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Psst… Wanna buy a knighthood?

Corinne Purtill

LONDON, UK — In a society that loves its class distinctions, they're a rare and special breed — the knights, dames, officers and others called to join the monarch in the grandly named Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Founded in 1917 by King George V, the chivalric order honors service to Britain of all sorts. Those tapped in the last year include the singer Adele, an internationally renowned expert on octopus brains, the justice-seeking parents of a murdered child, a former cricket champion and David Cameron's hairdresser.

Honorees are nominated by the government or a member of the public and selected by the Cabinet Office in a process shrouded in secrecy.

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Being seen to promote oneself or grasp at titles is about the most un-British thing one can do. But for those who like the sound of their name with a few extra letters after it, a London-based consulting firm claims it can quietly guide a nomination from daydream to reality.

"A lot of people think you just have to wait for the phone to ring and someone at Buckingham Palace will be on the other end saying, 'Congratulations, the queen's going to give you an OBE,'" says Mark Llewellyn-Slade, founder of Awards Intelligence.

But getting the kind of help his agency offers comes at a price. The company's packages start at around $10,000 and go to $16,700 for an 8,000-word nomination letter and up to 15 drafted recommendation letters.

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Awards Intelligence puts forward about 100 successful nominations a year, a roughly 50 percent success rate, Llewellyn-Slade says.

But he's mum on which knights, dames and other notables have used his company's services.

"Our belief is that if you receive a queen's honor, you should take all the glory for that and we wouldn't want people saying, 'Oh, that person only got a queen's honor because they used an expert service,'" he says.

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Discretion isn't the only factor in the company's success. More people are becoming aware of the importance of "personal reputation management," Llewellyn-Slade says. "Getting the honor is fantastic publicity."

Awards Intelligence recently launched a new line of business: helping people get into the House of Lords, the government's uppermost lawmaking body.

"You can go on to the House of Lords website, download the application and complete it as if you were applying for a job at Google," he says.

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He's right.

The Lords appoint two to three new members each year. Llewellyn-Slade declined to say whether any Awards Intelligence clients are now making laws for Britain.

Not everyone is pleased. The company's rise has brought complaints from some quarters that its services violate the honors' spirit if not the letter of the law.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office responded to questions from GlobalPost by pointing to language on the nomination form that asks nominees to disclose wherther they've paid for help with the application.

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"Honours cannot be bought: they are available to all," the application states. "The Cabinet Office does not endorse the use of fee-charging drafting services when completing this form."

About 2,500 new honors are given annually at New Year's and the queen's official birthday, which will be celebrated on Saturday.

Honorees get to tag themselves with the letters MBE, OBE or CBE — member, officer or commander of the British Empire, in ascending importance.

Those at the very tip-top get to kneel before the queen and rise as a knight or dame.

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"A queen's honor will help to raise the profile of that individual significantly," Llewellyn-Slade says. "It will enhance their reputation. It will open doors for them. And it will instill that vital ingredient for success, which is trust. People will trust someone with a queen's honor and want to invite them to their dinners, and that kind of thing."

The process has been tainted by corruption in the past. There was a robust trade in knighthoods and other noble titles under King James I in the 1600s.

In the 1920s, a British theater producer raised millions swapping peerage titles for political donations, leading to a law banning the sale of honors.

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Nevertheless, in 2006 and 2007, the Crown Prosecution Service investigated a group of Labour Party donors who made large secret loans to the party just before the 2005 general election and were later nominated for peerages.

Virtually every round of honors brings grumbling in the press about the smack of cronyism, particularly when political party donors and close friends of government leaders end up on the list.

Some people have proved to be less than good and great after their investiture. Around three dozen people have been stripped of honors, mostly due to criminal convictions.

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Former Royal Bank of Scotland chair Fred Goodwin had his knighthood cancelled in 2012 after the bank endured the largest annual loss in British history.

Robert Mugabe was booted out of the Honorary Knights Grand Cross Order of the Bath, a civil and military chivalry order headed by the queen, for, well, being Robert Mugabe.

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Non-Brits can be honorary knights and dames if they've made a significant contribution to British life. Awards Intelligence recently started advertising in the US and the Middle East.

American knights don't get to call themselves "Sir" but can use their award's post-nominal letters, KBE. They include Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Alan Greenspan and Rudy Giuliani — the makings of an interesting roundtable, to say the least.

—By Corinne Purtill, Global Post