The special events hall at the Jacob Javits Convention
Center in Manhattan 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.
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
"I'm just here to tell the truth," Browne told Newsday later. "That is my
Not everybody, though, was a believer that night. One woman rolled her eyes
when asked if 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 seems 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.
Plenty of believers
"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 such as Brewer who are
fueling the psychics-mediums phenomenon.
Next Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., cable's CourtTV plans to launch "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
for 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
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 bestsellers, said Reid Tracy, the president and chief
executive of Hay House of Carlsbad, Calif. 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 a
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
Despite her disability, Occhino, 53, of Mastic, 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.
Helping people connect
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 bestselling 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 been buried on her birthday
and had died on Memorial Day.
"There was no way that she could have known that," said Sirianni.
Other noted psychics-mediums include Bard, author of the memoir "One More
Question: Answers and Insights from a Psychic Medium" (G.P. Putnam's Sons,
2006); Robert Hansen, a Wantagh-based martial arts studio owner who is in talks
with a major publisher to write his memoir; and Gary E. Schwartz, a
Harvard-trained psychologist and author of "The Truth About Medium," (Hampton
Roads Publishing Co., 2005), which details his scientific tests on well-known
psychics-mediums Dubois, Edward, Occhino and others.
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. In the late 1990s, Browne, Edward, Van Praagh and a Long
Island psychic-medium, George Anderson, saw their books leap onto the New York
Times bestseller list and stay on. But now sales seem to be cooling off,
particularly for the newer psychics-mediums, said Denise Silvestro, an editor
at Berkley Books in Manhattan who has edited many books on the paranormal. "It
seems that people are used to them now," she said.
Sales of Occhino's books have reached only 3,000 copies, according to
Nielsen Bookscan, a research company that covers the book industry. Bard's book
sales so far have reached only 1,000.
Another problem is the growing number of celebrity skeptics who are
constantly taking aim at psychics-mediums. They include Penn & Teller, who helm
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.
"We live in uncertain times and we're eager for someone who can help us
sort out the murkiness in our lives and tell us that we're going to all live
happily ever after," said trends expert Rachel Weingarten, who is president of
GTK Marketing Group in Brooklyn. "And until things calm down, which I don't see
soon, people will continue to see psychics-mediums whether they are real or
Going by the books
U.S. retail sales of books by psychics and mediums:
"If You Could See What I See: The Tenets of Novus Spiritus" (Hardcover,
January 2006) Sales: 95,000
"Phenomenon: Everything You Need to Know About the Paranormal" (Hardcover,
September 2005) Sales: 86,000
"Light a Candle" (Hardcover, February 2006) Sales: 15,000
"Animals on the Other Side" (Hardcover, February 2005) Sales: 32,000
"Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You" (Hardcover, July 2004; paperback,
July 2005) Sales: 164,000
"Secrets & Mysteries of the World" (Hardcover, January 2005; paperback, May
2006)) Sales: 153,000
"Sylvia Browne's Book of Angels" (Hardcover, March 2003; paperback, April
2004) Sales: 149,000
"Sylvia Browne's Lessons for Life" (Hardcover, October 2004) Sales: 121,000
*"Life on the Other Side: A Psychic's Tour of the Afterlife" (Hardcover,
July 2000; paperback, July 2001) Sales: 269,000
(Hardcover, August 2001; paperback, September 2002) Sales: 548,000
"After Life: Answers From the Other Side" (Hardcover. September 2003)
"One Last Time: A Psychic Medium Speaks to Those We Have Loved and Lost"
(Hardcover, December 1998; paperback, October 1999) Sales: 480,000
"We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us" (Hardcover, May 2006)
"Never Kiss Them Goodbye" (Hardcover, March 2005; Paperback, November 2005)
"Just One More Question: Answers and Insights from a Psychic Medium"
(Hardcover, March 2006) Sales: 1,000
MARY ROSE OCCHINO
"Signs of the Dove" (Hardcover, January 2006) Sales: 3,000
"Beyond These Four Walls: Diary of a Psychic Medium" (Hardcover, February
2004; paperback, February 2005) Sales: 4,000
* Book sales published before 2001 are truncated.
Source: Nielsen BookScan