Britain has a new motto for 2005: don't get a life, get a life coach. The ranks of advisers, coaches, therapists and gurus who claim they can turn your stressed existence around are swelling so fast that the numbers are set to double within a couple of years.
What was once considered the indulgent prerogative of wealthy celebrities such as Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow is now a widespread phenomenon. Experts estimate that more than 100,000 Britons have consulted a life coach, a new breed of guru whose popularity is driving the astonishing boom in the therapy trade.
Life-coaching sessions are fast becoming a Middle England status symbol. Even airlines have got in on the act: Virgin Atlantic recently offered free half-hour coaching sessions to Upper Class passengers on transatlantic flights.
Amazon has reported a 38 per cent rise in its top five life-coaching titles over the past 12 months, and copies of the latest lifestyle advice book, written by Carole Caplin - once adviser and lipstick-applier-in-chief to Cherie Blair - have been flying off the shelves since its publication last week.
The relationship between Ms Caplin, 42, and Mrs Blair has come to symbolise the unconventional world of lifestyle gurus and their clients. The two met at a London gym in 1992, and shortly afterwards Ms Caplin began advising the Prime Minister's wife on everything from fashion and nutrition to spiritualism. The relationship famously faltered in 2002 when it was revealed that Ms Caplin had introduced the Blairs to the convicted Australian fraudster Peter Foster, who was alleged to have helped them purchase two flats in Bristol. During the ensuing media furore, Mr Foster claimed Ms Caplin's influence over the Blairs was so great that she even held sway over the Prime Minister's underwear.
Apparently undeterred, Mrs Blair is now reported to be seeing a new lifestyle adviser on Ms Caplin's recommendation: 41-year-old Lilias Curtin, a leading exponent of "magnet therapy".
She is working in an increasingly competitive market - and one in which no training or qualification is formally required, despite a plethora of colleges and institutes offering coaching courses.
In 2002, there were an estimated 500 life coaches in Britain. By the end of 2004, that figure had risen to around 4,000.
The concept, which emerged from the world of corporate training, applies simple cognitive therapy to help clients with various aspects of their life. After an initial session, strategies are formulated to improve an individual's physical fitness, career, relationship with his or her partner, family life and so on. The life coach will then regularly check up, usually by telephone, to ensure the schedule is being followed. The key difference between this approach and more traditional forms of therapy, say the experts, is that life coaching is focused on "personal development" as opposed to "personal recovery".
A successful life coach will typically earn between £30,000 and £60,000 a year, charging between £35 and £300 for an hour-long session, and thousands of Britons are queuing up to cash in on the trend. The Somerset-based Life Coaching Institute has seen student numbers treble to 2,000 over the past two years, while another leading organisation, the UK College of Life Coaching, predicts numbers will double again by the end of 2006.
"[Life coaching] is not pink and fluffy," said the college's principal, Pam Richardson. "It's a rigorous process to help people fulfil their potential. If you look at the spread of coaching and its appeal, we can easily say that numbers will double over the next two years, and probably double again in the two years after that."
Into this arena comes Ms Caplin's new book, LifeSmart, already tipped as a bestseller for the abstemious month of January. In it, Ms Caplin - recently described in the Daily Mail as "possibly the most controversial personal trainer and lifestyle adviser since Rasputin" - gives advice on the whole spectrum of fitness, diet and wellbeing, as well as emotional health.
But as life coaching grows in popularity, many are calling for tighter regulations. The self-esteem industry in Britain is now worth an estimated £15bn a year, and Lynn Hall, courses manager at the Life Coaching Institute, is among those supporting the idea of a central professional body for life coaches.
"The last couple of years have been phenomenal, but there needs to be some kind of regulation to it," Ms Hall said. "We'd welcome some kind of control, a rod to measure things against. If things were formalised, we could chuck out the cowboys."
Despite these concerns, tens of thousands of Britons have already benefited from life coaching. One of the most outrageous success stories to date is that of Rupak Mann, 35, from Birmingham. This time last year, Ms Mann was a part-time clerical support officer at her local fire station. Now she is a successful Bollywood actress.
"Life coaching really helped me clarify what I wanted in life, and to discover the things that were holding me back," said Ms Mann, who entered and won Channel 4's reality show Bollywood Star, and has already completed her first film. "I always thought I was too old, too big and not talented enough, but I realised that it was just excuses - a manifestation of my own fear. The whole process was very powerful for me."
Additional reporting by Katy Guest and Dana Gloger
STARS AND THEIR GURUS
Madonna and Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
The guru: A former hippy, Gurmukh is now one of the world's most celebrated kundalini yoga teachers.
What she does: Specialises in physically and spiritually detoxing ex-alcoholics and addicts. Many celebrities also claim she has improved their quality of life.
Has it worked? Madonna has not made a film since the appalling Swept Away, so her judgement may be improving.
Demi Moore and Deepak Chopra
The guru: Indian-born doctor voted one of the 100 top icons of the 20th century by Time magazine. Journal of the American Medical Association claimed he is "unscientific".
What he does: Arch-proponent of ayurveda, a leading form of holistic medicine.
Has it worked? Moore claimed Chopra would help her live to 130. As she's still alive, we'll have to take her word for it.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Gary Trainer
The guru: Acupuncturist to the stars.
What he does: Uses the therapy to relieve stress and make the patient more focused. Said to be responsible for the red, circular marks seen recently on Paltrow's back - a practice known as "cupping". She liked Trainer so much, the New York Post claimed she and her husband, Coldplay's Chris Martin, bought a house in Belsize Park to be close to him.
Has it worked? The cupping incident got Paltrow's picture on the front pages, so yes.
Hillary Clinton and Jean Houston
The guru: Author whose books prove the "profound role that advanced psychology and spirituality play in people's lives today" (the publisher claims).
What she does: Shows her clients and readers how they can discover their true potential through spirituality. Mrs Clinton "connected" with Ms Houston when the Clintons invited her to Camp David in 1996.
Has it worked? Hard to tell. But a new age healer won't persuade the US Bible Belt to vote Hillary in 2008.Reuse content