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The mediums are getting the message

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

walls.

"I'm just here to tell the truth," Browne told Newsday later. "That is my

purpose."

Skeptics abound

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

bestseller 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 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

sclerosis.

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

not."

Going by the books

U.S. retail sales of books by psychics and mediums:

SYLVIA BROWNE

"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

JOHN EDWARD

"Crossing Over"

(Hardcover, August 2001; paperback, September 2002) Sales: 548,000

"After Life: Answers From the Other Side" (Hardcover. September 2003)

Sales: 129,000

"One Last Time: A Psychic Medium Speaks to Those We Have Loved and Lost"

(Hardcover, December 1998; paperback, October 1999) Sales: 480,000

ALLISON DUBOIS

"We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us" (Hardcover, May 2006)

Sales: 8,000

"Never Kiss Them Goodbye" (Hardcover, March 2005; Paperback, November 2005)

Sales: 90,000

YOLANA BARD

"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

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