Sally Morgan: 'I am not mad, I am not unhinged...I talk to dead people'
Sally Morgan is a psychic to the stars whose clients have included Uma Thurman and Princess Diana. She has her own ITV show, premium-rate phone line and a waiting list of 72,000. But while many are convinced she has The Gift, others say they can do the same thing by using Google...
Sunday 28 September 2008
The house is in silence. There are no lights on, no vehicles in its drive, and no signs of recent occupation, except for a small mountain of wine bottles spilling over the recycling bins, topped by a magnum of Veuve Clicquot champagne. For a moment I think I must have come on the wrong day; then I remember what Sergeant Bilko said to colleague Rupert Ritzik, when they went to consult a medium for gambling advice, in an episode of The Phil Silvers Show: "It's very quiet. The blinds are closed. Nothing is moving. She must be in."
Sally Morgan answers the door herself.
"Hello, Richard," she says: an apparent mistake which immediately arouses uncharitable suspicions that she has been Googling my name all day, in preparation for my psychic reading."
As a former dental nurse, she puts you at ease immediately; her voice and manner have something of Barbara Windsor's no-nonsense conviviality, and when she was young, in her native Fulham (then a working-class district) I don't imagine she ever dreamed of winding up here, in this tranquil Surrey crescent. Neither would you guess that Sally Morgan, whose autobiography was published on Thursday, has recently joined the ranks of Britain's most popular psychics; one of the few, along with more established figures such as Derek Acorah and Colin Fry, who can attract audiences of 2,000 for public readings. (In accordance with recent EU regulations relating to the legal definition of a psychic, Morgan's show is preceded by an announcement stating that the performance is for entertainment only.) Her personal clients have included the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Uma Thurman and the wife of Art Garfunkel.
But major stars, the medium argues, are of no more interest, in psychic terms, than any other sitters.
"The biggest compliment I've been paid," says Morgan, who is 57, "is not that I'm Britain's most accurate psychic, but that I'm Britain's best-loved psychic. Because there's a lot more to my work than just getting the hits; accurate pieces of information, I call them hits."
Criticism of her work, she predicts, "is going to grow, the bigger my career gets. People say, if she is a medium, why does she wear satin coats on stage, and sparkly glasses? I am a woman. If I'm going on stage, I want to wear a party frock."
The idea that people might think her crazy – or, as she puts it, "a nut-nut", recurs in her conversation. Actually, her critics have focused less on her sanity, more on her methods, especially as applied in the ITV series Star Psychic. Dead people she has channelled include Marilyn Monroe; her television client list has been rather more modest: it includes Emma B (ex-girlfriend of E17's Brian Harvey and model for Ann Summers), soap actress Linda Lusardi, and Darren, who plays wing attack for an amateur basketball team in Essex. One contributor to the website badpsychics.com recently commented that: "I think the phrase is: celebrity psychic, my arse."
A clip of her show appeared on Harry Hill's TV Burp. Morgan was reading for Emma B, whose identity, she insists, was not disclosed to her in advance.
"I can see a black background and pink underwear," Morgan tells her. "And the name 'Ann Summers.'"
"I do a lot of their press and PR," her subject replies.
"Do you?" asks Morgan.
"Yes. You can look up a lot of information about me on the internet."
"Yeah," interrupts Hill, imitating Morgan. "I might do that, a little bit later on."
Sally Morgan's own website advertises telephone readings, available for £1.50 a minute or £29.99 for 20 minutes (£1.50 per additional minute) with one of her "hand-picked psychics". You can also invest in a "psychic text" for £1.50.
She says a telephone reading can be "90 per cent as accurate" as one done face-to-face." But the medium asks people like me, who have the opportunity of a personal reading, to bring photographs of family and friends. I ask her to conduct the reading at the beginning of our meeting, to minimise the information I might have given her in advance.
Skeptics use the term "cold reading" to describe the technique of tossing out a series of common names and other images, leaving the sitter to seize on a small percentage of statements that seem to "fit". At its crudest, this "scattergun" method will begin with a question ("Who is John?... it could be Jack ... Or James. Jamie? Jackie? Jackson? No? Well, maybe it's a place? Jamestown? Jamaica? Jacksonville?") The medium will typically suggest situations ("You worry over money"/"You are thinking of writing a novel"/"You are quite psychic") that many sitters are likely to identify with.
I have had some coaching from Dr Richard Wiseman, professor of Psychology at Hertfordshire University. When it comes to modern British psychics, Wiseman, formerly a professional magician, fulfils much the same role Harry Houdini played in the life of occult enthusiast Arthur Conan Doyle.
The professor says that he has yet to see a medium come out with any information that couldn't be explained by normal means. "In the vast majority of these situations," he says, "the sitter is doing most of the work."
Sally Morgan, her supporters argue, is different. She has a genuine gift; and, looking at her cuttings file, she has undeniably converted at least one tabloid journalist from hardened skeptic to such a level of enthusiastic endorsement that it would be no surprise to find him selling Morgan's merchandise in the foyer at her next appearance.
The medium uses no crystals or other props, nor does she affect an otherworldly tone when communicating with the dead. She begins with a series of observations that are broadly general, but accurate to a point that, in one or two cases, I find uncanny. She tells me I am unhappy in the kind of flat countryside that dominates the south-east of England and would be more at ease among mountains – a widely shared feeling, I'm sure, but one which I admit to articulating more regularly than friends might like. She says that a central character in a novel I am finishing has an Iranian background, as they do. She adds that somebody from Iran is going to change my life forever, and seems to imply that I could relocate to that mountainous country, to which I can only say, no plans as yet.
"Does the name Boz, or Baz, mean anything?"
"Have you recently done an interview with Gascoigne?"
"It needn't be Paul Gascoigne... it could be Bascoyne... it could be a place..."
"You have problems sleeping."
"I was up at five this morning. One look at my eyes could tell you that."
"No. It's to do with your thought patterns. I see you as a twin. Were you a twin?"
She gives plausible but fairly generalised character sketches of my wife and her younger sister; there's nothing that would impress Wiseman. And no names. But when I show her a picture of an ex-girlfriend, suddenly Sally's on fire.
"People might say: 'Oh my God. This girl is a nut-nut.' I get very sad when I look at her. It's as though everything she thought was there just slipped through her fingers. Some people deliberately destroy relationships before they have run their course, because they think they are going to end anyway. She has that feeling about her. There is a bit of a mental side to her."
I show her two photographs of my friend, the artist Ralph Steadman. In one he's alone, in relaxed mood, adjusting his fez, towards the end of a longish pool party. In the other he's with Bill Murray and Johnny Depp (who has his back to camera) at a bar counter in Aspen, the day after Hunter S Thompson's memorial service. She doesn't pick up on, or recognise, either of the actors.
"He [Steadman] is a sensible man," she tells me, examining the fez picture. "He is a good man but he is feeling pressure at the moment. With him, what you see is what you get. He has a kind of Mediterranean ability to love and to be open."
These are surprisingly accurate, if broad, observations. Morgan fires out more first names, such as Peter and Lesley, none of which relate to me – though, as she says, they might do in the future. '
"You have a sister, don't you?"
She picks up a picture of my parents with my brother. She asks whether my father is dead.
"He is showing me his left hand. There is a chain in it; could be a key-ring. He says he realises now that he was claustrophobic, but he didn't realise it at the time."
(I'd say, from my experience, that this last assessment is correct. Very bizarrely, I had a conversation on this exact subject, with my brother, a couple of weeks ago.)
"He is saying her name." She points at my mother. "Joanie. Joan..."
"Is Joan in spirit?"
"No. She's in Manchester."
"Joan and... Michael John. Who's Michael John?"
"That's my [only] brother."
Most of her other statements would require some leap of faith by the sitter: my father worked at a chain factory, for instance, something which a confirmed believer might seize on. But the names, as I would tell Richard Wiseman afterwards, constitute something of an atomic direct hit. I'm not on sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Friends Reunited. As far as I'm aware, the only information about me in the public domain is on book jackets, where it says that I grew up in Manchester. And of course Morgan doesn't know me: she actually reminds me, at one point in the conversation, of how, earlier on, she accidentally called me Richard.
"These comments sound very interesting," Wiseman tells me. "They are unusually precise. Three names in a row, including a middle name. Of course, when psychics get those kinds of hits, logic tells you that it is either chance, or that they are an extraordinarily gifted medium, or have found out the information in some other way."
"Or I am a credulous goon."
"Correct. To evaluate these types of readings, you have to rule out any normal explanations, so it is always important to find out if that information is publicly available. Because if you can't find it on the internet, say, then that is extremely impressive. If you can, that's another matter."
"What about the claustrophobia?"
"The question there is, how many other people could make sense of that, in a reading? It is a classic case of her firing an arrow and the subject drawing a target around it."
"It seems absolutely extraordinary to me."
"But the value of the reading depends on what percentage of people would be impressed by it, and that can be extremely difficult to figure out without proper scientific testing."
There is, Wiseman adds, what some proponents call "the super ESP hypothesis: that she is not actually communicating with the dead, but in touch with information that is in the world, and doesn't know it. Like a kind of unwitting psychic Google." I ask Wiseman to see if he can discover any of the information by orthodox means.
"Where," I ask Morgan, "do you think skeptics would say you got those family names?"
"They'd say I was guessing."
"Or that you'd found them online?"
She laughs. "Why would I want to do that? I am my own biggest skeptic."
("Not," I can hear a professorial voice saying, "as long as I'm alive.")
Sally Morgan was born Michelle West, in Fulham. Her father Derek, she says, was extremely violent towards her mother Beryl and to Michelle, who changed her name to Sally before she was in show business. She grew up with a stepfather, Pat Thatcher, and recalls a childhood of quarrelling and stress.
"You didn't mess with him," she says of Thatcher.
Her mother, she remembers, used to strike her with a hairbrush till her scalp bled. She met her current husband John, who occasionally wanders into the kitchen while we're talking, in 1973. He tells me that he gave up a job "in sales – helping a friend with a greengrocery business" to support his wife's career six years ago. They have two daughters, Rebecca and Fern. Her first child, Jemma, was born following a brief marriage to a man Sally refers to by the pseudonym of Brian. She has been estranged both from her mother and Jemma for 12 years, following a remark a family member made about the medium. (She refuses to discuss this, for fear of being sued; her publisher's lawyers cut the allegation out of her book. The most she will say is that there is no suggestion of abuse or other criminality.)
"Do you think your turbulent upbringing encouraged unusual experiences?"
"Definitely. In the house at Waldemar Avenue in Fulham, where I grew up, there was a spirit in the bathroom. It made me do things. Naughty things I can't talk about."
She had her first psychic experience at nine months, and saw her first spirit when she was four. Then Jesus appeared to her on the bedroom ceiling. She left school with no qualifications and took various jobs related to the health service; she worked in the dental surgery for 25 years. When she was a teenager, a visitation occurred while she was listening to Cliff Richard.
"A voice said: 'Shut that bloody racket up.'" (Definitive proof, some might argue, that our Lord is both vigilant and merciful.)
She had her epiphany at Wimpy in New Malden, Surrey, in the mid-1970s.
"I met a friend there. She said she was getting married. I saw the man's face. Money was falling around him. Now he's a multi-millionaire. The face went, then returned. I realised I could choose to keep these things in my head, or not."
When she began giving psychic readings, she says, at first she didn't charge.
"People would bring me flowers," she recalls. "Maybe a cake."
Things have moved on a bit since then.
"Your website offers phone readings at £39.99 per half-hour. How do you justify that?"
"I have to maintain my integrity, OK?" says Morgan. "But how do you also keep people happy?"
She says that she hasn't inherited her father's temper, but has raised a finger, and looks well able to take care of herself in a debate.
"There are so many people," she explains, "wanting readings." (She's claimed to have 72,000 on her waiting list.)
"If you can read down the phone, why look at pictures?"
"Well, I do like working with a picture, I will be very honest."
"But why charge so..."
"You can't get psychics to work for nothing."
"How do you vet them?"
"I vet half a dozen at a time. I have a good Tarot reader, and a medium, and somebody that specialises in love and relationships."
"Where do they work?"
"It's done through a call centre. The call is transferred to their home."
"How many psychics work those lines?"
"How much of that £39.99 do they keep?"
"They're on a percentage."
"What percentage? Thirty? Fifty?"
"It can vary."
"So out of £40, they'd get what? £15 or £20?"
"Maybe even a little bit more."
"I'm not saying that any psychic who charges is automatically discredited..."
"Yeah, but look at the Vatican. I mean, hold on a minute..."
"Surely you're not comparing yourself to ..."
"No. I am talking about money. Money that goes into religion. Mosques. Churches and, er... Look at the money that goes into them. Because one is spiritual, it doesn't mean that one has to be on the poverty..." Morgan pauses, possibly remembering the Veuve Clicquot in the driveway. (The champagne was actually left over from her daughter Fern's 30th birthday party.) "I wouldn't be able to do what I do," she continues, "unless I could pay my bills."
I find myself wondering how long Morgan's been talking this way; perhaps since "one" met the Princess of Wales.
"It invalidates nothing if you charge a fee. It might do if you were exploiting people."
"I don't exploit anyone. If you find anyone that says I have, I want to have a conversation with that person. These people on these websites that attack me, they hide behind false names. I'm Sally Morgan. That is my name. I don't hide anything."
"There are some serious accusations on, say, badpsychics.com."
"I don't read them. What's the name of that website again?"
She writes it down.
"They mention a reading you did in August 2007, with Brian Dowling, who won Big Brother. I've seen that footage. Before you meet him, you're asked, on camera, if you know him. You say: 'I know of him.' But hadn't you ' already given him a reading, in February 2005? One that was mentioned on your website? One that had been published by the News Of The World?"
"Yes. Well... I don't want this in the newspaper, OK?"
"It's quite an important allegation; I think you should respond to it."
"I did it because the director told me to."
"Badpsychics also carried a review of a show you did in Grimsby Auditorium in May, where the contributor alleges that a woman mentioned having a relative crushed by a lorry. They say you gave the name 'Caroline'. And that, when the person explained that 'Caroline' meant nothing, you said that perhaps those three syllables meant that the victim had been: 'carried by the lorry'."
Morgan doesn't recall this.
"We have that on film. We film every show. In Grimsby we have a nut-nut that writes letters. Badpsychics," a site she now sounds a little more familiar with, "have got a bigger problem than me."
"Your critics focus on the fact that you used to advertise, on your website, that you had been called in to help police..."
"I have helped them; that's true."
"So why has that statement disappeared from your site?"
"I changed website people. It wasn't done deliberately."
"You claimed that you 'pinpointed' the body of Helen McCourt. (A 22 year-old from Billinge, near St Helens, murdered by a publican in 1988.)"
"Did the police call you in?"
"I have letters from Merseyside Police."
(She produces a grateful letter from the chief constable.)
"Did the CID approach you?"
"The mother did."
"But the body is still missing, isn't it?"
"Yes. The body is somewhere where the police don't have the money to dig."
"So you know where it is?"
"I know. It's on National Trust Property."
She shows me photographs of Rufford Old Hall, a 17th-century building just south of Preston, and a letter of thanks from the victim's mother, Marie.
My Psychic Life contains lengthy descriptions of the medium's meetings with the late Princess Diana. "I was psychic to the Princess of Wales, for God's sake," writes Morgan who, a few pages earlier, has conceded that Diana "was going through psychics like she was going through men".
"You seem awed by her." (At one point in the book Morgan says that the princess "would pay me cash, literally [my italics] from her purse.") Morgan's first impression of the royal residence at Kensington was: "Bloody great big house, mansion, palace... you could almost smell the money."
"I suppose I was awestruck at first."
Things relaxed after that. Morgan says that she told Diana, speaking of Charles, "I'll tell you what, he does love a pair of tits."
"You claim to have predicted Diana's death; you saw the car, the tunnel, and the cardiac massage."
"Yes. But I thought it was the Queen. This was before the princess gave the BBC interview where she called herself the Queen of Hearts."
In her autobiography, Morgan says that she described the crash scene to an associate of Diana's named Fiona, then forgot about it until the sitter reminded her, just after the tragedy.
"How could you possibly forget predicting that the Queen had died in a tunnel?"
"Because more incredible things happened in that reading."
Fiona, according to Morgan, telephoned four days after the crash. "She said: 'Sally, promise you will always say it was an accident."
The medium implies that her life is in danger if she ever says anything to the contrary. A letter has been deposited in a bank safe overseas. "In the event of my death in mysterious circumstances, it will be opened."
Fiona, sadly, is unavailable for interview. "It's a pseudonym," the medium says. "I wish I could tell you who it was. She was very close to the princess."
"It must be frustrating not to have all this confirmed by a witness."
"Not really. I would have to be completely deluded, mental, needing psychiatric help, if I made that up. To deny it, Fiona would have to say who she is. And I know things about that woman that could bring the whole establishment down. She ain't gonna wanna say nothing."
Being a medium, Morgan tells me, carries considerable responsibility in that she must handle any channelled information sensitively – although, in any case, "I never get malicious messages." This last statement sits a little uneasily with one passage in My Psychic Life, where she recalls how she treated a man who called her a liar. ("If there's anything that gets my goat," she says, "it's that.")
"This afternoon," Morgan told him, in front of his friends, "when you were in the doctor's and he had two fingers up your arse, you're not embarrassed by that? I think you're going to have to have the operation. Otherwise you'll have to keep on wearing the sanitary towels."
"You don't need to be Nostradamus to see that things are not going that well at the moment: do you see another terrorist attack in the UK?"
"London isn't going to get blown to bits?"
"No. I think Israel is. I think by Syria, allied with Jordan."
"So your advice is, don't buy any long books?"
"We are going to be around," Morgan replies, "for a long time."
A couple of days after our meeting, I go to see Sally Morgan on stage in Swindon. It's the opening night of her current tour. The hall, which holds 600, looks about two-thirds full. Most fans are women. Morgan engages in what her enemies would call blatant cold reading, pitching names to various areas of the hall. "Is there someone called Clark here?" she asks. In the sparsely populated circle alone, five hands go up.
Watching her perform does bury one myth: that she uses friends as "plants" in the audience. She talks at the end about having had "golden moments" and I struggle to recollect what they were; there was certainly nothing like the astounding hit she achieved with me. Probably her best success came when she was addressing a young Filipino woman whose brother is missing at sea. "I'm getting the name Bic," Morgan said. "B-I-C." "I am from a place called Victoria," the woman replies. "Sometimes abbreviated to Vict."
The following morning, I get a call from Richard Wiseman. With no assistance from a spirit guide, he has discovered the first names of my mother and brother. He put my name into a search engine, which led him to my publisher's website, where he found my place of birth. Then he consulted a site called genesunited.com. "I put in Manchester, and your name," he says, "which produced a list of records. From those I found your mother's maiden name, which led me to your brother. The whole thing took me a little under 90 minutes." Continuing the process myself, via the online registry of births, Friends Reunited and a school website, I find my brother's middle name online: this was a fairly laborious process of trial and error, which took the best part of an hour.
I tell Morgan about a conversation I had with the late Lord Soper. He told me mediums represented what he called "a kind of spiritual Fascism", because they encourage people to regress into a reality outside the known world, when they should be taking active responsibility for their own lives.
"It's not easy," she says, "what I do. It's not easy living with this ability. Added to the fact that everyone in bloody England is fascinated by me." (Possibly a hint of exaggeration here, given the turnout in Swindon, but never mind.) "Because at last I'm not the nut-nut. I am not a bad person. I am not mad. I am not unhinged. I just happen to do an extraordinary job, as well as I can."
"And how do you achieve your results in that job?"
"I don't know how I do it," she replies. "I believe in God. Why would I want to make anything up? You can fluff things up with words, but at the end of the day, what I do is, I talk to dead people."
Extraordinary though one moment of Sally Morgan's reading was, for some reason I'm haunted less by the ghosts of relatives than by my most recent conversation with Richard Wiseman, and especially his last phrase: "It took me a little under 90 minutes." I find myself dwelling on that, and on the large number of unrelated names the psychic came out with before apparently hitting the jackpot. That said, I have to go on record now as promising that if, five years from now, a voice leads Sally Morgan to the Alborz mountains in northern Iran, and she finds me there, living in a cabin (a dwelling I share with Baz, Boz, Oz, Gascoigne, Bascoyne, Lesley, Moll, Molly, Peter, Ann, Caroline, Emily, Amelie, Amelia and others), it will definitely be my turn to buy the champagne.
'My Psychic Life' by Sally Morgan is published by Penguin at £6.99. Morgan is on tour to 21 March. For details, visit her website, www.starpsychic.co.uk
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