Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lara Lewington Interview

12/10/2007 By Lara Lewington

The celebrated cutlery-bender is taking his hit Israeli television series global. He talks to Lara Lewington

Uri geller divides opinions. People look at his “magic” skills and either agree that he is a psychic, or accuse him of being a trickster. He prefers the term “mystifier”.

Now the 60-year-old Israeli is out to mystify a whole new audience. Geller is moving from bending spoons to breaking America as the Simon Cowell of an X-Factor for illusionists.

How he plans to do this is not actually mystifying at all. Geller is relying on a good old-fashioned reality-TV show to win over American hearts and minds.

In The Successor, Geller passes judgment on young magicians who hope to take up his spoon-bending mantle. The show was such a hit on Israeli TV that NBC has bought it for the US market.

Yet it will not follow the Israeli format exactly. Instead, NBC is sexing it up.

“They wanted to make it more mystifying and mysterious, so they came up with the name Phenomenon, which sounds much more powerful,” says an excited Geller.

Along with American magician Criss Angel, he will be an expert panellist on the programme, which will be screened weekly from October 24. Viewers will phone in to vote for the act that has most impressed them, but Geller and Angel retain the power of veto.

“We have the power, the expertise and the know-how to judge” which competitor has “the power, the charisma and the act”, says Geller.

He may be on to something. Industry insiders are predicting that this could be the latest reality format to spread around the world. After its run in America, it is heading for Europe, starting with a series in Germany.

“People think because of what I do I’m looking for an individual with powers, and I’m not, because The Successor is really about many things,” explains Geller.

“It’s about the performance, talent, personality and character of the competitor. It’s about the way you deliver your act, and most importantly it’s about the astonishment factor.”

Geller has received strong support from the chairman of NBC, Ben Silverman. He is the man taking his chances on Phenomenon being a hit Stateside, and has a reputation for recognising a good format.

As Geller says: “Ben Silverman had the vision to take The Office, to take Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to the United States. When they asked him why he commissioned the show — after all, they said, Uri is controversial — he answered: ‘Because when we watched The Successor, my hair stood on end’.”

Viewers may be forgiven if they detect a hint of ego in all this, but Geller is having to share his show with a man who is an even bigger name in magic than he is.

Criss Angel, who has a large US fan base, specialises in illusions, “mentalism” and escapology. He is one of the rare few to have converted a hit Broadway magic show into a success on the small screen, with Criss Angel: Mindfreak.

Geller says that Angel is reportedly being paid £100m to perform at the Las Vegas hotel The Luxor — “but I can only quote you what I’ve read in the gossip columns”, he says, adding: “When I drove down LA’s Wilshire Boulevard, there was a billboard of Criss as big as the Hilton Hotel.”

Geller can comfort himself that Angel is little known in the UK, beyond a few tabloids briefly linking him to the troubled pop star Britney Spears.

Geller himself has been a controversial character over the years, with some people mesmerised by his abilities and others cynical.

“For many years lots of things have been attached to my name. People have called me anything from a magician, to a mentalist, to a psychic, to a ‘mystifier’, to a miracle worker. Yes, everything. I mean, I’ve even been called a trickster. You name it, I have been called nearly everything. I love to be called a ‘mystifier’. After all, I have amazed and mystified millions of people in the world.”

Whereas many young boys dream of being a fireman or astronaut, the young Geller spent his formative years in Tel Aviv with other ambitions in mind. “I was three years old, when I was eating soup, and suddenly the spoon bent in my hand. That was the first time my association with an energy, a power or a talent came.”

More intriguingly, he believes the source of his abilities may be inherited. “It comes from my mother’s side, because she’s related directly to Sigmund Freud. Very few people know this, but my name in my passport is actually Uri Geller Freud.”

No stranger to reality TV, in 2002 Geller appeared on ITV1’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here. Even though it was well publicised that he was a vegetarian, he proudly admits: “I was the first person on the history of I’m a Celebrity… to eat living bugs.”

Does he feel these programmes can keep working? “Some reality shows are better than others. I think that reality television is still going to flourish. People think it’s peaked, but no way. It’s exactly like the magazines such as the National Enquirer, OK! or Hello!. People are interested in celebrities, people are interested in gossip. People are interested in the lives of others; people are interested in the mysterious things. The universe and beyond. Shows like ours, like Phenomenon, will always be intriguing.”

So back to the question of who is right about Geller — the fans who believe in his talents, or the doubters who do not.

For what it is worth, I can add a personal experience to the debate. A few years back, I interviewed Geller about his well-publicised friendship with pop star Michael Jackson.

During our conversation, he asked me to take off my necklace — a choker with a curved metal pendant hanging from it.

He rubbed his fingers over the metal pendant and, as I watched, it bent. Simple as that — he was not even touching the part that contorted.

I could not find any logical explanation for what happened right before my eyes. Later, I asked if he would tell me how he did it.

He replied: “If I am asked, ‘Uri, tell me how do you do it,’ I simply answer that I’d rather it be a mystery.”

Mystifying indeed.

Born: Tel Aviv in December 1946. His original name was Geller Gyorgy

Family: Geller was born to Hungarian- and Austrian-Jewish immigrants to Palestine. He claims to be distantly related to Sigmund Freud on his mother’s side

Early life: Geller says he first became aware of his paranormal powers when he was three, after a light from the sky knocked him to the ground. He served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army and was wounded in action during the 1967 Six-Day War. His early career was as a nightclub entertainer in Israel. He moved to America in the early 1970s

Geller trivia: He speaks four languages — Hebrew, English, Hungarian and German. He has been chairman of English football club Exeter City. He owns a 1976 Cadillac adorned with thousands of pieces of bent cutlery, given to him by, among others, John Lennon and the Spice Girls. He says he has been anorexic for many years

Jewish identity: Geller is the president of the International Friends of Magen David Adom. He also says he that his friendship with Michael Jackson — Jackson was best man when Geller renewed his wedding vows — ended over antisemitic comments the star allegedly made.

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