(06-18) 04:00 PDT New York — The special events hall at the Jacob Javits Convention Center is not an easy space to fill.
But on a balmy spring night, Sylvia Browne packed the 30,000-square-foot space as easily as a global trade show or a jobs and careers fair.
And her product? Immensely more entertaining.
Browne is a psychic-medium, meaning she — at least according to her — receives information beyond her five senses and hears the musings of the dead.
Her greatest gift, some would argue, is her exceptional showmanship, or ability to present psychic-mediumship, spiritual ponderings and personal memoir with theatrical flair.
For the 3,000 people — some who had paid as much as $75 a ticket to see her — she did not disappoint.
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Seated on stage with a flowing print blouse and dark slacks, Browne, 69, a brassy blonde with fire-engine red nails and a searing wit to match, answered questions from audience members about loved ones who have passed, love lives that have gone off-kilter and health concerns that baffle doctors.
Some audience members looked relieved at her answers; others, downright puzzled; and still others, doubtful. Nevertheless, at the end of the event, lines to get her books, audiotapes, CDs and autographs ran the length of the walls.
“I’m just here to tell the truth,” Browne told Newsday later. “That is my purpose.”
Not everybody, though, was a believer that night. One woman rolled her eyes when asked whether she thought Browne was authentic. Another was much more direct: “She’s full of crap.”
Is Browne authentic? Should any psychic-medium be considered so? The debate is an old and disputatious one. And the answers always seem to come back with the sing-songiness of a nursery rhyme. Yes. No. Maybe so. What is certain is that purveyors of the paranormal are no longer dismissed as sideshow or carnival attractions. Instead, they have moved into the mainstream, maneuvering their way into areas once handled solely by therapists, religious counselors and life coaches, some sociologists say. And in the process they are creating a booming cottage industry.
“There is no question that psychics-mediums have become much more respected,” said Patricia Baker, a sociologist and psychotherapist in Boston who is working on a book about people’s changing attitudes toward authority. “And it definitely seems that people are turning to them more for their problems, particularly when terrorism, war and scandals have caused people to question our political and religious leaders.”
Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, which includes extrasensory perception (ESP), communication with the dead and channeling spiritual entities, according to a poll last year conducted by the Gallup Organization. That’s up from the half or more Americans who said they believed in the paranormal, according to a similar Gallup Poll done in 1990.
Margaret Brewer, a 57-year-old former schoolteacher from Manhattan, has always been open-minded, so much so that when a forensic accountant suggested that she see a psychic-medium, she didn’t hesitate to make an appointment. At the time, Brewer was embroiled in an acrimonious divorce, which was eroding her finances and peace of mind. The accountant suggested Yolana Bard, a tough-talking, flame-haired psychic-medium from Manhattan who was known for helping police solve criminal cases.
Bard told Brewer that she would find help in a box in her basement. Brewer was doubtful but tore through her cluttered basement anyway. And there she uncovered a box filled with stocks, which she said helped ease her financial hardship and sealed her belief in the paranormal. Since that initial session, she has gone to Bard regularly for about 10 years.
“Yolana is very spiritual,” said Brewer. “And I have gone to her with many problems. She’s like a spiritual adviser, life coach and therapist all wrapped up into one.”
TV and cable stations have been banking on believers who are fueling the psychics-mediums phenomenon.
On Wednesday, cable’s CourtTV is launching “Haunted Evidence,” a show about a psychic, a paranormal investigator and a medium who team up to help solve cold police cases.
It’s no surprise that producers are scrambling to put more paranormal fare on the air.
James Van Praagh, psychic and co-producer of the top-rated drama “Ghost Whisperer” on CBS, and Allison Dubois, the psychic-medium who is the inspiration for the widely viewed “Medium” on NBC, boast viewers in the millions and have both written books that have scaled the New York Times best-seller list.
That’s also the case with John Edward, a Long Island psychic-medium who shot to fame in 2000 with his Sci Fi Channel show, “Crossing Over,” on which he contacted the spirits of audience members’ departed loved ones.
Now he has a new show on the WE cable channel called “Cross Country,” on which he takes his medium practice on the road.
Publishers of Browne say she is a powerhouse when it comes to selling her brand of psychic-mediumship. Since 1998, Browne has published 13 books, 11 of which have become best-sellers, said Reid Tracy, the president and chief executive of Hay House of Carlsbad (San Diego County). On average, she moves 200,000 to 300,000 books annually and does 27 lectures a year, earning about $2.5 million in ticket sales, he said. Her in-person readings net $750 for 20 minutes to half an hour.
More celebrity psychics-mediums are on the way. Mary Rose Occhino, a rising star from Long Island, has already written two books: “Beyond These Four Walls” (Berkley Books, 2004) and “Signs of the Dove” (Berkley Books, January), which chronicle her life as a psychic-medium and her battle with multiple sclerosis.
Despite her disability, Occhino, 53, works long days, which include doing quick readings on her two-hour Sirius satellite radio show called “Intuitive Intervention” and overseeing her Web site, celestialwhispers.com.
Occhino, who charges $300 an hour for an in-house reading, operates out of her Long Island home and a sunny chic Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side and counsels well-known politicians, TV anchors and best-selling authors whose names she did not reveal.
“Psychics-mediums help people connect with their loved ones,” Occhino said. “They are grief counselors and help people reach some kind of closure where there previously was none.”
Frances Sirianni, a Wall Street brokerage consultant, agreed. Sirianni was somewhat skeptical about psychics-mediums before she met Occhino three years ago. During their first session, Occhino told Sirianni that she was picking up a “father figure” who had suffered great pain in his head, and then for some odd reason was singing “Happy Birthday.” Occhino also said the person died on a holiday. Sirianni blanched. Then tears began to roll slowly down her face, she said. Her father had died of a brain tumor, had died on Memorial Day and been buried on her birthday.
“There was no way that she could have known that,” said Sirianni.
Still, not everything is completely rosy for the industry. Some publishers believe that the psychics-mediums phenomenon has hit a plateau, particularly in book publishing.
Another problem is the growing number of celebrity skeptics who are constantly taking aim at psychics-mediums. They include Penn & Teller, in a popular show on cable’s Showtime network; James Randi, a widely respected investigator of the paranormal; and Joe Nickell, senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, who writes a column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and has written 20 books attacking the paranormal.
“We have no evidence under controlled scientific conditions that psychic or any paranormal activity exists,” said Nickell, of Amherst, Mass. “People want to believe in it because it promises wonderful things, where science may not.”
Psychics-mediums are not worried about the skeptics. “Everybody has a critic,” said Bard.