Content warning: mentions of abuse, coercion, manipulation and exploitation.
According to the UK National Health Service, hypnotherapy uses hypnosis to try to treat conditions or change habits. In it, you usually go into a relaxed state or a trance and your hypnotherapist is supposed to make you reach your goals, whether these may be to achieve a desired behavioral change or to manage physical pain.
Among its benefits, we find it helps with anxiety, stress, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, substance abuse including tobacco, sexual dysfunction, undesirable compulsive behaviors, mood disorders and bad habits.
Now, it is important to stretch that these kinds of therapies are said to have absolutely no effect on the patient if they are uncooperative or their mind is not set on the goal at hand and they are always to be used alongside other medical or psychological treatments.
Unfortunately, despite these norms, hypnotherapy can be easily corrupted. In the UK, for example, you don’t need qualifications to be an hypnotherapist, although these are indeed required to be accredited by certain bodies with their own code of ethics professionals are expected to follow.
This means an unregistered hypnotherapist could technically be underqualified and still offer their services. On top of that, because hypnotherapy helps us change certain habits or behaviors among other benefits, it poses a great danger if misused.
Sure, these therapies are not supposed to work if the patient is unwilling, but what if they are convinced by a third party? What if they are made to think the goal pursued is one they genuinely desire or should desire, that it is something beneficial for them they are indeed in need of? Coming up with alternative routes to corrupt this psychological practice is definitely not unattainable, and even more so when these services are offered by a close friend of the creator of a music label and targeted to the musicians under it.
As it happens, this was the case of contestants in the X Factor and artists under Syco, who underwent these therapies based on hypnosis and conducted by one of Simon Cowell’s best friends, Paul McKenna. Of course, we can’t know what goes on in the famous British hypnotist’s therapy sessions, nor is it one of the main points of this article to speculate about his abilities, but rather to see how the official information we have on his modus-operandi allegedly contradicts some of the official ethical principles of psychologists and both codes of conduct, the one by the American Psychological Association and the one by the British Psychological Society.
First of all, you should know that this hypnotherapist is often sought out by the rich and famous: he was, for example, who Adele turned to to help her quit smoking, and he has worked on most of the members of One Direction. After the band was formed, it was rumored Simon got him to help Harry with his initial stage fright and, in 2016, it was reported by the press that Zayn had sought him out to help with his anxiety problems. Curiously, the same article confirming this information about Zayn affirmed Mr Mckenna had treated Louis prior to that event.
The celebrated hypnotherapist, who named Harvey Weinstein among his friends in an interview he gave to The Guardian in 2016 and had already shared some very telling tweets about how much he admired Weinstein between March and June 2015, would have allegedly not respected point 3.05 (“Multiple Relationships”) of the Code of Conducts had he been in the US. The reason why this is not permitted, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is to do with the possibility that a personal relationship of any kind could “impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness.” And we do not need to go too deeply into our research before confirming our fears, just the part on multiple relationships in the Code of Conduct clearly mentions a situation where multiple relationships can be found risks exploitation or harm and thus, is considered unethical.
In the UK, this behavior is not allowed either. Coercion is recognised as an unacceptable contravention of the core CHRE principle of respect for the autonomy of persons and, in the Code of Ethics and Conducts of the British Psychological Society it is clearly stated situations like McKenna working with One Direction can break the ethical principle of respect (“issues of power”), responsibility (“awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount”) and integrity (“avoidance of exploitation and conflicts of interest (including self-interest)”). In total, we find three ethical principles out of four which could have been compromised.
Now, from the current information we have about the treatment contestants were given in the X Factor, it is particularly concerning that many of them underwent some kind of hypnotherapy session, and their situation causes a major conflict of interest due to the hypnotherapist’s close relationship with Mr Cowell and the fact that he treated Harry, Louis and Zayn that we know of, three members of the same band who were involved no matter if it was romantically or, in Zayn’s case, as friends.
In fact, one of its former contestants, Katie Waissel, has spoken out on the topic during Twitter spaces and confirmed she too has undergone these therapies at some point of her life. There is a particular sentence, Katie says, a close variation from which can be spotted in almost every video diary from no matter the edition, and even in some recent interviews made by former contestants: “I’m just so grateful for the opportunity.”
“It is heartbreaking to see that not just our season, but almost every season, the narrative has been cleverly steered to reach that one, or similar to, line. When one fears for their lives, like I did, I heavily relied upon those I thought I could trust. Evidently, they were the people I could trust the least. And here we are, witnessing the cycle of, ‘I’m just so grateful for the opportunity,’ If someone actually went all the way back to season 1, and went through all 15 seasons, it will become apparent as to why it became a statement in which as contestants would laugh at yet naively be so unsure of. It’s frightening, they own our language, stated in contracts, even before the live shows. We as ‘commodities’ belonged to them, most of which still do.”
One very recent example of this sentence on display is Louis’ interview released last 20th of March with Sunday Good Vibes. When asked about how he got into the industry, Louis said: “When I grew up it wasn’t as if there was a lot of people to look to, to kind of inspire those ideas, really. It’s relatively—it’s not a small town, but there’s definitely times when I was younger when there’s not loads going on so, it wasn’t as if I had these kinda role models to look to and think ‘Oh I’d love to be like that.’ So that’s where I was very thankful to have an opportunity with the show like The XFactor, and of course you know, shows like that come with their, you know, negatives, definitely, and I see that, definitely, but that kind of opportunity… that was the only way I was gonna get into something like this. So I’m really thankful, really.”
Please note how the last part is a variation of the same seven words we’ve heard in many artists before, words which Louis had already articulated very clearly in the middle of his answer, and Katie herself acknowledged this when she replied the update account HLDaily, who shared the quote, by saying “I highly recommend rewatching some of our Xtra Factor video diaries.”
Paull Mckenna and Simon Cowell’s relationship and its effects on Louis’ life in particular are evident. In 2016, for instance, it was reported by the press Louis had rented Mr Mckenna’s LA house to be closer to the Clarks and their newborn child, which proves Simon’s influence and how their therapist-patient relationship could have been compromised.
But Louis’ case, of course, is not remotely isolated, we have Harry, for example, in his interview with Howard Stern in 2020 repeating the exact same concept, only that about Simon Cowell, who Stern said he didn’t like (“I’m very grateful to him for, you know, the opportunity”). They are the same words he had articulated five years before that, in the Jonathan Ross show, when One Direction was invited back in 2015 and they were asked if they ever wished they had a normal life (“I don’t think we’d change anything.. I…you know…we’ve, we’ve all feel very lucky to kind of had this opportunity”), it is the same sentence Katie says in her own video diaries and I would encourage you that, if you happen to be fan of a person who went through the X Factor, you go back and look for it, because it is almost guaranteed that you will find it somewhere.
Overall, it is clear Paul McKenna should have never been allowed to offer any therapy to anyone under Simon Cowell’s label, not because he was not able to do a good job or did not know what he was doing—he may or may not be an excellent hypnotherapist for all we know—but because his relationship with Simon was prone to jeopardize his work, and, out of all therapies, wrongly practiced hypnotherapy is particularly concerning. How can we be sure contestants were not undergoing these therapies so that they could be stopped from displaying certain behaviors or in order to dissuade them from making certain declarations against the label’s best interests?
According to Katie, the X Factor contestants slept in dirty bunk beds, would be woken up in the middle of the night to film and were often not fed enough. Living under these conditions, it makes sense that they needed to be “convinced” to feel happier, more grateful… for the opportunity, of course. Evidently, hypnotherapy is not the whole reason why no one badmouths the X Factor, and contracts don’t allow artists to speak against them either. Taking this into account, it is important to clarify their silence not only relies on hypnotherapy, but also on contractual obligations.
Conditioning artists is unfortunately a very real practice, even though it may sound like science fiction for those of us who have never stepped foot in the entertainment industry. Not only with corrupted therapy sessions such as this one—which, may I add, with the public information available, could have cost any unknown hypnotherapist their license—but also with questionable media training sessions.
Manipulation in any form is one of the most common factors of abusive and/or explorative relationships, and it is imperative that we talk about these sensitive topics which many fans avoid like the plague. Now more than ever, abuse and exploitation in the entertainment industry are becoming an open secret, and we should raise our voices for those who can’t speak of it. Our words ought to reach the general public and, most importantly, young artists in the making who will be offered these therapies in unethical conditions or have already been through similar situations and never realized there was anything wrong with them.