Sitting in the middle of the expensively furnished room is a charismatic brunette with green eyes and an enviable figure. In her left hand is a large gin and tonic; in her right, a cigarette.
In front of her sit six women — young, successful, well-connected — who are all utterly enraptured. They’ve had this soiree in their diary for months.
As for me, I’ve carefully stowed the women’s designer handbags and hung up their expensive coats. And when the brunette glances at me, I jump to my feet, quickly replenishing her drink just how she likes it.
The other women pay no heed to me, save for also holding out their glasses.
Am I the hired help? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. But the women gathered here are actually my friends and colleagues — and they are sitting in my £750,000 home in London’s affluent Kew Gardens.
Looking back at how she inveigled her way into every corner of my life; how she made me subservient in my own home; how she gradually, insidiously, turned me into her personal piggy bank, paying for everything from her cigarettes to her Botox injections, I cringe
As for the woman who was so skilfully seducing my social circle, she was no life coach, or motivational speaker but a psychic. And during a couple of costly years in my early 30s, when I was at the height of my career as an executive producer for major television companies, I fell completely under her spell.
Looking back at how she inveigled her way into every corner of my life; how she made me subservient in my own home; how she gradually, insidiously, turned me into her personal piggy bank, paying for everything from her cigarettes to her Botox injections, I cringe.
I thought I’d buried this mortifying period of my life. Yet watching the new Apple TV true-life series The Shrink Next Door, it was as though I was back in her clutches.
The series stars Will Ferrell as the neurotic Marty Markowitz and Paul Rudd as his charismatic therapist, Dr Isaac Herschkopf, who, under the guise of rebuilding his client’s self-esteem, charmed his way into every aspect of his world.
Herschkopf eventually moved into his client’s mansion, isolated Markowitz from his loved ones and went through millions of his money. Such manipulation felt all too familiar to me.
You’re no doubt wondering how I could have been so stupid. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how this woman targeted me — and others like me — with an almost surgical precision. If it happened to me, it could just as easily happen to you.
The psychic exploited my weaknesses so thoroughly — most of all that I had made a success of my life, despite being from a thoroughly ordinary background.
How can achieving professional success be deemed a weakness, you might ask?
Well, having moved from my working-class family home in the Midlands to London in my early 20s, I was extremely focused on my chosen career due to the lack of any financial safety net. I had worked my way up to executive producer at a TV station, and loved my job but it was a cutthroat world where contracts were strictly short term.
Friendships were superficial at best. You watched your back and you certainly didn’t share confidences with anyone. Little wonder my insecurities haunted me.
By my early 30s, I had a lovely three-bedroom cottage near the Thames in Kew Gardens, a vintage Mercedes soft-top and a dressing room filled with beautiful clothes.
But my emotional life was in turmoil. I had recently divorced and without any children to keep my mind occupied, I was scared about my future and felt as though I’d been cast adrift. Who was I now?
My family were far away, and I’d yet to tell them about my divorce because they hadn’t supported me in my choice of husband.
There was no one else to have a heart-to-heart with, because I could never have admitted to vulnerabilities with colleagues or even girlfriends. I didn’t want to shatter my carefully crafted strong image.
But this bravado was to leave me open to terrible exploitation.
When a professional associate suggested I meet her psychic friend, I agreed — because, in truth, I was anxious about what my future held, and thought it might help me.
Friendships were superficial at best. You watched your back and you certainly didn’t share confidences with anyone. Little wonder my insecurities haunted me (File image)
My colleague was no fool — she held a well-paid corporate position in publishing. Now I realise this kind of word-of-mouth recommendation among professional women — and it is normally women who seek them — is how these expensive psychics build their client base.
More than this, the psychic — a decade or so older than me — presented herself as a ‘big sister’ figure, appealing to my need for female companionship.
If she had been a man, I would more than likely have held back from giving so much away so quickly. But because she was a woman, my guard instantly dropped. Too soon, I saw her as a dear friend.
Our first meeting was for a drink in my private members’ club in Central London. There, my friend explained how the psychic ‘reads’ your soul using ‘spirit guides’.
I sometimes wonder if she already knew I was divorced or had researched my whole life history prior to our meeting. Even if she hadn’t, I suspect I was a bit of an open book.
She stared at me intently, holding my gaze with her penetrating green eyes, before beginning to reveal — or so it seemed to me — a series of insights about my psyche.
She knew I was hurting. She knew I had lost a love, but assured me he wasn’t right for me, that there was someone better out there. She predicted my career was going to continue from strength to strength.
It didn’t occur to me to question the accuracy of anything she said, nor did I wonder about placing my delicate emotions in the hands of a woman employed in a sector that has zero regulation. Her words were the balm I needed, the chink of hope I’d desperately been searching for.
My bruised ego well and truly bolstered, it seemed perfectly natural for us to exchange phone numbers and for me to breezily suggest meeting up again.
Over the following months a pattern emerged. Whenever she was coming to London, she’d call a couple of days beforehand, ostensibly asking if I wanted to catch up. Each time she would throw little titbits into the conversation about something that ‘might’ happen for me.
They were tantalising nuggets, such as a meeting that would go well or an unexpected offer to go to New York for work. The smallest coincidence was used by her to prove that she had been correct every time.
Soon the calls came on a daily basis, briefly checking I was doing well, before swiftly asking for help to boost her client roster via my access to wealthy individuals.
While I’d paid somewhere in the region of £100 for my initial reading, after a couple of occasions she’d stopped charging me. There were times I’d have to press the notes into her hand.
Now, I suspect this was a clever change in her tactics. After all, how could I think she was on the make if she wasn’t officially charging me?
But she made her money in other ways. Thanks largely to introductions from me, the names in her little black book had become pretty impressive, including television presenters and executives.
She’d call to give me the lowdown on what they were like, what kind of homes they lived in, and was funny — and brutal — about the kinds of things they confided in her.
Her confidences made her feel like my friend, as though I was special, and more than just another client. It never once occurred to me she was probably sharing the same observations about me with others.
Then the call came that changed things: could she stay at my house? She was seeing a client late — unavoidable, apparently — and would miss her last train home.
She would have known I wasn’t going to say no, or ask why she couldn’t stay in a hotel. She had groomed and guided me to consider her a pal, and would regularly tell me what a good friend I was. Over the space of a few months, that one night turned into another and another — and before I knew it, every time she was in London she would automatically assume she could use the spare bedroom in my home.
Her requests for alcohol and cigarettes swiftly followed. She’d never ask outright. Rather, she’d ‘forget’ to buy any cigarettes or ask if I’d mind getting in some gin, because she couldn’t drink my preferred Pinot Grigio.
She never cooked, shopped or put her hand in her pocket for anything. We’d eat out and yours truly would end up footing the bill.
By now, she’d been in my life for six months, and I had easily spent thousands on her.
Why couldn’t she ever pay? Well, I was told there were family members to support, with illnesses and disabilities fleetingly referred to. On another occasion she ‘confessed’ her love life was non-existent, too. If her strategy was to make me feel sorry for her, then it worked. Did she ever supply any proof? Of course not. Back then, I genuinely took people at their word. Why would she lie to me?
My friends were queuing up to meet her, which only served to confirm my belief in her skills. She charged everyone £100 a pop for the privilege.
As she spent more time among the famous clientele I had provided, she would tell me about the tweakments they’d had to turn back the clock. To fit in, she apparently needed to have Botox and fillers, too.
Then the question came: might I loan her the funds to pay for it?
Someone else might have seen the warning signs. But I naively agreed not only to foot the bill — a good few hundred pounds — but to take her to the clinic.
By now, my friends were queuing up to meet her, which only served to confirm my belief in her skills. She charged everyone £100 a pop for the privilege.
I, meanwhile, continued to pay for her meals and drinks, as well as being a permanent taxi service. She didn’t even have to make her bed — I’d make sure my cleaner tidied her room.
Before too long my friends were popping by my home not to see me, but her. My demotion to bystander in my own life was complete. This was rock bottom.
I first started to doubt her intentions when I saw her talking to a friend about her shattered love life. As soon as my friend had turned her back, I caught the psychic rolling her eyes. Surely she wasn’t some play-actor trotting out one line after another?
But it took a few more months before the veil finally lifted. Despite having painted herself as a struggling businesswoman, I discovered through some online sleuthing that she was actually comfortably well off.
The scales at last dropped from my eyes, and I cut all ties immediately. I knew that if I gave her even an inch, she would be back in my spare bedroom in the blink of an eye. I was determined to get my life back on track without her in it.
I had spent many thousands of pounds on her that I would never see again.
I did ask to be reimbursed for the cosmetic tweakments to no avail, and looked into pursuing it through the small claims court. But an online search revealed she had no assets in her own name.
Everything — her house, her car, her business — was in a family member’s name. I had no choice but to cut my losses. Today, if I’m feeling vulnerable I’ll accept that life isn’t all love and light and it will pass. I’m no longer waiting for someone to come along with the magic solution to all my problems.
I’m also now very careful about who I welcome into my home and my affections. I’ve learned the hard way not to make anyone greater than me in my life.
Some who have read this may come away thinking I was a fool, that they would never fall for such a thing.
But to those who think my experience is unique, I would say this: you’d be surprised by just how many others have been through a similar ordeal and fallen prey to women like her. And trust me, we’re none of us fools.
Have you been duped in this way? Email your story to [email protected]