How the cult of the guru puts gullible nation under its spell

They are everywhere – the life coaches, the supernannies, the makeover experts, the celebrity chefs, the fashion police.

They tell us what not to wear, what not to eat, what not to do with our lives, our children’s lives and our bathrooms.

Tony and Cherie Blair famously defer to a lifestyle guru, Carole Caplin, who applies Mrs Blair’s lipstick and was depicted in a television satire this month calling Mr Blair “Toblerone” and offering him a Reiki massage.

According to a leading academic, the nation is in “thrall to a new priesthood of gurus”.

In a speech at the Battle of Ideas Festival tomorrow at the Royal College of Art, Prof Frank Furedi says the collapse in traditional authority figures has not produced a less deferential or more questioning society.

Instead, we are now slaves to therapists and “hustlers” and taking advice on saving Africa from pop singers.

Prof Furedi, the professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, said the “unquestioning and fatalistic deference” to relationship and other types of experts was coming from the “very top of society”.

He added: “It is so sad when you see grown-up people – people of my age – on television needing someone to take them shopping for clothes. There is this myth that we live at the end of an age of deference, but we are entirely subservient to unacknowledged forms of authority.

“On the national television awards this week, Jamie Oliver [the celebrity chef] won a special achievement award and was lauded for saving our children.

“Tony Blair pops up to say he is a great man and a dinner lady says he should be made a saint. Then the Queen is shown giving Oliver an MBE.

“This is a sort of modern-day coronation of an ordinary guy, the sort that you bump into in the pub at the weekend, and he has become the fount of wisdom and the model of moral rectitude.”

The cult of celebrity has come full circle with politicians trying to learn new techniques from television reality shows.

While it is a myth that more young people vote in television reality contests than in general elections, it has not stopped politicians attempting to learn lessons, Prof Furedi said.

One policy document on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s website says: “A host of television and radio programmes such as ITV’s Pop Idol and Channel 4′s Big Brother encourage viewer polls using telephone voting, SMS (Short Message Service) text messaging or internet voting.

“With such a proliferation of the method, it is difficult not to conclude that there is popular support for e-voting among a significant proportion of citizens.”

The Rev Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a philosophy lecturer at Wadham College, Oxford, said celebrity worship had gone too far.

“We are considerably more superstitious now than we were 200 years ago,” he added.

“It emerges in celeb-worship and the feng shui-isation of life. Spirituality has become a make-over term.

“When you stop believing in God, you don’t believe in nothing, you believe in anything.

“The point of the Christian gospel is that we find relief from our demons by concentrating on things outside ourselves, whereas many of these new therapies are self-centred.”

The Vatican said Catholics would be better off believing in “encounters with aliens” than being sucked into anything that resembled the New Age movement.

Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP and Catholic who recently won Celebrity Fit Club on ITV by losing a tenth of her body weight in six months, said: “People like to think these gurus’ opinions are almost holy writ. Everyone is infallible these days except the Pope.”

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