It is one of those hard to believe and even stranger to explain facts: Sensing Murder is one of the country's highest-rating TV shows. Tim Hume falls in love, and out again, with its star psychic, Kelvin Cruickshank.
He had me at "expecially". I fell for Kelvin Cruickshank, television psychic, shortly after tuning in to my first episode of Sensing Murder, the highest-rating show in the country, in which psychic mediums investigate unsolved New Zealand murders by asking the victims' ghosts who killed them.
From the outset, the documentary-style programme looked every bit as dire as its premise suggests. Hokey graphics with typefaces lifted straight from a pulp horror paperback, tacky period-piece recreations of the murders. The female psychics were grating old boots with terrible dye jobs and nothing sensible to say for themselves.
Then Cruickshank came on, and everything changed. The 36-year-old had what you might call "the Steve Irwin factor" a personal style and manner so singular, so distinctive, and so unlike anything else in the airbrushed world of television, that as soon as you laid eyes on him you thought, "Who the hell is that?"
There was six feet, two inches of him, dressed in whiskered jeans and an open-necked dress shirt, with a large greenstone pendant. Most remarkably, there was his haircut: a stringy, highlighted affair that faintly recalled a dishevelled Shane Warne, or, at a stretch, Shane Cortese.
Cruickshank looked like a real guy, and sounded like one too. When one of his intuitions proved correct, he'd go: "Oh, shot!" He spoke of "Maoris" and "mo-staches" and generally handled language like a butcher.
Yet he carried out his conversations with the dead in an extraordinarily compelling and sensitive way, tactfully teasing out their secrets and often mourning for them with apparent sincerity. The work he did was amazing: almost heroic. After divining details of the victim's identity simply by looking at the back of a photograph, he would lead television cameras to the murder scene and intuit the grisly facts of the crime, before the show reached its invariable conclusion: that valuable inroads had been made, and leads would be passed to police.
In short, he came across as a big, dyslexic chef from the Waikato who had decided to talk to dead people for a living (which is precisely what he was).
All of which made him that rarest of creatures: the New Zealand television personality you could actually take a liking to.
I sensed I would not be alone in my infatuation, and was not surprised to find on the internet scores of (mostly female) devotees. They called him "the Kelvinator"; they daydreamed about joining one of his psychic holiday retreats in Vanuatu, and fantasised about what might happen should they cross paths.
A special episode profiling the psychics' "real lives" only deepened the intrigue. Cruickshank was a loving single dad, who, like any romantic hero worth his salt, had suffered for his gift. His wife had left him after he revealed his talent to her by channelling her ancestors' spirits.
His website said his hobbies were fishing, diving and listening to Pink Floyd; his life motto was "keep it real". I had to meet him.
ON A THURSDAY night in Parnell, Auckland, about 50 people are assembled in a room furnished with incense, panpipe music and a box of tissues. Each has paid $65 to be here for one of Cruickshank's Soul Food sessions, the travelling spiritual roadshow he recently launched to share his gift with the nation, which, along with his $350 day-long "psychic development seminars", are virtually sold out around the country until April.
Cruickshank enters through a side door. He's doing Movember for "prostrate" cancer, he explains and cracks a few jokes about "the dead cat underneath my nose". For many it is their first encounter with a medium, so he explains the set-up: "There's you guys, there's me, and there's them. All three of us are going to have to liaise. If they muck us around, it's just their personality coming through."
Tonight, "the guests", as he calls them, seem to be acting up. Perhaps it's my presence; he has never had a reporter at his show before, and seems a bit rattled. "It's like a funnel and they're all trying to get in," he explains, and begins channelling. The first spirits to come through are connected to a couple near the back, who a stranger might guess to be parents, aged in their 30s.
After drawing a blank with initial questions to the man ("Your mum's mum is passed over, right?" "No."), he determines he is speaking to the woman's dead mother. But the leads she provides are coming up short.
"You've got a trampoline at home, yeah?" he asks.
"No," says the woman.
"You've got a dog, yeah?"
"Why haven't you got a dog?" he muses. "It feels like there's a dog somewhere around you."
"No, there's no dog," she says. "No one we know has a dog."
A string of dissatisfying misses follows, then: a piece of advice from the other side.
"Your mother reckons your husband should get off his ... ahem," Cruickshank coughs, euphemistically, "and do some more work around the house."
"I just renovated the whole house," protests the man. "It took me two years."
Following a brief sermon to "ease up" on their kids (prompted by the revelation the couple do not have a trampoline), the spirit has one final inquiry: "Your mother wants to know why you aren't wearing your rings?"
"That's what she said last time I went to something like this," says the woman.
This is not a huge surprise. Jewellery is one of the topics featured on a checklist from the NZ Skeptics website, outlining the typical hallmarks of "cold reading" a technique sceptics say mediums use to give the impression of psychic power. Cold readers draw clues from their subject's appearance, body language and responses to questions, abandoning incorrect guesses and following up successful ones.
Cruickshank makes heavy use of typical cold reading questions which allow him to "get it right" either way, such as: "Have you been to France yet?"
"Well, you will."
He also ventures a bold, if somewhat implausible, justification for why some of his intuitions prove wide of the mark that the ghosts enjoy pulling his leg. "He's a joker," he says of one spirit. "He says one thing, and I go to say it, but then he goes, `nah, just kidding'. I've got to be careful. Anyway: where does George fit in?" he asks an audience member.
"I don't know a George."
"Ah, you see, he's joking with me."
And so it goes. Wrong guesses. Trivial messages. Weak sauce. Needless to say, Cruickshank's psychic ability seems a lot less impressive than it did on television. During an underwhelming three-hour session, only one moment could be considered eerie, when Cruickshank asks a man: "Why am I getting a strong female presence around you?"
"My mother's dead," he says.
"Does the name Stephen mean anything to you?"
Cruickshank seems as surprised as anyone in the room, and his delight is obvious. "I love it when that happens, that's the bomb!" he says. "It still freaks me out."
Stephen also happens to be one of the 12 men's names on the cold reading checklist, along with a number of others Cruickshank plucked out of the ether during the evening. I can't imagine the audience is impressed. A man approaches me during the interval, to say he is far from convinced. Nevertheless, many others seek spiritual guidance from Cruickshank, with questions that speak of the straw-clutching desperation we feel when faced with the brutal fact of mortality.
"What happens when you love someone, and say `I'll meet you in heaven', but they die, and you find someone else?" asks one. "Do people with Alzheimer's get their memories back when they die?" inquires another.
In response, Cruickshank who claims to have died on numerous occasions, and returned to share his "learnings" illustrates his spiritual vision by drawing a smiley-faced stick man, with a love heart in his chest, and a line emanating from it up to a star. "You know when you're falling asleep, and you feel you're falling? That's actually your spirit leaving, so it can fly around in your dreams," he explains. "Have you guys heard of astral travel? It's like those Air New Zealand ads, you're flying over trees, it's pretty cool." The lesson threatens to derail messily when a man of Middle Eastern-heritage asks about the afterlife, and Cruickshank embarks on a perilous description of God as someone who "would not strap a bomb to himself and blow up a bus".
Fortunately the man takes no visible offence, and Cruickshank resumes normal transmission. He starts channelling for an older woman in the audience. "Is there a Sharon or a Shirley connection?" he asks. "It's a Sh... maybe she's telling me to shush." Eventually, the static on the line lifts and he turns to the whiteboard and writes: "Hi from mum, I'm OK, miss you. Thank you for being a wounderful (sic) daughter. Love you my darling. Thanks for taking care of me."
"I nursed her to the end," says the woman, her voice cracking, and I want to leave the room.
THE NEXT morning, I meet Cruickshank at a cafe near his home in the Auckland beachside suburb of Kohimarama. "Did you see the wife out the front?" he asks, pointing to his Suzuki Hayabusa motorbike. His verdict on the previous night? "It was OK. Some shows are completely mind-blowing, some can be harder to get the connections. Nothing's perfect, that's for sure."
Patrons double-take when they enter the cafe; Sensing Murder, which, with an average of 515,000 viewers outrates some All Blacks tests, has made him a household face. The show has screened in the United Kingdom, France and Norway, and was recently sold to Australia. Repeats of the first series are screening on TV2 in the same timeslot (Tuesdays, 8.30pm) in which they initially ran, drawing a larger audience than they did the first time around a feat the show's producers say is unprecedented.
As a result, Cruickshank, who is single, says he has had to evade stalkers, rebuff groupies and routinely ignore emailed propositions from strangers. "You might think I'm crazy, but I think we'd be really good for each other. I live in Invercargill, I've got two kids and I'm divorced," he cites as a typical example. There are days when he won't leave the house because the attention gets too much.
The financial rewards of starring on the show have even allowed him to turn his hand to small-time philanthropy; he investigated sponsoring a hospice, but the institution objected to his work, and rejected his offer. He's now negotiating a deal with the Franklin Zoo in Tuakau near Pokeno.
Cruickshank was raised in the village of Rotongaro, near Huntly, by his dog ranger father and his mother who is an Anglican reverend. He says he always saw ghosts, but did his best to ignore them: "It got to the point I would crawl under my bed and not come out." He was a hyperactive, dyslexic kid, but found a career as a chef until he decided, about nine years ago, he could no longer disregard the visitors. "I just felt like I was living a lie. I had all these messages to share." He quit his job and went on a "mission of self-discovery". His wife left him. People said he was a nutter. A psychiatrist prescribed him Ritalin; he overdosed, died, came back, and stopped taking the drug. A Maori kuia decreed he should be paid a minimum of $20 for his consultations, which afforded him a modest living. A few years later, Sensing Murder called.
I ask Cruickshank what makes him such a good medium, and get a curious response. "A really good imagination. Some of the things that come out of my mouth just blow me away. With that guy last night, Steve, I mean did you see my face?"
He recounts how he honed his skills on a circuit, of sorts, of spiritualist churches, learning by watching other mediums. "That's how I learned to do stand-up. I would watch people and go, `Well, I won't be doing that'. You learn from people's mistakes. I studied their delivery."
Cruickshank's acknowledgment of the heavy performance element to his work is a surprising admission, but one which tallies with my impressions of his Soul Food routine. It had seemed such a textbook demonstration of cold reading, I felt it could not plausibly be anything other than a deliberate, and reprehensible, deception. Does he really believe he has psychic powers?
"I just know within myself it's real. I believe it and I don't really care what other people think," he says. Investigating cases on Sensing Murder is the hardest test he has ever faced, and his work on the show speaks for itself. As he had told the audience the previous night: "If I was that loony, I wouldn't be in 46 countries around the world doing what I do." (He hasn't actually been to those countries, he clarifies, but he has featured on TV shows that have screened there.)
It's hard to evaluate his television work without having witnessed the unedited reality of the production. But having seen Cruickshank's alleged psychic skills firsthand, I can only imagine that one of the programme's stated rules, that correct statements by the psychics can be confirmed by the crew, leaves much wiggle room. While viewers are left with the impression that the psychic investigations have uncovered much of value, police are far more ambivalent. None of the cases featured on the show has been solved; indeed, the Office of the Commissioner says psychic information has never been instrumental in solving a case in New Zealand.
Detective Sergeant John Kean, inquiry head into the 1992 disappearance of toddler Amber-Lee Cruickshank which Cruickshank (no relation) investigated on Sensing Murder, said he was unimpressed. The psychics had not provided any breakthroughs; the show's only value was in putting an historic case before the public again, and generating phone calls from people who may hold information. "I'm not in favour of giving false hope. I don't want to turn it into a sideshow."
Identical sentiments were expressed by Detective Inspector Steve Rutherford, inquiry head into the 2004 disappearance of Auckland scientist Jim Donnelly, which was investigated by other psychics on the show. "There's no point bullshitting you that the psychics were outstanding. At the end of the day it was a great story, and that's all," he said.
Cruickshank admits he can't solve every case ("The world's got to have mystery," he says), but he has never had a bad response from victims' families. Betty Asher, mother of missing Auckland woman Iraena, said Cruickshank approached her family the week after her daughter's disappearance in 2004; while he could not provide any breakthroughs, she hasn't a bad word for him. "It was a very stressful, traumatic time and we didn't expect somebody to be able to tell us where she was. That guy knows how to handle himself well, he was very appropriate."
Surely, if Cruickshank didn't actually believe in his own psychic ability, he would not waste his time and risk jeopardising his reputation by vainly volunteering to help a traumatised family? "I think there are people who genuinely believe in their own psychic powers," says Vicki Hyde, chair of the NZ Skeptics, who has labelled Sensing Murder "exploitainment", and blames its phenomenal popularity for a resurgence of public interest in psychics. "Even if they began it as a laugh, they start to believe their own publicity."
Certainly, Cruickshank's faith in his own abilities seemed absolute in a recently screened episode of the show, in which he was so convinced he had found a victim's final resting place, he started digging for a body. It wasn't there.
Yet he insists he has never doubted his skills. "It's definitely 100% real for me, and the families," he says, before hopping on his bike. I'm left thinking of a statement he made during his performance, concerning his two, seemingly contradictory, mottos in life. "Number one: keep it real. And number two: I could be gone tomorrow, so I may as well give it a shot." Nobody would accuse him of failing to uphold the second maxim. As for whether, in his own mind, he's abiding by the first? Only a psychic could tell.
Tim Hume is a senior Sunday Star-Times writer based in Auckland.
- Sunday Star Times