Thursday, September 27, 2007

X-teacher, Prince Naz

Prince Naseem Hamed, the former world champion boxer, was famed for his flamboyant ringside entrances, and I was secretly hoping that when he visited my home this week he'd arrive on the back of a gold-plated elephant, draped in a cloak of peacock feathers. For Naz, even that might have been low-key — he once had an elevator built at the Manchester Arena, to convey him to the ring, and for the demolition of another opponent he strutted up a catwalk runway.

His smile was so broad, as he stepped from their car with his family on our driveway, I couldn't be disappointed. Naz is such an infectiously charismatic character, with a charming wife and three delightful children, that he doesn't need the razzle-dazzle — it's all in his personality.

We first met more than a decade ago, at a TV studio, and I was so impressed by his star quality that I picked our photo together to be the icon for my website's gallery of celebrity photographs. Throughout my career, I've always kept a camera close at hand, and it could have been a rock star, from Elton John to Alice Cooper, or a movie hero, a political leader or even a great artist such as Dali who symbolised the cavalcade of famous names.

I chose Prince Naseem, I think, because his pose radiated confidence and positive energy. One flash of that thousand-watt smile was like being hit by a bolt of inspiration. He wasn't simply the world champ — he believed he was the very best that ever had been or could be.

His left-hand punch was so powerful, it frequently knocked out opponents with a single blow. But that was only half the story — he was credited with the fastest reflexes that had ever been seen in the ring. Naz dodged punches the way Superman dodged bullets.

I told him of my training sessions with Muhammad Ali in the late Seventies, when we worked on visualisation techniques which the three-times world heavyweight champion had evolved instinctively. "Ali saw punches coming in slow motion," I told Naz, "because he believed he could literally slow down time. It was the power of his mind, not his fists, which defeated opponents."

"That's exactly what I do," Naz replied, his brilliant smile giving way to a moment's seriousness. "That's why I'm the Greatest too."

I'd love to take the confidence that bubbles out of Naseem Hamed and bottle it. We'd be trillionaires, because he'll never run dry. At its source is an unshakeable faith that he can be the very best at whatever he devotes his life to being, whether it's a boxer or a father — he's a dedicated family man.

It can't be bottled, of course, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to go without. Every human being is born with a well of self-confidence. Believe in yourself, and it starts to flow. The more it flows, the more you believe, until you're standing in a deluge, a cloud-burst of super-confidence. To start it gushing, all you have to do is create that first drop, with the magic words: "I believe in myself!"


My former teacher Joy Philippou, who taught at my school in Cyprus back in the Fifties, celebrated her 80th birthday with a party at Los Toreros, a fabulous Spanish restaurant in London. She had a great deal to celebrate, because as well as clocking up eight decades (she makes me feel so young!) Joy was also basking in the afterglow of a brush with fame... on the X Factor.

Dr Philippou, to give Joy her proper title, is a multi-talented woman: president of the Body, Mind and Soul International society which promotes holistic health, and the author of more than a dozen books. But as she demonstrated to the TV judges, she can also play the violin, the mandolin and the Hawaiian guitar — without instruments. Joy is a musical mimic, and like the best ventriloquists she doesn't even move her lips: the sounds come through her nose.

She was one of a record 150,000 applicants to try out for the show, and she made it through the first rounds to the X-Factor 'Boot Camp', at Haythrop Park Hotel, Enstone in Oxfordshire. That wasn't a happy experience, though — the organisers admit this part of the show is "an endurance test," and Joy felt that she and other older contestants should have been warned how tough the conditions would be.

With 200 other hopefuls, she spent four hours waiting in line on a Sunday night, and three-and-a-half hours more under a hot sun the next day, without so much as a toilet break. "There was no talking allowed," Joy said — "it really was scary."

I know from my experience presenting Successor in Israel, and from my intense discussions with the producers of the forthcoming US version, Phenomenon, that it's essential to generate levels of tension and rivalry between performers on talent quests. That's what helps to make them such compelling viewing. But I believe it's going way too far when elderly ladies are subjected to hours of physical discomfort.

Luckily, Joy is well able to stick up for herself. She concluded her performance by asking the judges if they thought they were running a concentration camp, and then told reporters that Simon Cowell was a "sadistic psychopath".

Good for you, Joy! Any teacher who could keep me in line during my teens has got nothing to fear from television tyrants.

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