In the late 1990s, actress Kari Coleman played the part of a psychic for Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular variety show on cable TV’s FX channel. This account of her experiences is slightly modified from her report in Volume 2, No 3-4, 1998 issue of Swift, the newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation.
I’m sorry to say that my time of skepticism has come to an end, as—much to my surprise—I am a psychic. Yes, it is hard to believe, but you must let yourself go and be one with your psychic power, as I did. Well that, or get hired to play the part of a psychic and be horrified at how easy it is to make people believe.
I was taping a bit for Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular (the most skeptical show on TV) and I needed to be able to fool people with cards, palmistry and other “psychic” talents. Caesar’s Magical Empire, a major Las Vegas magic showcase, allowed me to work in character as a psychic Tarot card reader to get some practice. Oh, man.
I was dressed in their “Spurina” costume: a flowing purple gown with built-in breasts that created more cleavage than I have had the joy of knowing, this black kind of Las Vegas-conception-of-Cleopatra-looking wig and a lot of makeup. (I was to be the psychic advisor to Caesar, and judging from the costume, he enjoyed more than my “powers.”) I was set up to either walk around or use one of the tables in the “spirit bar.” I’d be working in the hub area with the pyrotechnic show: 30 foot flames, 3 adolescent close-up magicians in tights and me.
I was so nervous. I walked around for a while with my stupid Tarot cards in my hand going over my memorized lines and trying to remember the stuff I researched about the cards, in case I encountered a client who had read a Tarot book. For my preparation, Jamy Ian Swiss, the magic consultant for Penn & Teller’s Sin City, sent me a bunch of material on cold reading prior to my practice run. Psychologist and reformed palm-reader-turned-skeptic Ray Hyman gave me some great expert phone time, and I winced through a tape of James Van Praagh (direct link to heaven and one evil jerk) provided by Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer.
I had done lots of reading—not readings—to complete my research. The hardest part about this whole setup was going to the newage (“rhymes with sewage”) bookstore. I bought some Tarot cards, and then I went to the used-book section and picked up books on palmistry, Tarot, astrology and graphology so I could be versed in the lingo. The Bhodi Tree Bookstore makes me sad. A place filled with dazed-looking losers, and there I was buying crap just like the rest of them. It would be so nice if everyone there was doing research for a Penn & Teller bit, but I don’t think so. Ugh. I had to go home and shower.
The Cards Tell A Story
Now it was time to go to work in my makeup and padded bra at the Magical Empire. I sat down, fanned out my cards and tried to look all-knowing. One of the guides brought over my first “client.” My heart was ready to leap out of my chest, and I was sweating in my Spurina padding. The woman sat down, and I went into my spiel while I was looking her up and down. I said all the stuff that makes them want to help and gives me an out when I’m wrong, like, “The cards tell me a story. I receive pictures and images that will not mean anything to me, but perhaps are very significant to you. If you remain open, then we can explore together and find insight into your destiny.” Then I launched into the usual statements that appeal to everyone.
She was into it. I looked at her and for some reason she looked like a nurse to me. I had a zillion outs if I was wrong, so I took a chance and asked her if she was. I was correct, and she was amazed. Sometimes nurses look like nurses. Lucky guess=major hit. I was golden.
I was rolling the rest of the night. The standard stuff would hook them and then I would start making guesses based on my observations and their feedback. One person wrote up on a comment card that I was a terrific addition and amazing, and two people summoned the manager to tell him how I knew stuff I couldn’t possibly have known.
Jamy, who was lurking in the background, watched me read a man who was skeptical at first. I hit him hard. Why would a guy surrounded by his wife and another couple (all kidding him) sit down at my table? His question isn’t going to be any-thing sexual (his wife either already knows or he doesn’t want her to know-why push his luck?). Men, as a rule, don’t voluntarily sit down for a general reading, so I guessed something big was weighing on his mind. I gave him my opening, while looking for the card that was supposed to represent him. The next card I flipped over I put my hand on as if I was getting something from it. I looked him right in the eye and I said, “you have dreams and aspirations that seem unrealistic to you. You are taking steps to make them a reality and you are frightened.” Then the catchall, “Does this mean anything to you?”
Of course it did, he’s obviously either quitting his old job and starting his own company, getting a job doing something he’s always really wanted to do but was afraid, whatever … I pretty much knew it had to do with his occupation and a big move he was considering. It’s the only safe question he had in front of his friends. I gave him the “you’re frightened” because I knew it would make him uncomfortable and scare him into thinking I might say something personal in front of everyone. I had a hit (his wife was going crazy smacking his arm and giving me all the signals I needed), and I really had his attention. His face no longer masked anything from me and the rest of the reading was a cinch. Jamy followed him out (I’d become a fraud and turned my friend into a stalker) and listened to him telling his wife that usually these things are just generalities, but that this woman was different.
Now I was evil. All the acting training was paying off, and I was getting really good, really fast. I started out being “okay” and by the end of the night I had a woman cry on me. I gave her the standard “There are untapped resources you have yet to put to your advantage.” She said, “Like what?” I said, “Something you do alone, an endeavor of some sort,” to which she replied, “It’s not really an endeavor, it’s a search.” Well, who does a late thirtyish woman search for? Either a kid she gave up, or some sort of relative, right? Fifty-fifty, I turned over a card that was male, and said, It’s a boy,” thinking she gave up a child. She started to cry and nodded. Meanwhile, I turned over two knights and said, “Who are the two men?” figuring that everyone has two men in their lives, and she would define them for me. Sure enough, she cried and said, “My husband and the ha-f brother I’m looking for.” Well, at that point I knew that I was wrong, but to her I was right on the money. She will forever recall that I came up with the fact that she was looking for her half-brother.
So, now what could I do? She wanted to know if I could see him, and I told her that I couldn’t have any connection with him because she didn’t know him and that all my vision was through her. (I’d gone too far with her, and I couldn’t confess everything without causing a huge scene in a place where they were doing me a favor to let me practice.) Then I figured the only good I could do was give her some good advice, so I told her, “Your search is a noble cause, and you can continue it, but remember what is most important: that which you have control over and that is your children, your husband and your home.” I tried to give her some encouragement, but also let her know not to be obsessed with an exciting search for a missing person, a search that could destroy her own home life.
Make Your Own Magic
The whole night was like that. I really did try to end all the readings with stuff like, “You have good instincts. Trust yourself. You make your own magic.” These were words that at least alluded to self-responsibility. I just can’t believe how easy it was to make this happen. I did a week of research and then made people believe I could “see.” Man. It freaked me out. I had to keep taking breaks and sitting alone to get my head together.
People just want to hear positive things about themselves. That’s all it is. Tell them what they want to hear. Make some guesses and keep going when you miss. I made some big misses that were killing me. One time I turned over a card with a queen that has a cat seated at her feet, so I thought, what the heck: “Do you have a cat?” The woman replied, “no.” “Does a friend, or someone you know have a cat?” “No.” (What are the chances of that?) “Okay,” I said, “keep that,” and moved on. At the end of the reading I smugly stated, “In two weeks, when that cat shows up, you think of me, okay?”
I’m charging Penn & Teller more because I have real gifts.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Kari continues. . .
It is the end of the day. We finished the taping today and I’m kinda nuts right now, but I need to get this out. What I did today was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I’m hoping that what I did today was right, but I don’t know. I’m crying as I type this, so I don’t think I’m that good a judge right now. Today we set up the location with a phony book signing event with fake posters and cameras and a director and many production people around. I was presented as a psychic. The first “book” and the first sign had my name on them and said that I was a Tarot card reader. I was dressed a little goofy, but nothing even close to my night at Caesar’s. I was a real person. It was my name up on the board. One by one, I read people’s cards and palms, or held an object and “talked to the dead.” I made a few “hits,” worked in the standard paragraph that we’d prepared, and then asked them on camera how I did. I asked how suited to them the reading was, or how much it applied only to them. They all responded favorably, and I called for the cameras to shut down.
“I Am Not Psychic”
At that point, in each case, I took hold of their hand and explained exactly what had just happened. I looked them right in the eye and told them everything. I said, ”What you have experienced is called a cold reading. I am not in any way psychic. The techniques I used on you are techniques that all psychics use. It’s a psychological profile that all of us respond to. You are not alone. I’ve said the exact same thing to all these other people and they responded favorably as well.” In some cases, the crew had fed me information, and I confessed to that.
What you cannot know until you’ve done it is that when you are reading someone, they trust you. They open themselves up to you, and you tell them nice things about themselves. Sometimes they off er up very personal hopes and dreams. This happened several times today. I then had to face them and tell them I’d lied. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I was successful in doing Van Praagh. I convinced a man that I was in contact with his dead mother who he had helped care for. The first lady I did cried, and we can’t use that in the TV program—real tears aren’t appropriate in a comedy-variety bit. The second man I was able to keep positive and it all worked out. In the two cases where this kind of reading was attempted, I then took a walk with the person and really talked with them for a long time. Speaking with both of them, I cried. I said, “I’m going to tell you something that you will find hard to hear, and I am finding very difficult to tell you. What has just happened is not anything supernatural. I am not psychic and we did not contact your dead relative. What I did was a cold reading. Everything I said to you is information that we all have after we lose someone. I lost my Granny last year. After watching people take advantage of the grieving, I decided to fight back. This is my way of doing that.”
I’m Getting An M
I said to the man who lost his Mom, “To me, it is an insult to your memories to have someone tell you that you need them to talk to your Mom. I always thought if there were an “other side,” then my Granny would do anything possible to contact me and talk to me. She would not need to go through some idiot who can’t come up with any substantial communication and only says, ‘I’m getting an M.’ You keep your Mom with you in pictures and memories that are so special. I’m telling you that because you seem like a great man. You’re fun-loving and good-spirited, and I know this just from our talks before and during the reading. That’s what your Mom left behind for everyone to see and enjoy. You are part of her, and your relationship is a wonderful legacy. I don’t have to be psychic to know all that stuff. I’m just a human being who is being honest with you about what I see.” We said more, but basically that covers what I talked about. We cried some and hugged. I thanked him for being a part of this and for helping me in my fight.
Now here’s the amazing part. All of my “talks” were difficult. Some not so much, but others were like the ones above. I didn’t know, when I started today, how people were going to react. The man from the conversation above told me this was the best thing that happened to him all day. He hugged me and told me what a special person I was to tell the truth. He introduced his lover to me and walked away telling everybody what a great lady I was, and how happy I’d made him. A grandmother brought her family over to meet me, and laughed when I explained how I’d guessed her husband’s name. Almost everyone was incredibly happy and the rest were just fine and a bit bemused.
Taking Away The Voodoo
I think I have finally found my answer to people who tell me that skepticism takes the joy out of life, that you need God to experience morality, and that without him it’s just a heartless existence. People were happy to talk. They really just wanted someone to listen to their problems, or share their hopes and dreams. They wanted to go over funny stories about a loved one they’d lost or just sit and remember them out loud with someone. When I took away the voodoo, the fact that we had “shared” didn’t go away. There is all the joy you need in human interaction. I really made sure that after we were done I gave each person, for lack of a better way of saying this, a part of me. I felt I had taken away something fake and I needed to replace it with something real. Human contact, human caring, human interaction.
I think it worked. Like I said before, I don’t know. I’m not thinking correctly right now. Maybe someone went home and felt cheated and used, but maybe not. I don’t know if I changed what people believe, but I think that I made them stop for at least a moment and open their eyes. Hopefully, if I only succeeded in getting them to like me, then they will remember that they liked me and that I felt it was important enough to spread the word about what is real. Maybe that will make them think, and then they will change their minds or just be more skeptical the next time. Who knows?