Paul McKenna: Enfield 'nerd' made good

Hypnotist Paul McKenna, a nerdish builder's son from Enfield, used his hypnotic act to transform himself into a Hollywood celebrity.

Paul McKenna is still deliberating whether to buy the £19m house in which Michael Jackson died in Los Angeles, says The Daily Telegraph. But his family appear to regard it as a done deal.

His mother, Joan, has already asked which bedroom she'll have. His brother, John, says "I'd like to go into the room where Michael died." But it seems that McKenna, who claims to be the world's most successful hypnotist, intends to reserve the master suite for himself.

The extraordinary thing about the story isn't just its "air of ghoulishness", but the fact that a builder's son from Enfield is now able to afford one of the priciest houses in LA, says Andrew Wilson in the Evening Standard. How did "this beardless, balding Rasputin of the modern age" transform himself into a Hollywood celebrity? According to McKenna who says he was a bullied "nerd" at school it's all down to the power of positive thinking. "I used to think that people were born lucky, but that I wasn't," he once said. Hypnosis "helped me decide I was going to take responsibility and not be a victim".

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It's a message he's been profitably selling for years (see below) via self-help books, seminars and high-profile work with celebrities. McKenna claims that he can "cure most psychological problems, and quite a number of medical ones". His latest venture, a US TV series, The Fixer, has attracted criticism from the medical profession. The suspicion, says the LA Times, is that McKenna is no more than an"old-style snake oil salesman". His shows have "a whiff of televangelism".

After leaving school, McKenna, 46, talked his way into a job as a part-time DJ at Topshop, and was later taken on by Capital Radio. On one of his shows, he interviewed a hypnotist and became hooked. Having mugged up on technique, he started playing university balls and army camps, says The Observer. He hired an entire theatre, promoted his show on Capital, and was overwhelmed by the response. "The audience figures doubled night after night." In 1993, he got his first TV show, The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna, which drew an audience of 13 million and was sold around the world.

Yet McKenna soon realised that "the freak show aspect of hypnotism" could only take him so far, says the Daily Mail. He credits his big leap to Richard Bandler, a somewhat sinister Californian hypnotist who invented a method of mind control called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) a technique that launched McKenna on his lucrative career. Yet McKenna is the first to admit that the magic of NLP hasn't worked on him: his confessed "control freakery" means he struggles to maintain relationships. If he buys Michael Jackson's house, concludes the Evening Standard, he should beware finding himself in the same boat as the late King of Pop: "a talented and wealthy man trapped within a gilded cage".

Is there a darker side to McKenna?

Thanks to his TV show, his live performances and self-help bestsellers, including I Can Make You Thin and I Can Make You Rich, Paul McKenna was already rolling in it before he got to America, says the Daily Mail. But success there has "taken him into a whole new league". He has a two-year TV deal worth an estimated £15m with the Discovery Network and his shows, combined with his celebrity endorsements, help shift a lot of products. McKenna rakes in millions from his website, with sales of DVDs aimed at solving everything from stopping smoking (£40 for the box set) to becoming more confident. According to one report, he was selling one-week courses to Los Angeles' rich and famous for £100,000 a pop.

McKenna makes no bones about his love of money even if it is made by appealing to the vulnerable, observes the Birmingham Express and Star. After relieving more than 1,500 weight-loss hopefuls of £250 at seminars earlier this year, he remarked: "I have to earn a living and keep myself in the lifestyle I'm accustomed's very ra-ra." It's not "fashionable" to like McKenna, says Polly Vernon in The Observer. He laughs at his own jokes, drops names relentlessly, and talks like "an embarrassing clich of a local radio DJ with mid-Atlantic inflections". Yet he's surprisingly good company. "Curiously self-aware and unexpectedly self-deprecating. Bright... fun."

Still, there's undeniably a darker side, says the Evening Standard: not least in McKenna's choice of mentor, Richard Bandler a man tried and acquitted of murder in 1988. And there are ongoing concerns about the effect of some of McKenna's hypnotic techniques. In 1998, he was sued by a British man whose family claimed that being hypnotised at one of McKenna's live shows had brought on schizophrenia. The judge threw the case out, on grounds of insufficient evidence. But many still believe that McKenna is playing with fire.