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(photo credit: Keshet TV)
It's been almost exactly 10 years since I first interviewed controversial author, television personality and mind reader Uri Geller for The Forward in New York. Back then, he was promoting his motivational book Uri Geller's Mindpower Kit. These days he's hard at work on his new reality show, The Successor, a televised talent show in which Geller seeks to pass the torch - or telekinetically-altered spoon - to an heir chosen from among nine contestants.
Physically, the world-famous "paranormalist" - that's Geller's preferred term - has hardly changed in the decade since I last met him. "I still haven't had plastic surgery. It's still my hair, " he says when asked about his widely remarked-upon, youthful appearance.
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I've noticed a few more wrinkles under Geller's eyes, but he's wearing a stylish puffy black sports jacket, and my eyes are drawn to the golden highlights in his hair. Geller carries himself as if he were in his twenties, and seems more relaxed, even a little wiser, than when I first met him, as if he now has nothing to prove and no one to impress.
I meet him at a lawyer's office in Tel Aviv for an exclusive interview for The Jerusalem Post - beyond commercials for The Successor, Geller hasn't done much publicity for the show.
And no, he's not at the lawyer's office for legal advice - despite the mild controversy surrounding his show (a Haifa elementary school student recently passed out trying to emulate a pulse-stopping contestant), Geller's not facing a lawsuit. The lawyer is simply a childhood buddy who played basketball with Geller as a teenager, Geller says with nostalgia in his voice.
I produce a copy of the article I wrote about Geller a decade ago, and he's pleased. It's dated December 20 - his birthday, as it happens. Next week he'll celebrate his 60th.
"I can't believe this, and you didn't know that [it was my birthday]. That's so far out. You have to admit that's far out," he says.
I remind him that 10 years ago he bent a spoon for me and duplicated a sketch of a flower I drew without his looking. I ask if he'll read my mind again, but he politely declines. "But did you bring a spoon?" he asks.
I haven't, unfortunately, but that's okay. Though Geller won't have an opportunity to perform his most famous trick - bending a spoon with his mind - he's ready to tell me about the significance of his Israeli comeback after 35 years of living outside the country.
"I walk on the beach to my hotel, and I say, 'Wow, this is my country,'" he says. "Walking on the streets of Jaffa - it's like a circle. I came back to my roots."
"My mother," he continues, "came [to Israel] on a ship - she escaped the Nazis - and I actually met a guy on the street today who started crying in front of me, shaking, telling me that his parents came with my mother ... These are very emotional things."
Despite leaving Israel to pursue the wealth and fame he's undoubtedly achieved, Geller says he's never forgotten his homeland.
"In the back of my mind I always have the burning energy, desire to support Israel. And I always have, on every show that I do - radio, television. I always say I'm an Israeli and [that I was] born in Tel Aviv. I always feel that I'm an invisible ambassador for the state of Israel."
Geller's currently flying to Tel Aviv every week from London, where he lives with his wife, for Saturday evening tapings of The Successor, and he's also spending time giving motivational lectures to local businesses. He intends to spend his birthday at Tel Hashomer hospital with wounded soldiers, cheering them up with some spoon bending. He recently bought an apartment in Jaffa and plans to spend more time in Israel.
Geller was approached about doing The Successor during a visit to Israel earlier this year while serving as chairman of International Friends of Magen David Adom. "[The Keshet production company] unfolded this unique format, and I liked it. I liked that it came from Israel, where I was born," he says. "I thought if I would ever do a reality TV show where I look for my successor, it must start here, in my homeland."
Despite his psychic powers, it's unlikely Geller could have foreseen the show's breakout success since it began airing last month. The Successor broke ratings records with its debut episode and has won the weekly ratings race with each subsequent show.
Geller's name has been back in the national headlines ever since, with the psychic garnering more publicity and controversy in Israel than he has in years. The success of the show has also inspired a healthy number of parodies, with TV news satire Eretz Nehederet devoting significant screen time to Geller in the first two episodes of its new season. (A major ratings hit in its own right, Eretz Nehederet may delight in parodying Geller, particularly his frequent use of English on his show, but it hasn't managed so far to beat him in the ratings.)
Geller says he isn't bothered by the attention he's received, despite critics who've continued to call him a fraud and opportunist. "To the critics, I have to send a bouquet of flowers," he says, though he adds that he's toned down his flamboyant public persona a bit over the years. "When I was young I used to state categorically that what I do is real and has to do with supernatural forces and so on. Today I learned to be broader about what I say about myself ... I love the fact that people argue about me, that people try to debunk me, that people spend hours arguing whether [what I do] is real or not. That's really what fueled the wheel of publicity around me all these years."
The Successor is giving the wheel a few more turns. Geller attributes the show's success to the aggressive and clever promotional campaign behind it, but also says his return to Israel is itself worthy of all the attention.
"Since everyone in Israel knows how I succeeded abroad, it's kind of like, 'Let's see what Uri Geller has to bring,'" he says. "There is also the aspect of the situation in Israel - the psychological pressures, the wars, the struggle. People are looking for an escape somewhere, a light at the end of the tunnel."
"The show," he continues, "is about, 'I want to be amazed. I want to be astounded.' I want people at home to feel their hair stand on end."
The show has received press attention worldwide, and Geller says Keshet has been approached by production companies abroad interested in buying the show's format. "It's great for Israel," Geller says of The Successor's success.
But while he believes the series could be adapted successfully in other countries around the world, Israel stands out as a place to stage such a contest. Jews in particular have a talent for understanding and manipulating natural phenomena, Geller says, citing Harry Houdini (nee Weiss), David Copperfield, David Blaine and even Albert Einstein as examples.
True or not, it appears that the show has sparked the interest of a new generation of aspiring Israeli mentalists. The day before our interview, Geller had performed on a children's TV show and shared his e-mail address with the audience. He now gently interrupts the interview to check his Blackberry, proudly announcing that he's received 900 e-mails in the intervening 24 hours.
Geller says he'll respond to each of his young fans, taking inspiration from the time Chubby Checker, on a visit to Israel, went out of his way to sign an autograph for the 12-year-old Geller. "That was the greatest lesson of my life: always be accessible, always be open, always be nice," Geller says.
His response to young fans' inquiries, he says, is always the same: "Forget spoon bending. Instead, what's more important is to focus on school, believe in yourself ... and never, ever smoke or touch drugs."
The response doesn't satisfy those who really want to know how he bends spoons, of course, and given our 10-year history, I'm hoping he'll share his secret with me.
"I have a simple explanation for these phenomena, and my explanation is this: you think you are sitting in a solid room, you can touch it. It feels solid to you, but you're dead wrong. This is not a solid room; neither is the table, the computer, or me. I'm not solid and neither are you. We are energy ... Everything is energy. I think I learned how to manipulate that energy."