I see money, lots of it...

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Five years ago Dionne Warwick had the kind of brainwave that you have if you are a superstar who has her own personal psychic. For 20 years she had relied on the foresight of Linda Georgian. What, she wondered, did people without psychics do for advice?

Friends can be so unreliable, mothers so judgemental, bartenders so bored and therapists so expensive.

Everyone needs a psychic friend. Someone you can talk to. On the telephone. For as many minutes as you want. All at a premium rate.

Ms Warwick may be famous for Walk on By but she didn't take her own advice on this one. Soon, she and Linda and a company named Info-mation Communication, based in Baltimore, Maryland, had set up the Psychic Friends Network - but don't laugh until you hear the bottom line.

"In gross business, this is gross mind you, it is probably about $110m a year," says Robert Hoffman, senior vice-president of TV production. He also claims to be tall, dark and handsome but my ears were still ringing from $110m.

Psychic Friends Network employs 1,200 psychics and each is at the end of an extension of its 1-900 number (the American version of 0891 numbers). In Britain such services are not allowed to advertise on television or radio. In America they are positively encouraged and it is a statistical impossibility to be in the US longer than 24 hours without seeing an advertisement asking you to call.

Thousands do. At Psychic Friends, many are called and all are chosen. The network receives 7,500 to 10,000 calls per day. Each call is charged at $3.99 a minute. It is not hard to see that the colour of this future is money. Fortunes are being told, and made too.

And all in the name of friendship. "They call for any amount of things. Insight and advice into the future. Friendships, to find out about relationships, career moves. Have some psychic fun. For entertainment," says Mr Hoffman. The Duchess of York knows all about that.

Psychic Friends is the biggest of 15 to 20 such companies in America (there are 11 similar phone lines in Britain). Mr Hoffman doesn't skip a beat when asked if he is a believer. "Oh yes," he says. Nor does he hesitate to outline that to work for Psychic Friends you have to go through an extensive screening process involving trial readings, checking referrals and you must have five years' experience as a practising psychic. This must make for some interesting resume checks.

Are the calls taped? "Taped?" Mr Hoffman sounds shocked. "Never."

So is it pretty much confidential? "It is definitely, absolutely confidential. Only the psychic and the person know what they're talking about."

Obviously not a job for Madame Vasso and her blue pyramid. But if the Duchess of York needs a new friend, I know a number she can call.

Ann Treneman

Psychic hindsight tells me that last week we did not credit Reed Books for the photograph of Barbie. It was from the newly published 'Barbie Island Rescue'.

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