Thursday, 10 January 2013
Paul McKenna tells Richard Barber that anything is possible, even the ability to think yourself thin...In 2007, Paul McKenna decamped to Los Angeles, lured by a lucrative contract that saw him embark on reprogramming US TV viewers into thinking themselves thin, in a deal that was said to have netted him £15m, with a further £2.5m expected annually via downloads from his website.
After three days, he awoke at four in the morning in the grip of a panic attack. ‘What had I done?’ he asked. ‘I’d moved house, job, country in the space of two weeks. It might turn out to be a disaster.’ But, if anyone can get back in touch with his normally unshakeable self-esteem, it’s McKenna. He reminded himself of high-street entrepreneur, Philip Green’s, credo: ‘I don’t do risk. I do calculated risk.’ And then he calmed down.
Paul McKenna is a real study. He’ll be 50 next November, a typical Scorpio, he says. ‘Loyal friend, rotten enemy. Revenge is our oxygen,’ he adds, cheerfully. He may have his detractors, but there’s no denying the boy done good. Brought up in Enfield, north London, the elder of two sons of a builder, Bill, and his wife Joan, a home economics teacher, he was very far from being a star pupil at his local Jesuit secondary school.
He vividly remembers one school report. ‘If he carries on like this,’ it read, ‘he’ll never amount to anything.’ All these years later, he still shakes his head in wonderment. ‘What a thing to write about an impressionable child.’ But it just might have proved the spur, he thinks, to show them all they were wrong.
By 16, he was the in-store DJ at Topshop in Oxford Street. Then there was a spell on Radio Caroline before he joined Chiltern Radio, leaving after a row with the station boss whom he accused of sticking to too safe a playlist and to whom he handed a note saying that he, McKenna, would be a millionaire before he was 30. (He was right.)
It was while he was at the radio station that he interviewed a local hypnotist, an encounter that was to change his life. Party tricks turned into stage shows and, by 1994, The Hypnotic World Of Paul McKenna was pulling in a TV audience of almost 13 million. His ascent from that moment via television and publishing has been pretty much vertical.
His latest book, Paul McKenna’s Hypnotic Gastric Band, has just been published. Actually, it’s rather more than simply a book. Following the success of I Can Make You Thin, the bestselling British weight-loss book ever, McKenna thought he’d said all he had to say on the subject.
The book explains the four golden rules of losing weight. He’s evangelical on the subject. ‘Permanent, healthy weight loss is not achieved through dieting,’ he says. ‘It is not about avoiding certain foods or buying expensive, artificial food substitutes. You can eat anything you want when you know how not to eat to excess. And you should eat only when you are hungry.’
Seven out of 10 people who use the book lose weight, claims McKenna. ‘In other words, over the long-term, the success rate is more than six times the success rate of dieting and diet clubs. It is the most successful weight-loss programme ever and you can use it while continuing to eat any type of food you want.’ Unsurprisingly, his publisher was delighted by the book’s success. ‘He was ecstatic. “So, Paul,” he said to me, “can you do another weight-loss book?” But I was reluctant. I’d put into that book everything I knew that helps people lose weight. What was the point of writing another one? It would just be repetition.’
Then, last year, a medical friend introduced him to Dr Mark Cohen, an endocrinologist specialising in treating obesity. ‘Obesity is a growing problem throughout the developed world,’ says McKenna. ‘Being fat is not just a lifestyle choice; it puts you at serious risk of ill health and an earlier death.’
One treatment for seriously overweight patients is gastric band surgery. But it’s expensive and, although the risks of modern surgery are lower than ever, they are higher for seriously obese patients. The irony is that some of the people most in need of help are too obese for surgery.
‘Mark told me that some people were asking their hypnotherapist to convince them they had had a gastric band fitted. In other words, they wanted all the benefits of a gastric band without submitting themselves to surgery; in short, they wanted an hypnotic gastric band.
‘That sounded to me like little more than a gimmick but Mark asked me if I would at least cooperate with him on a trial so that he could compare the hypnotic gastric band with its surgical equivalent.’ To his amazement, out of the 20 people who submitted themselves for the initial trial, 18 lost weight.
Now the package of book, CD and DVD is available, so you can be lulled into a trance-like state and then ‘indoctrinated’ with the idea that you should only eat when you’re hungry and always stop when you’re full. But does it work? Well, the proof of the pudding, they say, and never more aptly, is in the eating.
And, in fairness, Paul McKenna does boast a pretty impressive track record. He cured Tara Palmer- Tomkinson of her fear of snakes (before she went into the celebrity jungle). He got David Bowie over his fear of flying; Ellen DeGeneres to give up smoking; Daryl Hannah to conquer her stage fright; and Kirsty Young to get slim.
It all boils down, he says, to sustaining a belief in yourself. ‘I can tell you how to face down your demons, how to get more out of life, how to get rich, how to mend a broken heart. And I could probably write a book on successful dating.’ Note the ‘probably’. If we are to judge him on his own life, Paul McKenna has thus far proved incapable of sustaining an adult relationship.
There have been girlfriends along the way, almost all of them blonde. He once stepped out with former breakfast presenter Penny Smith (‘such a funny girl’). There was a long romance with former catwalk model Clare Staples, now his manager, who is also based in LA. Then there was a relationship with Niki Roe, an animal behaviourist, who was nonetheless unable to make McKenna come to heel.
He shakes his head. ‘My parents were very happily married,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what it is about me.’ Could it be that he’s a commitment-phobe? He doesn’t demur. ‘I asked myself not so long ago why I wasn’t married. I contrasted myself with my married friends and I realised they really wanted to be with one another. And I’ve never felt that.
‘That could all change, of course,’ he adds, rather doubtfully. ‘You never know what’s round the next corner. I mean, I’m from Enfield. I shouldn’t really be sitting in LA, should I? And living in a house in the Hollywood Hills owned at various points in its history by Richard Gere, Sean Connery and director John Schlesinger.’
But what on earth would he be like to live with? He doesn’t flinch. ‘Oh, I can give you the feedback. I’m driven. Girlfriends say I can’t sit still for five minutes. I’m energised. And I’m cold, I’ve been told. But then, I like to have as much control as possible over my emotions.’ He brightens. ‘But I’m also humorous and generous and sociable.’
He and Simon Cowell were talking about this very subject just the other night. ‘We’ve each had a series of relationships. We’re both still friends with our exes. I used to think that maybe I wasn’t normal, although a lot of people I know who are in a relationship are cheating on their partner. I’ve never been unfaithful. I’m either with someone or I’m not. But when I look at those couples who I know to be happily married, I’ve never found someone who would measure up.
‘I’ve been hurt in the past and I’ve had to hurt other people in the past. I’ve also had wonderful relationships that ran their course. I don’t have a girlfriend at the moment. I usually manage to last about six months. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m actually quite happy on my own.
‘Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. A glass of champagne or a bar of chocolate might be pleasurable but happiness should be the overall backdrop to your life. And it’s my default setting. The average level of happiness is about 6.5 out of a possible 10. I’d put myself at 8, maybe 9,’ says Paul McKenna – and means it.
Paul McKenna’s Hypnotic Gastric Band is published by Bantam Press, priced £12.99.
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