I make it a rule to ignore goofy self-help gurus proffering their brand of cheese or fish or whatever. But how could I possibly shun L. Vaughan Spencer, a goatee-and-ponytail-sporting "gangsta motivator," the self-dubbed "Tom Peters of the Britney Spears generation"? I had to reach L-Vo, as he is known, and see what he was all about.
Turns out, there is no L-Vo — only a bloke named Neil Mullarkey, a British comedian who masquerades as a shady motivational speaker. Think Ali G meets Tony Robbins. (You might not know his name, but you may remember Mullarkey as the quartermaster clerk in Austin Powers who returns a certain Swedish pump to the spy.)
L-Vo began innocently enough. Through an improv comedy troupe Mullarkey founded with comedian Mike Myers in 1985, he created a workshop designed to draw out executives' creative side. That landed clients including Procter & Gamble, Publicis, and the Body Shop. "As I was dipping my toe into this, I discovered how much guruness and charlatanism there is," he tells me over the phone from his London flat.
Deciding to parody these self-help speakers, Mullarkey created L. Vaughan Spencer, a guru who preaches such techniques as letterology (it's like numerology, but with letters) and Tong Shui, described as the "art of being at one with your hair." Among other things, Mullarkey says, L-Vo believes strongly in the metrosexual approach to business success: "If you have the right moisturizer, then you're guaranteed success."
Following positive reviews of his act at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, Mullarkey set up a Web site for L. Vaughan (www.thesucceeder.com) complete with his list of 25 "books" (among them The Tao of Shaving and Irrational Intelligence). Soon he began receiving calls not just from nightclubs but from companies seeking L. Vaughan's unique motivational style. Employees expecting an actual guru "are so relieved that it isn't some guy lambasting them" for real, says Mullarkey.
By battering his audience with insults, Mullarkey explains, L. Vaughan reveals himself to be the loser, the one who takes others down to feel better about himself. "There's a message underneath this," he says. "Don't trust these people. Trust in yourself."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.