Psychic Styles: Fashions in Metaphysical Media

Although traditional church attendance has been waning for a long time, interest in the spirit world remains consistently strong. A 2005 Gallup poll found that, while roughly three in four Americans profess a belief the paranormal, only one in four regularly attends church. Such statistics suggest our fascination with the Other Side remains steady, though the appeal of particular clairvoyants, like that of all public figures, is subject to the unpredictable ebb and flow of fashion.

Miss Cleo

Here in the U.S., we have ridden out the powerful but short-lived wave of West Indian psychics, which reached its height in 2001, when pay-per-call clairvoyants—most of them charging 99c a minute—were shilling themselves everywhere you looked. Particularly memorable was Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network, well known for both its omnipresent infomercials and its well-publicized bankruptcy case. Equally notorious was the exotic Miss Cleo, who succeeded Dionne Warwick as queen of the late-night soothsayers (“Cleo can see Into your Heart and Into your Life”). Miss Cleo’s fall was equally swift, and resulted from legal pressure exerted on her employers, the Psychic Readers Network, by State attorneys-general and the Federal Trade Commission. The charge was fraudulent advertising: turns out a lot of those calls cost a lot more than 99c a minute. Particularly dismaying was the news, leaked out during the investigation, that the sultry Miss Cleo—née Youree Dell Harris—was in fact born in Los Angeles to American parents, and was not Jamaican, as both she and her accent had led us to believe.

While lesser mystics might regard this as something of a setback, it was not enough to dissuade the indefatigable Miss Cleo, who now describes herself as a “proud voodoo woman”. Although she no longer advertises her services on television, Miss Cleo continues to offer private consultations from her home in Lake Worth, Florida and—at least until recently—hosted her own podcast, V Radio (V for voodoo). Her longevity puts Miss Cleo among the older rank of U.S. media clairvoyants, beside such well-known figures as spirit communicator James Van Praagh, and Shanti Ananda, the Puerto Rican psychic formerly known as Walter Mercato. Although most of these senior seers are still with us—the unctuous Sylvia Browne was making occasional appearances on Montel Williams and Larry King Live until very recently—they have largely been usurped by a wave of younger, more telegenic and web-savvy sages, most of whom have their cable shows, websites, and blogs.

Until just a few years ago, the king of the new clairvoyants was the charismatic John Edward, whose show Crossing Over—a major success on the Sci Fi (now Syfy) Channel—was rapidly snapped up for syndication. Yet despite his blue eyes, casual demeanor and gym-rat physique, Edward, once described by The New York Times as “the Oprah of the Other Side,” seems, at the tender age of 41, to have passed his psychic sell-by date. His new show, John Edward Cross Country (“world-famous psychic John Edward travels cross-country helping families reconnect with their departed loved ones”) has, for the past three years, aired on WE TV—a channel whose programming is largely aimed at women—but has been on hiatus since 2009, and has shown no signs of returning from the dead.

Since 2005, fans of psychic phenomenon have been drawn to the television series Medium (“She Sees What Others Can’t”), starring Patricia Arquette as clairvoyant Allison Dubois. Although the show is fictional, its plotlines are apparently based closely on the work of the real Allison Dubois, a 38-year old shaman whose psychic abilities are allegedly put to work by law enforcement agencies all across the United States. Cancelled by NBC after five seasons, the show was then picked up by CBS in Fall 2009; its ratings at CBS, however, were consistently low, and it was announced in November that the show would be cancelled after the end of the seventh season.

Those seeking spiritual guidance through the airwaves have always been spoiled for choice. Currently, subscribers to the Sirius network can listen to “Angels on Call” with Mary O—full name, MaryRose Occino—star of the SyFy Channel reality show, “Mary Knows Best” and proprietor of the Celestial Whispers gift shop on Long Island. Sirius also plays host to “Animal Intuition” with Sonya Fitzpatrick, an elegant, genteel English lady who is not only able to communicate with still-living animals, but who also possesses the ability to contact pets that have passed on. On her now-defunct show The Pet Psychic, which once aired twice weekly on the cable channel Animal Planet, Mrs. Fitzpatrick studied worn photographs of deceased cats, dogs, and guinea pigs in order to let their owners know what their ex-pets have been up to on the Other Side. And for listeners on the West coast, a part-Cherokee actress and singer named Danielle Egnew channels angelic entities on her LA Talk Radio show, Haunted Playground.

Multi-talented though these mystics may be, none of them can hold a candle to the current Queen of all Mediums, 37-year-old Lisa Williams. In contrast to frumpy, fashion-challenged spiritualists like Sylvia Browne and Doris Stokes, Williams, a stylish young British woman, presents herself as fun, flirty and informal. Her spiky hair is teased into colored streaks, and her blog shows her sitting in her pajamas with a laptop on her knee. In her show Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead, which ran from 2006 to 2007 on The Lifetime Channel, the cameras followed Lisa on a “typical day” as she communicated with the deceased, investigated haunted houses, and conducted other spirit-seeking activities. Her most recent show, Lisa Williams: Voices From the Other Side ran for five consecutive nights in October 2008, also on the Lifetime Channel. She has also appeared on Oprah! and claims to have been visited by a number of dead celebrities, including Bob Hope, Princess Diana, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe and Ray Charles.

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