Almost forty years ago in a laboratory at the Stanford Research Institute, Uri Geller dumbfounded a group of scientists with his apparent ability to read minds. They could not explain his demonstrations: in controlled tests he was able to replicate the size and shape of drawings locked in safes or in rooms several hundred metres away through what he claimed were his psychic abilities. They concluded in the journal Nature: “As a result of Geller’s success in this experimental period, we consider that he has demonstrated his paranormal, perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”
Such validation was to be the launch-pad that catapulted Geller into the world of television talk shows, sell-out performances and celebrity stardom, and a career that has drawn in some of the most powerful, wealthy and famous people of the past 50 years. In all that he has achieved over the decades, he is still undoubtedly most famous for his ability to bend spoons.
“Directly, there are thousands of spoons out there that I’ve bent,” he tells me. “But indirectly? Millions.”
He welcomes me into his mansion on the banks of the River Thames with a tight handshake from a slim, strong hand. As we talk over a cup of tea he twiddles a gold teaspoon, given to him by a Nigerian King, and ponders the object that has so defined his career.
“I look at it as an art object. It’s beautiful, it’s sensual, it is thousands of years old. People make fun of me, ‘Oh, the spoon-bender’. Hey, I deal with things that have fed you for centuries.”
It is clear from his surroundings that spoons mean more to him than just an act. His garden contains spoon sculptures, his home is peppered with spoon-inspired ornaments, and, as he shows me later, his beloved Cadillac is adorned with over 5,000 spoons, forks and crystals.
But there is much more to the man than contorted cutlery. Running in tandem to his career in show business is a far more mysterious and intriguing side to the 66 year-old that has remained largely out of the spotlight. Beyond bending spoons and mending watches, Geller has been employed variously as a dowser, a remote viewer, and, perhaps most intriguingly, a secret government agent.
A BBC documentary by Oscar-winning film maker Vikram Jayanti charts Geller’s career as a ‘psychic spy’. In the film, ‘The Secret Life of Uri Geller’, Jayanti documents his involvement with the CIA and other intelligence organisations, which all started with the experiments at the Stanford Research Institute. The scientists working at the SRI were in fact reporting their findings of Geller’s abilities directly to the CIA.
Not long after these early experiments, he was recruited by the CIA in Mexico with the task of flying alongside KGB agents on commercial flights, attempting to erase the contents of floppy disks that the agents were carrying. Whether or not Geller was successful remains to be proven, with neither the CIA nor the KGB ever likely to reveal whether this worked, though he does say that after the first mission he was asked to do it again.
The senior CIA officer that handled Uri Geller’s case, Dr Kit Green, was so convinced by Geller’s ability that he authorized the expenditure of around $20 million for research into the paranormal at the SRI.
In the documentary, Jayanti talks to scientists from the SRI and powerful friends of Geller that include the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. There is not one that offers any scientific reasoning behind Geller’s “powers”, and at no point does Jayanti imply that Geller might be a shyster.
“Uri has a controversial reputation. A lot of people think he is a fraud, a lot of people think he is a trickster”, Jayanti said when the documentary was first screened at the Sheffield Doc Fest in June, “but at the same time he has a history of doing things that nobody can explain.”
Throughout the film, Geller remains coy about his involvement with any of these agencies, going only as far as to say: “The camouflage for me is ‘hey, I’m innocent, I’m a showman’. But there is that other side to Uri Geller, and that side is the dark side.” He concludes: “I will always make sure that the final truth is never known”.
Geller tells me that the documentary was a difficult thing for him to do. “I was absolutely shocked at some of the things that were said as any intelligence agency has very strict prohibitions.” He “neither confirms nor denies” that he was involved in the Israeli hostage situation at Entebbe in 1976, or that he has been tasked with finding hidden North Korean tunnels, or was asked to locate nuclear reactors in Iraq for the Israeli airforce. However, he does admit that in the wake of 9/11 he was once again approached by someone named ‘Ron’ from an intelligence agency, but he refuses to give the surname or even the agency. It might be assumed that this “reactivation”, as he refers to it, was for the purpose of tracking down Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists through remote viewing.
How high up the order of command Geller’s missions went is not clear, though it is known that President Jimmy Carter was a known believer in the paranormal and that Uri Geller was present at his inauguration at the White House in 1977. An article that appeared in the New York Times in 1984 reported that “in 1977 President Carter ordered the Central Intelligenge Agency to conduct a high-level review of psychic research behind the Iron Curtain in an attempt to assess a possible Soviet threat”. Later, in an interview with Moon Magazine, Geller divulged: “When the Americans asked me to come and help them to make the Soviets sign nuclear arms reduction treaties, I did that.”
When I ask him about his relationship with Netenyahu, Geller says that he is still involved in peace-keeping and diplomatic missions, but only “very quietly”. It is yet another thing that he doesn’t talk about, going only so far as to say: “There are activities that I’m involved with which are trying to gel two sides that are constantly at war.”
There is a lot more to Geller that he doesn’t want to talk about, or at least is cautious when he does. He tells me that his mysterious parallel career away from show business has also been his main source of income over the years, and it has nothing to do with psychic spying.
“My main financial success came from oil, minerals and gold, not from spoon-bending.” He pauses as he notes my surprise. His gaze is intense, even from behind the tinted glasses that he is wearing. “There are many companies that use me, private and national. Most of the people that hire me are believers, the CEOs, the directors of the companies.”
His career as a dowser - someone that attempts to locate the position of oil and minerals beneath the earth without using scientific apparatus - began in the early seventies, at a time when his celebrity star was shining the brightest. In the same period that he was filling stadiums with his shows and baffling millions with his spoon-bending and mind reading displays on prime-time television, Geller was also being taught how to dowse by Sir Val Duncan, the former chairman of the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto. By now it is unsurprising to hear that he is reluctant to talk about how much he continues to do it, saying that the companies, “are afraid of controversy. They don’t want shareholders to know that they are using dowsers because there’s so much technology out there to use.” Indeed, the only comment that Rio Tinto were willing to give me on their relationship with Geller was: “That was a long time ago”.
He does, however, tell me that he has made a considerable fortune from it. “My success rate is very high, otherwise I wouldn’t be living in such a, you know…” He gestures at his opulent surroundings. Geller’s mansion, which he shares with his wife Hanna and brother-in-law Shipi, is a scale replica of the White House in Washington, complete with additional wings that he added to make the resemblance even greater. Inside are marble floors, silk-lined walls, and a bathroom that contains gold taps and a marble toilet - something he bought for his late mother after she told him as a child that only a king sits on a marble toilet. (Despite these trappings, it is perhaps curious to note that Geller does not touch money; he refuses to carry a wallet or credit cards, instead getting Shipi to handle all of that.)
Garnering fame and fortune through acts that have no scientific rationale is sure to attract naysayers and critics. They claim that every one of Geller’s powers can be explained using stage magic techniques. By far his most persistent critic, the magician James Randi, says that if he is indeed using his mind to bend spoons, then: “He’s doing it the hard way.”
Those that make claims that Geller is a fraud can find themselves threatened with legal action. Randi himself has had several lawsuits brought against him by Geller, resulting from books he has written and interviews he has given, while other notable defendants have included Nintendo and Timex.
When a video appeared on Youtube in 2007 discrediting Geller, a takedown notice was filed by Geller as it featured an eight-second clip that he claimed copyright over. The reason for having the video removed, however, might have less to do with copyright infringement and more to do with the fact that it rubbished some of Geller’s techniques. The video had been uploaded by Brian Sapient, co-founder of the atheist activist group Rational Response Squad (RRS). Sapient went on to sue Geller, with Geller filing a counter-suit. The matter was eventually settled out of court, with the clip remaining on Youtube.
Sapient claims on his Twitter profile that he has “proudly led thousands away from religion!” and continues to confront what he considers to be irrational claims, like those of Geller. He believes that there simply isn’t any scientific proof that techniques such as dowsing work, and that paranormalists like Geller might be in denial.
“Paranormalists may be so far removed from reality that they forget that they are making up their claims”, Sapient tells me, before suggesting that they might in fact be conartists. “Either way, they don’t deserve any credit from rational and sane people for anything but entertainment.”
One year after Geller’s run-in with Sapient, he appeared at a convention of magicians to accept – somewhat controversially – an award for his services to the promotion of magic. When asked at the ceremony whether he was a magician, Geller gave what some believe to be a very telling response.
“Let’s say I wasn’t real, let’s say for the last years I’ve fooled the journalists, the scientists, my family, my friends, you. If I managed to fool them, I must be the greatest.”
It seems unlikely that after all the lawsuits filed and books written that this was in any way an admission to the fact that he is nothing more than a magician, and he is adamant when he tells me that although he might not fully understand it, he definitely is a believer in the paranormal. Four years ago he bought an island off the coast of Scotland, convinced that there was Egyptian treasure buried somewhere on it. At the time of writing, none has yet been found.
His belief in the paranormal and supernatural seem completely at odds with his religious beliefs - he’s a practising Jew - that are evident from the mezuzahs and other religious paraphernalia that share the same space as his spoon ornaments and crystals. I ask him whether they clash in any way.
“They absolutely tie in. Every bible is absolutely riddled with supernatural tales. Moses and the Red Sea, you’ve got all these powerful stories that are incredible and I believe in them. Whether it’s the bible or the Koran, or the Kabbalah, Torah, or whatever all other religions believe in, I also believe in them.”
The acclaimed journalist Jonathan Margolis was Geller’s biographer and before meeting Geller he insists that I read the book, ‘Uri Geller, magician or mystic?’ It is a fascinating read written by someone who can only be described as a convert. Starting out as a sceptic, throughout the course of the book Margolis is completely taken in by Geller’s spell. He writes: “I have a suspicion that a hundred years from now, the sceptics will seem in retrospect like superstitious primitives who missed the big picture… If it should turn out in the future that Uri was, indeed, a Jesus figure, I should be a little surprised, but delighted. It will have meant, for one thing, that I have accidentally written the Bible.” Later, when talking about Jesus, Geller tells me: “sceptics would say that Jesus Christ was a magician. I believe that he had supernatural powers.”
Not only do his beliefs encompass the supernatural, paranormal, and every written doctrine that he’s ever heard of or read, he tells me that they also include the idea that we are descended from aliens. This seems to only heighten the enigma that surrounds Geller.
“I don’t quite buy into Darwin, that we crawled out of the muck. I don’t believe in evolution. I’m not close-minded to it, but if I had to categorize it, I would go for an extra-terrestrial explanation, that we are from different stars in the universe, that perhaps a UFO crashed on planet earth a quarter of a million years ago and beings walked out and that’s how we evolved to what we are today.”
Knowing that he likes a coincidence - or synchronicity as he refers to it - and aware of his fascination with the number 11, I tell him that when I put his address into my GPS at my home, it told me it would take one hour and 11 minutes to get there. He shrieks with delight: “You see?”
I tell him also that on the drive over, his old friend and the best man at his wedding, Michael Jackson, was playing on the radio.
“To me that’s double validation that you were meant to come here today. No matter what, the universe wanted it to happen. Synchronicity.”
He pauses for a moment. “Wait. Let me just check my emails. I would really freak out if there was something to do with this... hang on, let me check.” He takes several seconds to scroll through his phone. “No, it’s not. They’re all spams.”
Geller receives more than 300 emails a day. Some are from children, some from people asking for his help with psychic healing - something that he does not practice - others from numerologists who, like him, obsess over the number 11, and a few from the “mentally deranged”. He replies to each one personally. “For me it’s just a few seconds out of my day, but for them, it’s moving. I have to do it immediately, people think I’m rude. I reply when I’m at parties, I answer while I eat.”
Before I leave, Geller is keen to show off his abilities. After a mind reading trick, where he makes a vaguely successful attempt to copy a drawing I have done on a piece of paper, he goes to get a spoon. As he gets up he pauses: “Did you bring one?” Sheepishly, I reach into my bag and bring out one I had carefully selected earlier from my cutlery draw at home - one usually reserved for digging in to a stubborn tub of frozen ice-cream. “Oh, that’s huge.” he exclaims as I hand it over.
He proceeds to rub it and sure enough, when he holds it up it is slightly bent. He takes me outside into his garden to feed the ducks - two wild maynards he’s named Emilia and Acer - and when we return the spoon is bent at a complete right angle. If it is a trick, I don’t see it.
With all that his career has encompassed, I ask him how I should refer to him. Before he answers, he first tells me that he is an “expert in PR”, able to mould and shape his career as the times change. He has previously called himself a psychic, a mentalist, a paranormalist and telepathic. “Today, I call myself a ‘mystifier’”. It is a title that he coined because, “it’s not here and it’s not there, it’s a great term. It’s like what my career was all the time: Mysterious. It encompasses everything.”
This mysteriousness reaches even to the point of answering my final question and the most fundamental thing there is to ask of him: does he really have supernatural powers? To this he replies with a smile: “I will let my audience decide that.”