Get a life

Every year 100,000 Britons seek the services of a life coach. Do you need one, too? Viv Groskop doub

"Don't jump on the bandwagon." This is the advice that life-coach guru Fiona Harrold has been giving to the hundreds of former counsellors and psychotherapists who have come knocking on her door, hoping to rebrand themselves as life coaches. "I refuse them," she declares. "I say, 'You're a psychologist and that's a great thing.' I see so many book jackets now where five years ago the authors called themselves a psychologist and now they are a coach. It makes me laugh."

Life coaching is the biggest growth area in the self-help world. As dysfunctional coaching- convert Warren crowed recently in This Life Plus Ten, the industry is worth an estimated £50m a year and rising. Life coaching is "where it's at".

The concept is largely accredited to Thomas J Leonard, who founded a training centre called Coach U in Arizona in 1992. Two years later he set up the International Coach Federation and the idea went global. The London-based Coaching Academy, the UK's biggest coaching school, has trained 10,000 new coaches over the past seven years, and the Association for Coaching, also based in London, aims to pull in 2,000 members by the end of the year.

Becoming a coach or, as some prefer to be known an "agent of change" is, in fact, a doddle. The industry is unregulated and no genuine qualification is needed, so anyone can decide to become a life coach, quite literally, overnight. And the incentive to do so is there. "Agents" can charge anything from £30 an hour to thousands of pounds a day. "Of course, some people will come to it thinking that it is an easy way to make money," says Harrold, whose own book on the subject, Be Your Own Life Coach, has sold millions of copies.

One estimate puts the number of life coaches currently practising in the UK at between 80,000 and 100,000. Oddly enough, another figure is bandied about, too: that 100,000 Britons used a life coach in 2005. This works out as one life coach per client, which sounds about right. Many online testimonials reveal that many only decide to become coaches after having been coached themselves. But none of these statistics are official. Because there is no official life coaching body, the numbers are impossible to verify.

January is life coaching's busiest time of the year, with thousands of recruits signing up for help with their New Year resolutions. But the executive and corporate sector is still the most lucrative. Specialised coaches offering mentoring services to top-level execs can earn as much as £10,000 a day. Last year, it was reported that Patricia Hewitt and other cabinet ministers use £250-an-hour life coaches to "cope with the pressures of government". No 10, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport and the Treasury have all used coaches, or "critical friends" as they preferred to be known in this particular case.

"What you realise talking to senior business people and executives is that everybody has them but no one wants to talk about it," says one high-profile London-based businesswoman, who keeps in touch with her American coach by phone. "I've had a number of lunches where I've mentioned it. People lower their voice and admit they have one, too."

A small group of charismatic life-coach gurus including Harrold, now practically a household name thanks to her book and appearances on Channel 4's Faking It, are skilled at inspiring others. She started out as a "self-esteem consultant" more than 20 years ago. This group would do what they do whatever it was called and regardless of whether it was trendy and there was money to be made from it. But then there are all the rest. "Coaching is unregulated so you are at the mercy of whether it's crap or not," says the businesswoman. "A lot of it relies on you using y0ur own skills and judgement."

Why do they do it?

Which begs the question: why do people need to visit a life coach? According to the "experts", people who need coaches are those who are not satisfied with the status quo or who want to feel differently about their future. They might be seeking clarity and resolution, evaluating their career options or facing difficult choices. Almost all will have some sort of anxieties or relationship concerns. Most will want to gain deeper self-understanding and acceptance. So, that's pretty much everyone, in one way or another.

Getting a helping hand with public speaking to boost your chances of climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder is one thing. But experts in psychology are concerned that vulnerable people are not receiving the treatment they need. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes that coaching can never be effective unless coaches train in some form of therapy. "Life coaching uses a model that is contradictory to most established psychotherapies. It is goal-focused not client-centred. It addresses symptoms rather than causes." This creates not only a risk for the patient but a public risk as well. "After all," he argues, "there is the issue of personality disorder. How on earth are you going to recognise one if you don't know what it is?" Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, has also spoken out against life coaching as intrusive and a waste of money, observing that: "There's a growing idea that human beings lack the competence and resources to cope with everyday life."

All this won't stop it from growing, however, says Hodson. "As a society we are now ready to address the question of our alienation but we don't really want the answers to hurt. It's like wanting to do your bit for climate change but keeping the 4 x 4." He adds the killer blow: "If the power of positive thinking could solve all our problems we wouldn't have any."

Harrold dismisses this out of hand. "People want results and why shouldn't they be given the tools to get them?" she says. "People don't want navel-gazing. They want to be able to walk into the office tomorrow and get a promotion."

Life coaching explained

So what is it?

"A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee." Anthony Grant, University of Sydney, 2000.

How is this different from traditional therapy?

Life coaching looks to find solutions to the problems rather than to solve the causes. Coaches encourage their clients to use "cognitive techniques" - aka, thinking - to unlock the key to success.

What qualifications do life coaches have to have?

None. Anyone can become a life coach. But many reassuringly cite their years of experience in "human potential".

Who needs a life coach?

According to the experts themselves, just about anyone who is cheesed off with any part of their life.

With no professional body to regulate, how do you know which coach to choose?

London-based life coach Sally Ann Law, one of the first coaches listed on Google, has sound advice. "Absorb all the information available to you," she says on her website, "then listen to your heart and your head about whether you think this person appears credible and empathetic." So as long as decision-making isn't your problem, you should be OK.

How can I find out more about life coaching?

Another pearl from Law. Try an internet search, she suggests. "Enter 'life coach' and you'll be inundated with options."

How much does it cost to become a life coach myself?

Anywhere between £700 and £3,000

How much does a life coach earn?

Well, logic suggests success. Top earnings are thought to be £10k a day.

Sohani Crockett

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.