Paul McKenna: The eyes have it

He would love to be ordinary, but he's a man with extraordinary powers. So why, asks Ryan Gilbey, does he use them to hypnotise women into having orgasms live on radio?
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The Independent Online

Once you get past the multi-million-pound business empire, the celebrity chums, the Kensington mews house and the impenetrable confidence, the hypnotist Paul McKenna is just like you and me. He'll even tell you himself. "I'm just like you!" he hoots, slapping his thighs. He is wearing faded, baggy jeans and an unbuttoned brown shirt. Give or take a few handfuls of chest hair, and a tendency to fidget that makes him appear to be playing an invisible drum kit, he is every bit the man in the street.

He would be happier if he were even more like you. "People say, 'Oh, you're like a magician, you have to keep your secrets.' Not at all! I explain what I do in my shows, and my biggest business involves training people to do exactly what I do." At times he can sound worryingly like an audiobook - Hypnotism for Dummies, perhaps. But he has a vision. "I look forward to a time when everyone understands psychological technology. Wouldn't it be great if, along with all the boring subjects like history and geography, you learned visualisation techniques?" He frowns to himself. "People just think of it as controlling children's minds. Like the other stuff isn't."

We are in his living room, perched across from one another on a pair of plump cream sofas, and he has put me at ease by being terribly matey and swearing profusely. I would be even more relaxed if we were not being spied on by an enormous framed picture of two mad, staring eyes. It makes me think of the unblinking, omniscient eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby: "They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose." You would have to be very sure of yourself to sit beneath that picture, night after night, without having some kind of psychotic episode. McKenna seems very sure of himself indeed.

In all other respects it's a jolly place. Odd ornaments made from metallic pine cones. Big, show-off coffee-table books. And garish birthday cards all over the place: McKenna is about to hit 40 and held a party at the weekend. He is a perky fellow - short and mousy, with trust-me eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses. And he's less sinister-looking now that he has shed his showbusiness hairdo in favour of a crop. It seems as though he left the old, cheesier Paul McKenna in New York, where he lived for a few years in the late 1990s, working the talk-show circuit, performing on Broadway. "Though I get as much pleasure," he points out quickly, "from treading the boards in Grimsby as treading the boards on Broadway. Getting dockers to dance round in tutus is as enjoyable to me as meeting Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley." Who else came to the show? He thinks for a moment, then comes up with Harry Belafonte.

He only recently returned permanently to London. "I love New York, but you can't get a decent cup of tea there." All things considered, his time in New York seems to have improved him. For a start, he left the bouffant hair there; you can just imagine it still rotating on a baggage carousel at JFK, waiting to be claimed. He has a harder, more professional edge now. He believes that he would no longer be reduced to a gibbering wreck if called upon to treat one of his heroes, as happened 10 years ago when David Bowie came to him with a fear of flying. "I let myself get in the way of that one," he says sadly. Since then his client list has blossomed to include the likes of Robbie Williams, Geri Halliwell and Daryl Hannah.

While in New York, McKenna became friends with the profane "shock-jock" Howard Stern, on whose radio show he became a regular guest. "That guy is sooo fucking cool!" trills McKenna. "He was always asking me to do these outrageous things that I didn't want to do." One stunt that McKenna did agree to take part in was called the "Orgasm Olympics". Stern roped in four strippers, and McKenna programmed them to have an orgasm on cue. He rocks backwards on the sofa at the memory. "It was so funny. It was just like When Harry Met Sally." He holds Stern in far higher esteem than Freud, about whom he becomes suddenly and visibly agitated. "Freud decided hypnosis was bad because he couldn't do it," he fumes. "Let's have a look at some of his fantastic contributions, shall we? Oh, we all want to screw our mothers. Please! My mother is a 65-year-old woman." He looks disgusted.

McKenna had a ball in New York, but most of his friends were back in Britain, which gave him another reason for returning. He has some pals in the hypnotism business. "Whenever we invent something cool, we're on the phone to each other," he enthuses. "I saw this friend the other day. He's invented speed seduction, where you use hypnotic language to seduce someone you're interested in." He laughs, then pulls himself together. "Clearly, we're not in the same business."

It is one of the apparent contradictions in McKenna's career that he can switch so easily from curing phobias and assisting police in forensics work to presiding over, yes, the "Orgasm Olympics". His own carnivalesque show features stock routines in the same spirit - a woman can be convinced she is wearing X-ray spectacles, or a man will believe he is talking to Cameron Diaz when it is, in fact, a broom that is receiving his declarations of affection and his tender caresses. McKenna's latest show includes a trick in which an audience member is programmed to announce "The drinks are on me!" at the bar during the interval. "My agent came up with that one when we were trying to decide whose round it was," he confides.

McKenna rarely has to face the accusations of irresponsibility that plagued him during the infamous court case in which a volunteer tried to sue him for causing schizophrenia. That charge, at least, has been settled. But McKenna is aware of other kinds of scepticism, most of which arise from the disparity between his areas of expertise. If he is so serious about the benefits of hypnosis, say the doubters, then what on earth is he doing persuading grown adults to humiliate themselves?

He believes that this line of attack has been weakened by the popularity of reality TV shows. "You only have to turn on the television to see people willingly making fools of themselves," he says. "Anyway, hypnotism wasn't all fine and dandy before I started. It was just the goatee brigade wearing long coats at the end of the pier, making poodles out of balloons and convincing people that the onions they were eating were actually apples." He taps the floor repeatedly with his foot while he talks, as though keeping time. "I've trained 50,000 people. My TV shows are seen all over the world. I get letters from people saying that the upturn in interest about hypnosis is because of me. So-fucking-what if one or two people find it in bad taste? I find The Generation Game to be in bad taste."

There is, he admits, quite a gulf between the public Paul McKenna and the private one. "People have remarked on it. I'm not the life and soul of the party by any means. But give me a microphone and 10 chairs and I'm happy."

He was raised by his father, who was a builder, and his mother, a teacher, in Enfield. If you are not familiar with this glum corner of Middlesex then you should a) be thankful and b) know that Mike Leigh shot his film Life is Sweet among its soul-sapping concrete wastelands. McKenna invokes the town frequently in conversation to express humility, or to explain how far he has come. When he tells me that he has been flown on private jets to the doorsteps of some of the world's richest people just to cure some phobia or other, he rounds off the anecdote with an all-purpose pay-off: "And I'm from Enfield!" He uses it also to underline his inclusive appeal for others to chase success just as he has done. "I'm just a kid from Enfield. If I can do it, anyone can."

He has been very open about the trauma of attending a Catholic school where he endured all manner of psychological torture and humiliation. "One good thing that came out of it is that I saw how the human mind can be manipulated," he says. "Those fuckers taught me that much." The school is in new hands now, but McKenna still turned down an offer to address the pupils. "Try as I might to be polite, I don't think I could be. Going back there wouldn't be good for anyone."

His success can only have been helped by the accelerated pace of modern life - as he points out, it used to take six months or so to cure a phobia, whereas now he claims he can obliterate most varieties in under an hour. Eventually, he hopes to cure thousands of people at a time. "I can imagine having audiences of 5,000 in a stadium, all giving up smoking or losing weight together." Am I the only person who is thinking "Nuremberg"?

The tenor of the problems with which McKenna is now being confronted has, he says, changed in recent years. "There was a predictable rise in fear-of-flying cases after September 11," he says. "And there are definitely more eating disorders these days. There's a lot of pressure on women now. The fashion industry is controlled by gay men who want all the girls to look like little boys." You can regard that as one opinion among many, or proof that you can take the boy out of Enfield, but you can't take Enfield out of the boy.

As I leave, McKenna ushers me into his office, which is next door to the house. "I'd like to give you something," he says. He produces a package from a cupboard and hands it to me - it's his complete 10-CD "Positivity" series, each one adorned with the same picture of McKenna's grinning face. I scan the titles: "How to master your emotions and run your own brain", "Discover what you truly want in life and make your dreams come true. I promise him that I will give them a listen, and I will, just as soon as I can work out what has happened to the most crucial disc - "How to make room in your overcrowded life to listen to 10 CDs when you don't even have time to sit down during breakfast".

Paul McKenna's 'Live Hypnotic Show' is at the Beck Theatre, Hayes (020-8561 8371) tonight and on tour to 20 December (tickets: 0870 7355000)