Paul McKenna: The eyes have it

The lovable master of the dark arts is up in court. Will his powers win over the judge?
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One would imagine that a hypnotist and self-help guru might have seen it coming. As a bona fide practitioner of the psychological arts Paul McKenna is better placed than most to spot a charlatan, given that many who inhabit his realm have been exposed as fakes. Even so, the multi-millionaire entertainer is hardly alone in being duped into purchasing a worthless doctorate from a bogus university.

While it shows no criminal intent, the over-eagerness of an admitted dyslexic and undistinguished scholar to achieve academic respectability blinded him to the nature of the academic institution involved.

The libel case that McKenna has brought against Mirror Group Newspapers for articles written by Victor Lewis-Smith claiming he was a fraud who "bought" a bogus degree in hypnotherapy from LaSalle University in Mandeville, Louisiana, turns on the simple aspect of pre-knowledge: that whatever the subsequent revelations about the merits of the degree, McKenna at the time "believed it to be a genuine academic institution".

Perhaps the most curious aspect of all this is the qualification itself. McKenna's reputation as a hypnotist of genuine ability had long been established. His subsequent career as a self-help guru through the Neuro Linguistic Programming therapy system has proved spectacularly successful. It would have made more sense if he had taken a course in English literature, say, or philosophy; a doctorate in hypnotherapy when you are already one of the most famous hypnotists in the world seems redundant.

McKenna's beef is that the claim undermines his credibility. As the author of many manuals and the head of a self-help empire and that turns over £2.5m per annum, McKenna might have risen above the storm without undue damage. Having brought the case into the public eye, he may be adversely affected whatever the outcome.

It is not the first time McKenna has landed in court over his profession. In 1998 he appeared in the High Court accused of causing schizophrenia in a man who had participated in his stage show. Christopher Gates was diagnosed days after appearing on stage with McKenna during a show at High Wycombe. The subsequent trial was likened to a witchhunt, with McKenna painted variously as a spell-maker, a warlock and a practitioner of black arts. He won the case but it took a toll on his mental and physical health. But ultimately, the verdict served to reinforce his professional reputation; never at any stage were his hypnotic powers called into question. Rather, they were shown to be genuine.

"He is genuine," says columnist Matthew Norman who recalls taking a friend to interview him and watched as he hypnotised her. "He told her I was Princess Diana and she curtsied to me. She also snogged a broomhandle. It took him 20 seconds."

McKenna is also admired by actor and comedian David Walliams. The Little Britain star was helped in preparing for his cross-Channel swim by McKenna. "He's got a great sense of humour," says Walliams. "He loved the Little Britain character Kenny Craig, who is a hypnotist, and sent me a Christmas card with 'Look into my eyes! Look into my eyes!' underneath a photo of him."

Paul McKenna was born in 1963, in Enfield, Middlesex, to a builder and a home economics teacher. At Ignatius College there, he achieved two O-levels, one CSE and an A-level in art. Dyslexic and academically undistinguished, he admits he was "a puny kid, a geek".

He suggested recently that his subsequent aspirations and success, including the accoutrements of beautiful women, fast cars and celebrity clients, was part of "healing the inner nerd".

After a job as a DJ in Topshop,he went via Radio Caroline to Capital Radio, where he became interested in the self-help, motivational guest speakers. He challenged a hypnotist to hypnotise him on air, which he did. McKenna then learnt the techniques. He rapidly progressed to playing university balls, pubs and army camps. Within weeks of becoming a freelance hypnotist, he was offered a television show.

The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna began in 1993 and at its peak hauled in 12 million viewers. It is to McKenna's credit - as well as his ambition - that this was not enough. In 2005, his Sky One show I Can Change Your Life saw him shift from hypnosis as entertainment towards therapy. Within two years, Paul McKenna Training was the world's largest hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming training centre.

McKenna is a kind of Everygeek - The Nerd Who Conquered the World. This seems to irritate the hell out of his critics: he is not supposed to be a success. He is not cool, he is lamentably unfashionable (despite the Gucci suits, cool blondes and Ferraris) and his wit hovers around the level of Nuts and Viz. But, like his power, he appears genuine and inspires an almost fanatical loyalty among friends and clients.

McKenna's present predicament seems more a result of a combination of naïveté and poor judgement as well as jealousy from those critics who cannot countenance the fact that he enjoys his success so brazenly.

"He is quite adolescent in his choice of humour," says his agent, Paul Duddridge. "He enjoys his life and he is having fun. He is really playing with all the toys and meeting all the celebrities. Having a silver Bentley with a driver is slightly flaunting it, but he is actually just a top laugh."

His business manager and former fiancée, Clare Staples, agrees. "He has a childlike energy. Every meal is the best meal he's ever had. He definitely walks the walk as well as talks the talk."

She went on stage at one of his shows and they then enjoyed a personal relationship for five years before calling it off. "Normal people break up and go their separate ways," she says, "but we just stayed together and reframed our relationship. Such are his powers of persuasion, it seemed a good thing to do."

McKenna has referred to himself as "shallow" and is still, at 43, as starstruck as any adolescent, despite of the fact that his celebrity clients and friends. Actor Dougray Scott says McKenna helped him overcome his nerves when he ventured back on stage after three years' absence. "Most of his work is done with people who have really life-debilitating problems. That's the side people don't see. He puts his powers to good use."

McKenna helped actor Rob Brydon overcome a fear of flying. "A big part of his humour is that he is happy for his friends to take the piss out of him," he says.

Whatever the outcome of the libel case, McKenna is unlikely to need a self-help guru to recover. Irrespective of the validity of his qualifications, he has more than enough friends to steer him through the deep waters of controversy back to the shallows of success.