The world according to Uri Geller
In a huge house beside the River Thames, the world's most famous spoon-bender is thinking about Aotearoa.
"One of my most successful tours was in New Zealand, in 1974 or 75," says Uri Geller. "A totally sold-out tour. I even thought of moving there, because I was so stunned by the views, and the energy and atmosphere of the place, but it was too far away from my work in Europe and America."
While he was here, the self-proclaimed psychic was invited to bend an inordinate number of local spoons.
"Absolutely! Are you kidding me? I even have a collection of Air New Zealand spoons attached to my car. I bought a Cadillac in 1976, during my shallow days when I wanted to show the world I made it. I riveted over 3000 spoons onto it, and some of them are from Air New Zealand. There's also a spoon Elvis gave me on there, one from John Lennon, Michael Jackson, David Beckham, James Dean."
Ah, Uri. Always doing freaky things with utensils. Should I fear his magic powers over metal? If I write negative things about him, will he use international telekinesis to make a knife hurtle out of my cutlery drawer and stab me in the heart?
Somehow, I think not. As a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic, I do not believe this 67-year-old Israeli has supernatural powers. At best, I think, he's a talented magician: the 1970s' precursor of pretty-boy illusionist du jour, Dynamo. Canadian sceptic James Randi agrees, and has duplicated Geller's most famous feats with simple stage magic tricks, pronouncing Geller "a charlatan and a fraud".
But Geller has a soft spot for sceptics like Randi and me.
"As soon as I started demonstrating my abilities in public, I immediately became controversial," he says. "People attacked me and tried to debunk me. I was young, and I didn't realise that controversy is an amazing gift. You become interesting. There's no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name correctly.
"Really, the sceptics are my unpaid publicists. I should send them flowers. They created the legend of Uri Geller. They create the mysticism for me. Most of these people don't know about PR, but I'm the king of PR. I think that's why I'm still around, 40 years after I started."
Forty years ago, I used to watch Geller on television. Tall and thin, with a mane of luxurious black hair, intense eyes and voluminous flares, he cropped up nearly every week on assorted chat shows, reading minds, stopping watches, freaking out innocent compasses and mangling eating utensils.
It was fascinating to witness these things as a gullible teenager, and I'm delighted to be talking to Geller now, as a less credulous adult. He's on the line to discuss The Secret Life of Uri Geller, a documentary screening on the Arts Channel this Friday. I've seen it and can confirm that this is an unintentional comedy with few equals.
After the opening credits, the camera swoops around the eccentric garden surrounding Geller's home, an area the narrator reckons is "like a map of his mind". We zoom in on a picnic table, its place settings laid out with bent spoons and forks. There are miniature standing stones, lacquered Japanese bridges, little pyramid-shaped sheds. In his driveway sits that famous Cadillac, bristling with bent spoons.
Geller strides about wearing a psychedelic jacket that looks like it may have been swiped from a local production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. From his pocket he produces a golden rock, allegedly a gift from John Lennon, who claimed it had been given to him by a passing alien. Geller refuses to have it scientifically analysed, he says, in case he discovers it was "made in Taiwan".
Indeed. So, far, so flaky, but the doco then takes on a darker hue, implying that Geller was far more than just an entertainer; he was also a "psychic spy", working undercover in multiple countries.
There's unsubstantiated blather about Geller assisting with Operation Desert Storm, locating secret tunnels in North Korea, using his psychic powers to erase crucial diplomatic floppy discs on their way to Moscow.
He even implies he was involved in the famous 1976 raid in which Israeli commandos saved hijacked passengers at Uganda's Entebbe airport, using his mental powers to block international radar systems so the rescue plane could arrive undetected.
"These things I have done cannot be trickery and illusion. I've been tested in many different laboratories by the American Defence Department, the CIA, and other secret agencies I cannot name based in France, Israel, Mexico and other countries.
"I don't want to make myself out to be some kind of a miracle worker or guru, but definitely, on many of the missions I was sent to do, I was a major influence. When the Americans wanted the Russians to sign the arms reduction treaty, they brought me into the picture and I bombarded the minds of the Russians to sign it, and they did. So, while I can't claim I did this alone, there's no doubt I was influential in getting that agreement signed."
As supporting evidence for some of these claims, the doco shows 70s library footage of supposedly CIA-funded experiments in which Geller finds ball bearings hidden in little cans, and draws images supposedly beamed to him by the mind of a white-coated "sender".
Assorted talking heads express amazement at Geller's talents: an astronaut; various physicists, CIA operatives, army colonels and navy pilots; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; even a man claiming to be "a psychic travel agent". Snippets of the theme music from Mission: Impossible, Dr Who and Twin Peaks appear on the soundtrack to emphasise that things are, you know, a little bit weird and espionage-y.
Sinister, too. Geller claims that sometime in the late 70s, shadowy forces attempted to turn him into a psychic hit-man.
"I will not mention the country or the agency, but I will never forget the day when I was led into an experiment room - all white with no furniture - and there was a big white pig standing in the middle of this room. The scientists said to me: ‘Uri, we are going out for lunch, and by the time we come back, we want you to eliminate this pig by stopping its heart.'
"This totally shocked my senses. I am a vegetarian and a huge animal lover, and I knew that a pig's heart is very similar to a human heart. I knew that the probable target was to assassinate a Russian KGB agent."
Readers are free to make of this what they will. But leaving aside the spy malarky, I'm interested in how one becomes a psychic, a mind-reader, a mentalist. When did Geller discover he could do these seemingly impossible things?
"I was around 5 years old, eating soup in our kitchen in Tel Aviv, and the spoon I was using bent and broke. I wanted to show off with this talent, so I started doing it at school for other students. I never realised this quirky and bizarre display of spoon-bending would get me wealth and fame around the world."
These are obviously powers he has since learnt to turn on an off. Otherwise he'd be forced to spend the rest of his life using wooden chopsticks: "Ha! That's funny!" says Uri, but he does not laugh. Like many who hold improbable New Age beliefs, Geller is earnest and intense, with no discernable sense of humour.
He is, nonetheless, engaging company. Perhaps that's why Geller accumulated so many famous friends during his 70s heyday.
"You know, most celebrities have all the fame and money they need and so what they are looking for is spirituality. They're interested in mystical, mysterious elements that might give meaning to their lives. So when a young guy comes along from Israel who can bend spoons and read minds, obviously they sought me out.
"But also, I was on an ego trip. I wanted fame and fortune; I wanted to be with Elvis, Elton John, John Lennon, Michael Jackson. You know Michael asked me to energise the tapes of his last album, Invincible, and I also did some of the drawings in the album booklet. Even Salvador Dali wanted to meet me. For him, bending metal was something he did in his paintings. When I bent things for him, I absolutely freaked him out. I worked with him for two years, because he was so into my powers."
And yet many would maintain that these powers are illusory. If one watches this documentary unencumbered by a belief in the supernatural, the feeling emerges of an aging magician trying to regain his past fame by implying that his powers were far more profound than people imagined. Spying is, after all, more exciting than spoons.
Geller, naturally, vigorously resists any accusation that he is a charlatan.
"I always kept away from healing. I never misled people, or pretended to talk to dead family members. Absolutely not. And I do not charge for my work. I've got enough money, because I've located oil and gold fields.
"Really, who are we to say there's no psychokinesis or life after death? Seven billion people believe in God, and if there can be a God, why can't there be teleportation or reading minds?
Scientists have already proven that everything in the universe is made from energy. You, me, the phone you are talking on - all energy. And Albert Einstein proved that energy cannot be destroyed, so what happens to our spirit, our body, our soul when we die? We don't know. That's why I'm such an open-minded individual."
The secret life of Uri Geller, he insists, is not about self aggrandisement.
"This documentary made me really scared, because I was exposed as a spy, dealing with espionage. There's no doubt in my mind that right now somebody at the National Security Agency in America is taping and listening to this call. You are listening to me, I am listening to you, and they are listening to us."
And then, quite suddenly, Geller really IS listening to me.
"Before I go, I want to ask some personal questions about you. Are you happy at this stage of your life? Did you ever write a book? What kind of family do you have?".
I answer each question in turn while he listens quietly.
"It's nice to hear that you are happy. You are lucky to live in a fine place like New Zealand, which has produced so many fine artists like Rita Angus, Shane Cotton, Gottfried Lindauer. But elsewhere in the world, there are children dying from hunger every three seconds. If there's one sentence I'd like to end with in this article of yours, I would say to the children: Believe in yourself, focus on school, create a target goal to go to university, don't smoke, never touch drugs, and think of success every day with an attitude of gratitude. These are my last words."
The Secret Life of Uri Geller screens on the Arts Channel on Friday, March 14 at 9.20pm.
Sunday Star Times