Psychic for a Day
By Karli Coleman
This article originally appeared as "My Psychic Adventure" in the JREF newsletter Swift 2(3&4), 1 & 6-9, 1998. Karli Coleman is an actress and skeptic living in LA. This is her firsthand account of pretending to be a psychic for Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular variety show on cable TV. The first half tells how she practised for a day at a fairground. The second half tells how it went for the variety show.
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 last night. 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 am 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 a flowing purple gown with built-in breasts that created more cleavage than I have had the joy of knowing, a black Las-Vegas-conception-of-Cleopatra 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 (who claims a direct link to heaven and is one evil jerk) provided by Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer.
The cards tell a story
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 a nurse. 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 terrific 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 anything 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 and put my hand on it, as if I was getting something. I looked him right in the eye and 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 and listened to him telling his wife that usually these things are just generalities, but that this woman was different.
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, namely 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
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, 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.
The Penn & Teller taping
Today we set up the location with a phoney 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 tell them I am not psychic
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 offer 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
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 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?
So that is that. I'm going to go downstairs now, watch a movie with my good friends, and hug my guy. You gotta love living, baby.