Late in 1995 I interviewed Uri Geller for the Reading University student newspaper, Spark. The interview was published in February 1996.
For most of the interview, Mr Geller was charming and polite. However, towards the end of the interview, he became unhappy by my questions about his record of litigation. This culminated in the two of us wrestling to take control of my dictaphone. The tape narrowly escaped being wiped in the process.
This article won the ‘Impact Award’ at the Guardian/NUS Student Media Awards on 26th October 1996. The Guardian published an extract of the article on 29th October 1996, along with a review by Peter Preston.
“Hi Simon! You wrote to me asking for an interview.”
I am talking on the phone to internationally renowned Israeli ‘psychic’ and spoon-bender extraordinaire, Uri Geller. Just one day has passed since I wrote to him, and by the end of the week I am interviewing him in the sun lounge of his large house in Sonning-on- Thames. The irrepressible Mr. Geller is riding his exercise bike opposite me (he claims to ride 80 miles a day, although his press release says 50). He has been a strict vegan for 17 years, and he looks remarkably young considering he is now aged 49. Geller’s wiry frame belies his strength, and his long bony hands gave me a crushing handshake as I introduced myself.
So what does Geller do with his time, now that the public awe seems to have faded somewhat?
“I did a big TV show with Sir David Frost called Beyond Belief, seen by 13 million people. What amazed us there was that 2.6 million people called up the station describing their experiences [when] I did a telepathy test. I’m writing books, I’m doing TV shows worldwide and I’m doing many strange things – almost bizarre.”
“It’s all very secret. I’ve created a telephone… actually, a telephone company has created a very strange telephone for me.” Geller points to a rather ordinary phone on the table behind me. “This is a prototype, it’s not really there for you to see. It will do very unusual things – keep it a secret.”
Whoops, now I’ve gone and spoiled the surprise.
“I’m going to do a line of clothing with positive messages on. My biggest thing, excluding the movie [Mindbender, directed by Ken Russell], is to take my car and drive it around the Middle East, to those countries which still don’t have peace treaties with Israel. So, I think I’ll be busy.”
Geller’s range of leisureware is something of a mystery in itself. It is one of a number of ventures that he claims has already made him a wealthy man. Surely a genuine psychic could make millions on gambling – does he play the National Lottery for instance?
“I personally don’t, but my children do. I keep away from that. It’s tempting to see whether my psychic powers can guess the numbers. I don’t think I can. I am not a gambler.”
This is all very odd. Uri Geller has claimed that he was paid by mining companies to psychically search for minerals, and yet he balks at winning the lottery! Stranger still, he has also refused to take up any of the lucrative challenges to reproduce his ‘powers’ under conditions that would exclude fraud. In 1988 British businessman Gerald Fleming offered to give £250,000 to charity if Geller could perform a spoon-bend under such conditions. Why hasn’t he responded?
“Never heard of him, and I’m not interested in him either,” he responds rather tersely. I persist – the money does go to charity, after all. Geller pretends he hasn’t heard properly:
“Tell him that he can offer a billion dollars – I’m not interested. Tell him to find other psychics who might. There are many other psychics who are poor, who don’t have money.”
But it’s for C-H-A-R-I-T-Y, Uri!
“Still, I’m not interested in challenges. All my life I’ve kept away from challenges – do you understand?”
No, I’m afraid I don’t. Uri Geller has always responded to challenges when the conditions are ‘right’. Wasn’t his participation in the 1972 tests at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) a challenge? The results of those tests, published in 1974 by physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff in the science journal Nature, rejected the metal-bending results. Geller, of course, has an excuse for this:
“Well, in my opinion… there were some bendings and some film. Except that it wasn’t good enough for them. Scientists want full proof under laboratory conditions. And the answer is very simple: when I’m put under pressure, I can’t perform. Even the phenomenon I’m most known for. When I’m on stage, I’m not under pressure and it happens. In other important places, it happens. But in a laboratory where I really want it to happen, it’s very hard for me.”
Geller seems to be less keen to perform metal bending these days, and this may be due to several disastrous incidents where observers claimed to have seen him physically bend objects with his hands. Geller’s 90-minute performance at Reading’s Hexagon in 1987 was reviewed by the Reading Evening Post under the headline “Uri Branded Fake At Show”. A sceptic, Mike Hutchinson, had briefed the Post journalist on the techniques that Geller is alleged to use. Geller now puts more emphasis on his other psychic claims.
“I think that the label of spoonbender stuck to me, and I just somehow wanted to get away from it. Maybe that’s the reason, that I was sick and tired of trying to prove myself all the time to people, especially with the metal bending. Maybe because it looks trivial and not important – although many scientists think that it’s very important, and can’t explain it. Sure, there are magicians who can duplicate it through trickery. But the real ones… there’s no explanation for it.”
Many of Uri Geller’s claims are outrageous. For example, take his assertion that he has transmuted a base metal into gold. “I have said that, it is true. First of all, I worked on it for five hours, but I still don’t have proof that it was gold. But something did turn yellow, and I totally believe that it was gold. After that I went and bought lead bars, and I sat for hours… I realised what a stupid and ridiculous thing I was trying to do.”
Ridiculous indeed. As are his ostentatious attempts to claim the credit for all manner of newsworthy events. One example was his assertion that Reading Football Club was helped to a Premiership playoff by his psychic intervention.
“I believe so, because [of] the synchronicity that, after 124 years, to almost get to the Premiership… I really started that year helping John Madejski [Chairman of Reading Football Club]. What I do is just sit there and concentrate. So I believe, yes, that I contribute some kind of enthusiasm into the crowds.”
They didn’t quite make it, though, did they?
“Well, that’s life. If you look at the numerology, maybe this year they will, because 125 years is a special number. But nevertheless they did come to the top, and I’m trying my best now to get them somewhere, because I go to every game at home.”
Uri Geller’s egotism doesn’t stop there, either. He has suggested that if he were allowed to address the worldwide audience for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, he could psychically initiate world peace.
“I’m doing my best. It doesn’t have to be me, it could be anyone. As long as the message is created there. Nowadays even presidents, vice-presidents, and heads of big agencies are opening their minds to accept psychic phenomena, because they know it works.”
Not content with mere psychic phenomena, Geller also claims to have been in contact with aliens. A being called “IS” (Intelligence in the Sky), apparently from a planet called “Hoova”, thoughtfully left some messages on his tape recorder.
“This certain entity, or whatever, did use very strange words, like ‘Hoova’ and ‘IS’ and ‘Spectra’. These names came from a tape recorder. Now I knew on many occasions that the tape was empty – I mean, I checked it myself. So what was happening? Whose voices were they?”
Did he meet this creature?
“No… I’ve seen lights in the sky, I’ve seen UFOs, I’ve even seen something on the ground that I can’t explain, but I’ve never actually seen a being. I wish I had.”
It seems that Geller has a lot of belief systems: psychic phenomena, UFOs, space aliens and numerology are just some of the things which mark him out as being rather credulous. Does he believe that his powers are a gift from God, I wonder?
“I’m lying to myself when I say ‘No, it’s not a gift from God, it’s energies from under’ – I’ve said that many a time. But if you really go deeply into it, I have to say [that] everything comes from God.”
Over the last five years, Geller has brought (or threatened) many legal actions against those who have dared to criticise him in print. He has abandoned most of them. In 1993 a Florida court ordered him to pay $20,000 to Prometheus books, and in early 1995 he was forced to pay $120,000 to the paranormal investigation organisation, CSICOP, after a four-year court battle involving the magician James Randi.
“The case was thrown out of court, [and] I was ordered to pay ‘X’ amount. It wasn’t my fault, it was all on technicalities. My lawyer didn’t file something on time. I don’t think there were losses.”
Does he have any regrets about his litigation?
“I don’t regret anything, I’m trying to tell you what I feel. I feel that, at the end of the day, whoever sues whoever, only lawyers make money. That’s basically it.”
At this point Geller says, “there’s one thing I don’t want to go into”. He then picks up my dictaphone and starts playing with the buttons. Alarmed by this manoeuvre, I leap out of my seat (the dictaphone was hidden from my view by Geller’s side). I quickly help him to find the stop button, and he examines the machine very carefully to ensure that it cannot restart. Reluctantly I let him hold on to the recorder, and sit back down again.
My attention is now distracted because I’m listening for any sounds of rewinding or other tampering of the dictaphone. None are forthcoming, but I cannot relax while he is holding it. My concern is to become justified minutes later. He tells me that my line of questioning is too sceptical for his liking. I shift uneasily in my chair, but try to hold Geller’s penetrating (and by now, rather fierce) gaze.
With the tape stopped, Geller proceeds to go into the various claims made about him in books, including James Randi’s The Truth about Uri Geller, and Victor Stenger’s Physics and Psychics. Quoting the alleged instances of libel in these books, he rants on about how these comments have hurt him, damaged his reputation, etc. However, Geller’s litigation has never required him to demonstrate that his ‘powers’ are genuine, and he appears to be unwilling to challenge in court the accusations that he uses simple trickery.
After getting this off his chest, Geller smiles and tells me that we can continue. However, he has just performed an outrageous breach of interview protocol under my very nose, which has me leaping to my feet again in protest. Below my line of sight, Geller has been secretly and (in my opinion) deliberately rewinding the tape. He has just pressed the record button, which threatens to wipe out a large chunk of the interview, when I grab hold of one side of the dictaphone and tell him firmly that I will deal with it.
For a few seconds there is a bizarre tug-of-war between Uri Geller and myself, over who will gain control of the machine. Clearly, he is trying to stop me from uncovering his blatant act of attempted sabotage. Finally, I pull the dictaphone from his grasp, and find to my disgust that he has indeed wound the tape back a great deal. (Why couldn’t he psychically wipe my tape? After all, he claims in his press release that he has wiped computer tapes with his mind.)
Geller is looking very fierce now and, with my heart pounding almost audibly, I do my best to recover some semblance of normality to the proceedings.
With the interview at an end, Uri Geller dismounts his exercise bike and says in a low voice “I now want you to be honest with me – where did you get your information from?” I reply that my research material came from a range of sources, including the pro-Geller work published by Puthoff and Targ.
He doesn’t believe me: “Show me it then,” he says defiantly. I delve into my bag, and pull out the article. Seizing my opportunity to mollify him further, I mention his interview in Fortean Times (Dec 94/Jan 95), despite the fact that I thought it was depressingly sycophantic. “Ah, you buy the Fortean Times!” he exclaims happily.
As a parting show of good faith, Geller cautiously agrees to bend my spoon, on the condition that it isn’t a heavy duty one. This is what happened.
First, I hand the spoon to Geller, and gather up my papers. He moves across to a radiator, claiming that the effect “works better near metal”. I watch very closely, and the spoon appears to be bending very slightly at the point where the bowl meets the handle. All the time he is joggling it about. He proudly holds up the spoon, which has bent by about 10 degrees. Not much, certainly, but he then turns around to the table behind him, and as I move round to see, the spoon appears to have bent further still. As we walk outside to take some photographs, the bend has almost reached a right angle. He autographs the spoon, and the show is over.
So what really occurred? Although I thought that I had not taken my eyes off the spoon, I realised later that Geller may have had several brief moments when I was distracted. Considering his previous record in these matters, I am sure that I was fooled. His joggling of the spoon may have given me the false impression that it was bending before my eyes, and his constant moving about provided the distraction. As James Randi says, “If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way”.
Geller holds up the bent spoon for the camera, and encourages me to keep in touch. Despite the earlier acrimony, I’ve regained his trust. The feeling ain’t mutual, Uri.