I was a teenager and I was jumping into this conversation that I’d been eavesdropping on for a couple of years. A place where I thought I belonged but wasn’t completely sure that I did. I asked Leah if she could track it down, half-hoping it was lost. She found it almost immediately. I’ll apologize herein advance, because as far as long-ago unearthed secret letters go, it really doesn’t get lamer or more anticlimactic than this.
LR: I was looking at this little email that you sent, which was, wasn't about advice, you were just saying, "hey..." YOu were the, you were actually trying to help another reader about a problem he was having with his email.
PJ: What was...ohhh man.
LR: It says, uh, "Not to sound like a nerd or anything, even though this took me forever to figure, but the thing he said about the problem with his email program, the insert key toggles that feature on and off for your cpu." And then you signed it McFly.
LR: And that's fine, but you were being helpful. And then I said "Hey thanks. You don't sound like a nerd, but even if you did no one here would mind." I remember getting this one from China that was said basically "I'm from northern china, and I've fallen in love with a girl from southern china, and our parents will never let us be together because that's just sort of not acceptable in our society, and I don't know what to do." Another kid wrote me yknow a kid from the Bronx who could get beat up on the way to school everyday and he said "I dunno what to do, like, I don't know to live" and I said "there's really not much to do to help you, I can just be here for you as your friend. yknow you need to talk to someone, you need to find someone who can help you and can give you some guidance on how to not get beat up every day. And you need to find some level of safety, but I don't know that's possible, I can just be here for you as your friend." And then there were other much lighter, more fun things. Like I remember one of the most memorable things was when a 15 year old girl wrote me and said "should I get breast implants?"
LR: And I said, "Well let's, I'm gonna do something kinda risky," I said, yknow you're 15, you don't know how your body is gonna change. You don't know what's gonna happen, and, and what you're gonna love.And then I, I said a lot of other things, and then I said part 2 is gonna be tomorrow and I said "I am gonna open this up to everyone and I want you guys to write me and tell me what you think." And it was a very risky proposition.
PJ: Oh yeah, cause it's teenage boys.
RL: But I also felt like it was the smartest thing I could do at the time. It was me saying "I respect that you guys can be respectful. I respect that you guys are decent people who are not gonna be little jerkoffs, and I wanna give all of us a chance to have this conversation, because this isn't just about me telling her what to do, this is about her saying like, 'I'm 15, you're all 15, you all seem to think that like, yknow, these women with their big hooters are like every, the end all be all, what do I do? what am I supposed to do?'" And I said "you guys write to me all the time feeling like you're not, you're not worthy, and I wanna hear what you have to say."
PJ: For the most part, the responses were really good.
PJ: 70 to 80 percent of them were incredibly kind, caring, responsive. Not just saying don't do it, but just saying like, here's why I don't think you should do it. From teenage boys. I mean they were like "I have a girlfriend, and she's pretty flat, but I think she's really great and I think she's super, y'know, attractive and here's why." And it, they were sort of coming to the defense of what I had said which is that when someone loves you the point of loving someone is not that you think that they're absolutely perfect and they're like flawless in every single way, but it's like you love what is attached to them. And these were things I said to them, like 15 year old kids.e
Opie and Anthony Tape:
PJ: The column was a big hit for IGN. They sent Leah to do press. Which is how she ended up on the Opie and Anthony show.
Opie and Anthony Tape:
It was 72 minutes of them harassing me. Having their listeners call in and ask me terrible things like "if you punch her in the torso from behind while you're shoo- while you're having sex will she tighten up on you?" ...
PJ: The Rock -- Dwayne Johnson, the wrestler -- had walked out of an Opie and Anthony interview the week before.
Reich: But like he's a movie star, right? I'm Leah. I'm not, I'm 25, and I write about sex and advice for video gamers. And they had my email address, because they'd given it out like 17 times at this point. So I thought, I gotta just, I just have to stick it out. As awful and garbage as this is I have to stick it out.
PJ: The show finally ends, she goes home. And then, the emails come.
All of their listeners started emailing me. And all of them started asking for advice. And that was really what really told me that no matter how gross everyone is, and no matter how nasty they all are, and no matter how much they all wanna rip you apart and laugh at everybody else, when it comes to your own problem you want someone to take it seriously. because at heart like everybody is human and thinks their pain and problem is the only thing that matters. And like, that's what it comes down to.
PJ: Leah wrote for IGN for two and a half years, before being laid off in the first internet bust. I kept her archives bookmarked. In real life, I was at an all boys school where a health teacher told us that people who tried to kill themselves by slitting their wrists were idiots -- the arteries in the thighs are much more effective -- and to be careful when having sex, because you could break the bone in your penis. Leah went to grad school, and for a long time didn’t miss her life as a sex columnist for young nerds. She’d written 1500 articles. How many times can you tell an anonymous sixteen year old that he has acne, not herpes, before you get exhausted. But she misses it now. 16 years later, she still meets people she helped.
PJ: I was thinking that if theres a constant in the universe it’s lonely confused teenagers, like they will always be with us. And lonely confused adults, but particularly teenagers. And if I'd been 14 in 2014 if i"d looked for advice about girls or sex I would've found mens rights activists. Or like stumbled into like a tumblr discussion of social justice stuff.. And you should not have been such a good, like it shouldn't have been there. It feels very lucky.
LR: I feel really lucky to have been able to do it. I mean I, I feel lucky and I also feel sad that I, I don't know how to replicate it or bring it back. Because I think there are pockets of it. But I feel really lucky because I feel like, I feel like it was a moment and a time where there wasn't so much out there that was clamoring for everyone's attention, that we could create a community. Because I think it was partly about me, and I don't mean that in an egotistical way, I mean that in a way where I was, I was there to be the sort of, the guide, the tour guide through this sort of experience. And willing, and that sort of sense of, willing to be that kind of person who said "Hey, you guys it's cool, we're gonna do this and I'm here to listen and to care and to be respectful of you" But it was also the community that was saying "oh my gosh, ya I want to participate in this." I mean I got a lot of stupid letters from a lot of little jerks that were like "you're ugly, you're dumb." yknow, I mean of course I got little troll emails. I mean the Internet has always and will always be the Internet. And , and 14 year old boys are never gonna change. They're always gonna be that way. But I, I feel really lucky to have been able to be that person, and to have been able to be that person at that time, because it, not only do I feel like it helped a lot of people, but it taught me a lot, about just guys and how totally confused they are, and how much you can affect them if you just give some space to sort of work out their problems in away. I remember one letter that was really great was that a kid wrote me and said "I've never written you for advice, but I've read everything you've written, and I've taken all your advice, and thought a lot about confidence. And I went up to a girl, I've never talked to really girls at all, I don't have any girl friends, female friends. But I went up to a girl who I've liked for a long time, and I took everything you said about confidence, and I asked her to homecoming, and I have my very first date, ever." And I thought "I made one person's adolescence one percent better. I can die knowing I've done a good deed in my life." ‘Cause adolescence is the worst, and I helped some guy get a date to homecoming.