The general rule when writing pieces about the multimillionaire TV hypnotist, bestselling author and self-help guru Paul McKenna is to go in deeply sceptical and to come out less so. Well I’m sorry, but I can’t be doing with any of that.
‘Paul,’ I say, when I walk into his swanky west London office with the chauffeur-driven silver Bentley outside. ‘I’ve got loads and loads of problems, some major, some minor, and it’s my belief you can cure them all and change my life forever.’
To his credit he isn’t fazed. A more pompous man might have said, ‘I thought this was supposed to be an interview, not a therapy session.’ McKenna, however, with his rectangular glasses, shaven pate, beady blue eyes and gravelly voice, strikes me straight away as a regular, likeable, decent bloke with no airs and graces, and a cheerful willingness to do the right thing.
‘I’m from Enfield. I don’t have any magic powers,’ he’s fond of saying. But I’m not sure I believe him — not when, in the space of only two hours, I’ve seen him deal so effectively first with my insomnia; then my depression; then the appalling state of affairs in which, despite being so brilliantly talented, I’m not more rich or famous.
It’s a pity I can’t tell you all his amazing techniques but there just isn’t the space and it might sound weird. But it’s OK, they’re all in his concise, easily readable, self-help books with titles like I Can Make You Rich and I Can Make You Thin. Basically, it involves using mental exercises to rid yourself of bad subconscious habits so as to get you more of the things you want in life.
You probably think these are the sort of books only poor, sad, loser types buy. You might even nurture suspicions about McKenna because of that slightly cheesy TV hypnotism act he used to have in the 1990s. But McKenna has long been interested in the workings of the mind. It’s just that when he started out, the only side of his career the TV commissioning people were interested in was the one where he amusingly hypnotised members of the public into acting like washing machines.
What really galvanised the self-help side of McKenna’s career was when he teamed up with American neurolinguistic programming (NLP) guru Richard Bandler. NLP is one of those slightly scary mind-control techniques which keen executive types learn on intensive, shouty, £1,500, seven-day courses in order to reinvent themselves as masters of the universe.
I would scoff, except it works. It dispenses with all the usual psychobabble and simply encourages you to treat your brain like a computer that needs reprogramming. In 60 minutes, you can learn to overcome difficulties which would have kept an old-school therapist busy for six months.
So, knowing all this stuff, McKenna must have turned himself into some kind of superman by now: right? ‘Not quite,’ he says, confessing that he ‘could do better’ on the relationship front. ‘Yeah, who’d want to settle down when you have the powers to sleep with any girl in the world?’ I suggest. But McKenna reassures me he doesn’t find it that easy to pull. His real problem, he says, is that although he’s not the unfaithful type he is desperately commitment-phobic because he’s such a self-obsessed perfectionist.
‘I’m very human and vulnerable and I don’t have all the answers. Just the answers to certain problems, like obesity,’ he says. And he’s on a mission to prove it. Having made all the money he needs to make — he has sold more than three million books, his NLP courses earn loads more, and he only generally gives private sessions these days to rock idols and golf superstars (‘Being shallow and fame-obsessed, I like to meet cool people and ask them dumb questions’) — he now plans to heal the world.
‘There are certain things I’ve got to do,’ he says. ‘Through TV and digital media I want to show people that powerful, quick, easy, lasting change is possible. There’s too much fear out there, too much prejudice, too many attacking thoughts, and I want to change that.’ You might mock. I wouldn’t.
I Can Make You Rich (Bantam) is out now in paperback.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 21, 2008