Paul McKenna’s home is nestled in the Hollywood Hills. Inside there’s white marble. Outside there are leafy, spectacular views, and a bijou swimming pool. The house was occupied by Sean Connery in the Seventies. McKenna has always wanted to be James Bond, and I’m sure that has influenced his decision to live here.
I am greeted by a giant Great Dane, Bentley. Then another normal-sized Great Dane, Mr Big. Bentley is the size of a thoroughbred and jumps up to greet me. Clearly he has body dysmorphic issues because he’s taller than I am. Perhaps his owner can give him some therapy for that.
McKenna was born in Enfield, north London. Left school at 16 to work as a DJ at Topshop before various other radio stations. He became fascinated by a hypnotist who was a guest on his show, trained to become one himself, and entered the strange world of large stage shows where he made grown men behave as washing machines.
He moved from wanting to make us laugh to wanting to cure us using various forms of hypnosis. His books, including I Can Make You Thin, I Can Make You Sleep, I Can Make You Happy, I Can Make You Rich, I Can Mend Your Broken Heart, have grossed more than £17 million in the UK alone. He has become one of the world’s premier self-help gurus and is the first call for many celebrities who need de-traumatising – Robbie Williams, George Michael, Courtney Love, David Bowie and David Walliams are just a few of those who have been helped.
McKenna gets excited by people’s phobias. He can’t wait to get in and prove that he can remove them from the brain. He’s just made an app to help with fear of flying and his latest book, I Can Make You Smarter, has been one of his greatest challenges.
By practising a range of techniques and listening to an accompanying CD, readers are told they can learn to use their mind to its fullest potential. Learning will become easier and more enjoyable and various blocks that stop you learning will be removed. The techniques, he says, help to clear out old baggage, fear and frustration and free up more of your mind for positive pursuits.
“It’s a combination of a bunch of things. It de-links you from a feeling where you had a trauma or a block about learning. It will increase your intelligence, give you greater confidence in exams, improve your memory. And if you are older this will improve your chances of staying sharper longer. I can do all sorts of things that I couldn’t [when] I started doing this,” he says confidently. “I can now spell words that I couldn’t before because of my dyslexia. Even maths is easier.”
All these claims seem incredible, as do his successful treatment programmes for smokers and dieters, but, to me, the absolute testament to McKenna’s skill is that he was able to hypnotise my cat. It used to take three people and a set of bath towels to get him into his crate to go to the vet. Once in there he would scream like a demon and do other terrible things. Through a “tapping technique”, which McKenna once taught me and which involved me tapping the cat gently around his head, he became completely calm. McKenna uses variations of this technique, said to “take people to a place of mental safety”, in many of his treatments. “It produces more serotonin,” he says, and, again, “de-links you from a feeling of trauma”.
“That’s why I Can Make You Smarter will remove blocks. What holds people back is their fear of failure. I didn’t like school and I was told that I would never amount to anything. I wanted revenge. Revenge made me successful. This book should take the fear and discomfort out of learning and make it more an act of curiosity.”
The room we’re sitting in is full of pictures of McKenna with his dogs, a few of McKenna with celebrity friends like Simon Cowell and lots of McKenna and his mother. McKenna says that he’s just got over a bad week where his mother was in hospital but is now OK. “Without going into personal details she had to go back into the same hospital where my dad died earlier this year and it was rough. She said, ‘I know they were taking good care of me, but it just reminds me.’” His father had been ill for some time, seemed to be getting better and then had a fatal aneurysm. “And I’ve also broken up with my girlfriend as well,” he adds. “It’s a shame. We either get on really well or really badly. It’s one of those highs and lows relationships. You get addicted to the highs but there are also the lows… I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. She’s a really good person. We break up, we get back together, but I think this is it. I’m exhausted from it all.” (He doesn’t want to name her.)
I tell him it doesn’t sound as if it’s over. He shakes his head as if to say he doesn’t know either. “It’s a shame. We had a lot in common.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I may not be able to be in any relationship. Maybe I’m not built for that.” But didn’t he once write a book teaching people how to mend their broken hearts? Mending a broken heart, he says, is not about relationships. “I’m saying move on. I’m great at moving on. I’ve practised it. Relationships are a huge area. If I could stay in one maybe I could write about it, but I actually can’t.”
His friends were relieved last year to see him with a new girlfriend who seemed kind as well as beautiful. His previous girlfriend, they warned him, was a user and a manipulator. “Yes, that’s what most people said. And I said I didn’t mind those qualities in her because she made up for it in other ways. But she went too far. She went off with the husband of one of my friends. She found a rich guy. The day I heard this I was very annoyed. I was at dinner with my friend Ron Ruden” – a doctor who specialises in trauma who has developed a tapping technique called “havening” – “and he worked on me until my anger became the size of a postage stamp. It provided neutrality. I can’t get angry about her any more. I can’t miss her. It’s my neut-emotion.”
Does he employ a similar technique to the one he has used to wean people off chocolate? (They had to visualise it infested with worms.) “Sort of. But the havening technique is the most fantastic neutraliser I have found yet.” Will he be using it with the girlfriend he may have broken up with? “No, I won’t. You don’t want to go neutralising everything. When my dad died I didn’t want to go and neutralise it because I wanted to feel sad because I love him and miss him.” Does that mean there’s a chance you want to get back with her? “I don’t think so. We can’t agree on a lot of things and of course it’s my fault.”
McKenna shares his house with his manager Clare Staples. Many years ago they were a couple. She’s tall, blonde, athletically gorgeous, and no doubt many of his girlfriends felt they didn’t measure up to her.
But even more significantly, McKenna thought they didn’t fulfil him in the way Clare did. “I know. She’s a platonic wife. If you are a Muslim you can have three wives. The French have a wife and a mistress. Some people make that work. Nicky Clarke lives two doors from his ex-wife. They run their business together. Simon Cowell is very good friends with his exes. The relationship has transcended that. I don’t know what’s supposed to be right and wrong, I just know it works for me.”
Does he think if he didn’t have a platonic wife he might have a stronger need or desire to find that in another person? “I would, absolutely.” What about Clare? “Maybe she’s quite happy as it is. Since we’ve split up we get on really well. We’ve had relationships with other people and we’ve been very compatible. If someone didn’t treat her well I would get upset. I don’t have it all worked out. I don’t have all the answers. A lot of people who end up as therapists are people who should be in therapy.
“A friend of mine who is a Zen master was at dinner recently and he said, ‘Paul can sort out other people’s problems brilliantly, just not himself’ and we all laughed.” McKenna is quite a paradox. A bon viveur commitment phobe who loves his mother and his dogs. Sweet, caring, driven to prove his school report wrong and that he can cure anyone of anything. His best friend is Cowell. Perhaps they became such good friends because they both love the company of women, but not commitment.
“There are definitely similarities,” says McKenna. “We share the same sense of humour. For instance we’ve created these personas on Facebook and the idea is how long we can go on and have no friends. I am a TV repair man who doesn’t like rap music because he can’t hear the words and Simon’s guy works in the frozen foods industry and doesn’t like women who wear too much make-up.” Has he tried to help Simon with his addictions, like smoking? “I don’t really offer advice to anyone unless they invite it. He enjoys smoking. He might miss it.”
It’s been said many times that McKenna only gets a thrill out of helping A-listers. “Maybe I said it because I’m shallow. But it’s not true. I know people think I’m terribly superficial but I do like to think I can help everybody.
“My Zen master says, ‘What you try to suppress comes out’. Whatever you resist in yourself comes back. Your shadow self negotiates it.” And McKenna’s shadow self? Is it a person who needs no approval, is happily married with several children and drives a Prius? He laughs. “That’s hilarious.”
McKenna drives a Bentley and is wearing an Audemars Piguet watch. “I think it’s very beautiful. Some people buy a Picasso. I’ve bought a watch. I used to have more but I sold the others, they were just sitting in a cupboard. I have this one, my favourite, and the first Cartier Panthere that I ever bought 20 years ago in case one of them goes to the repairers. Clare and I said when we’ve achieved a certain amount I would buy the Cartier. That was when we first started working in business together.” Was she his girlfriend at the time? “Yes, but really early on she said just give me the chance and she’s been a brilliant manager. We were engaged, but we stayed friends through it all and what we have now is a form of love, just not a sexual one. She is the only person I’ve been engaged to although I’ve thought about getting married to some of the other girls. The last girlfriend but one. And that would have ended up so badly. I probably subconsciously want to find somebody who would prove me right. There is no hope,” he laughs. “You can’t trust women. You can’t put your trust in anybody.”