JERUSALEM — When the young Uri Geller packed his spoons and self-styled supernatural powers to seek fortune abroad, no one could have predicted he would return to his native Israel in triumph 35 years later as a reality TV star — no one, presumably, except Uri Geller.
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The premise of Geller’s new show, “The Successor” — which has received smash ratings in Israel and started something of a paranormal fad — is that the psychic celebrity, now approaching his 60th birthday, has come home to choose an heir.
On recent episodes of the live show, the nine contestants aspiring to succeed Geller read the minds of audience members and made them imagine different tastes in their mouths on command. One contestant stopped his heartbeat for several seconds, leading an unfortunate 10-year-old in northern Israel to try the same trick at school — and pass out briefly.
Geller, who gained fame bending spoons using what he says are psychic powers, also performs on every show. In one episode, he drew a copy of a picture that had just been drawn by a pilot flying an El Al jet 30,000 feet above the Sinai desert. (It was a fish.)
In an interview with The Associated Press, Geller attributed the show’s success to Israel’s Jewish mystical traditions. “People here have roots in positive mysticism carried through the centuries by the Kabbalah,” he said, referring to the ancient mystical work that has won non-Jewish enthusiasts, most famously Madonna.
While the show’s content — illusion, sleight of hand and the supernatural — might stretch a picky viewer’s definition of a reality program, its format sticks close to the staples of the genre: judges, manufactured drama, celebrity cameos and viewer participation. Contestants show off their powers over 10 episodes, and the winner gets fame and fortune as Geller’s anointed successor, along with a secret prize, though one can assume the contestants have guessed what it is.
For Geller, his new success in his homeland brings him full circle.
Before Geller became perhaps the world’s best known psychic entertainer and an intimate of Salvador Dali and Michael Jackson, he was an unknown Israeli from Tel Aviv. His biography — in his telling, at least — reads like the plot of a spy novel.
At 10, his parents divorced and he left Tel Aviv for Cyprus, where his stepfather ran a hotel that was a front for Israel’s Mossad spy agency, and he ran errands for agents.
He served in the Israeli paratroops, was wounded in 1967’s Six-Day War, became a male model, began to showcase his psychic powers at parties, was accused of being a fraud, and went to the U.S. There, he was humiliated by a dubious Johnny Carson when his powers failed him, so he moved to Britain, where he spoon-bent his way to international stardom.
Geller has always been popular both among the credulous, who fill his shows and made him a multimillionaire, and the skeptical, who have made him a top target for debunking.
But none doubt his supernatural powers of self-promotion. Beginning with little but his trademark trick, Geller turned himself into a major entertainment enterprise, becoming a self-help guru, a TV personality, a sought-after motivational speaker and the author of 16 books. Today he lives in a mansion outside London.
Geller immediately shook things up when he arrived in Israel several weeks ago and pronounced himself able to wake up Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister who has been in a coma since January. He hasn’t done so, he said, because Sharon’s sons told him they weren’t interested. When a serial rapist escaped police custody in Tel Aviv, throwing the country into a panic, Geller again appeared, offering to use his powers to get the man to turn himself in.
Geller’s return has sparked something of a paranormal revival. A popular political talk show briefly abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to devote an episode to the supernatural. Another channel now has a show featuring a young entertainer who claims an abnormally developed sixth sense and who has mastered a smoldering and distinctly Gelleresque gaze.
The success of Geller’s show might be due to the country’s current atmosphere of disillusionment following the costly and inconclusive Lebanon war this summer, said Tom Segev, a prominent historian and journalist. “This atmosphere leads people to look for escape in things that can’t be explained and to turn to people like Geller,” Segev said.
Geller put it differently: “There is a tension in the psychic atmosphere here.”
Yossi Elias, the show’s chief editor, had a more prosaic explanation: It’s entertaining.
“It’s fun sometimes not to be able to explain everything,” Elias said. “Uri is very charismatic, and it’s fun for Israelis to get their rich and successful uncle back from abroad. The combination makes for good television.”
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