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Talk to the hand: how COVID gave fortune tellers the palm-off

In the 1962 song, Fortune Teller, by Benny Spellman, a lovesick man consults a palm reader for insights into his romantic prospects. He tells her that he has a “dizzy feeling in my head”. She asks: “Do you feel kind of warm?” She then looks into her crystal ball and tells him that he is, in fact, already in love and doesn’t even know it. These days, she might have added that, given his symptoms, he should get screened for COVID-19. Or she would have thrown him out of her office for not wearing a face mask.

COVID has decimated all kinds of industries, from retail to hospitality. But the plight of psychics – mediums, mentalists and other assorted seers – has largely been overlooked, which seems a little unfair. Say what you will, but psychics have, since the Delphic oracle, been meeting a need that lies beyond the ken of science or psychiatrists. “A psychic can help someone feel understood,” says Leela Williams, a member of the Australian Psychics Association and publisher of the International Psychics Directory. “They help people find meaning in the past, hope for the future and clarity in the present.”

Williams estimates there are perhaps 5000 psychics in Australia. Most are women (as are their clients). Some psychics specialise in one field, but the majority draw on a range of “modalities” such as tarot, palmistry, clairvoyance and numerology, most of which require close personal contact with clients. As she puts it: “It’s hard to read someone’s palm over the phone.”

The pandemic has, of course, made such contact impossible. It also wiped out local fairs and markets – the spiritualist gatherings, wellbeing festivals and new age shows – that provide a working psychic’s bread and butter. Larger shows have also been cancelled, such as the MindBodySpirit festivals in Sydney and Melbourne, which can draw 20,000 visitors across four days. “It’s been devastating,” says Sydney psychic Angel TraShell, who had more than 20 festivals disappear from her calendar virtually overnight. “I’m down 75 per cent of what I was meant to take this year [2020].”

Angel TraShell has focused on her YouTube channel throughout the pandemic.

Angel TraShell has focused on her YouTube channel throughout the pandemic.

TraShell, whose real name is Tracy Johnston, is 49, with shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes and a penchant for kaftans. She was literally born to be a psychic. “I did a play at school when I was seven and I was so nervous the teacher told me to focus on one person, so I focused on this woman in the front row. I must have focused a bit hard, because I started channelling her and talking about her dead husband.” TraShell’s mum later told her that their family came from 13 generations of psychics.

TraShell is a clairvoyant, a medium, a tarot card reader and psychic healer. She’s also an “angel intuitive, meaning I can see angels and sometimes talk to them”. But from what I can tell, her most powerful gift is for business. She manages a team of 40 psychics, plus a psychic TV channel on Facebook and YouTube.

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In 2019, for the first time, she convinced organisers of the Royal Easter Show in Sydney to include a psychic reading room. She and her team did 14 readings a day each. In 2019, TraShell borrowed $50,000 to produce the Royal Psychic Bag, which included a chakra crystal lava bracelet and Pagan Magic incense. Then COVID came along and the show was cancelled. “Now I’ve got 6000 of these show bags lying around the house.”

TraShell is now focusing on her YouTube channel, to maintain her profile until the large shows start again.

Despite the emergence of psychic hotlines over the past 20 years, most people still prefer in-person readings.

The big festivals have similarly moved online. Beginning in June, the MindBodySpirit organisers set up virtual reading rooms via Zoom, with events held during the last weekend of each month. There are 30 to 40 psychics to choose from: the festival website features their bios and blogs. Clients then book a reading, which costs about $50 for 45 minutes. The organisers tell me 400 readings are being done over Zoom on each of the weekend events.

Despite the emergence of psychic hotlines over the past 20 years, most people still prefer in-person readings. “They’re like, ‘How are you going to pick up on my energy if you’re not in the room with me?’ ” says Leela Williams. “But every industry has had to adapt to COVID. Psychics are no different.”

Paul Fenton-Smith now reads palms from detailed photographs.

Paul Fenton-Smith now reads palms from detailed photographs.

Last year, Paul Fenton-Smith was giving a tarot reading to a woman in his Epping home in northern Sydney when she told him that she worked as a site nurse, and had recently been visiting people’s homes testing for COVID. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Fenton-Smith. “There had been a recent outbreak in Epping, right where I live. After that, I thought, ‘Right, no more face-to-face clients.’ ”

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Fenton-Smith, who is 60, has fine, brown-grey hair and a reedy voice. His office, where pre-pandemic he saw upwards of 15 clients a week, is small and sunny. There’s a bookcase against one wall, an Edwardian chaise lounge against the other, and a life-sized ceramic hand that sits on a sideboard like Thing from The Addams Family. There’s also a bowl of saltwater perched on the bookcase. “Clients sometimes leave a residue of negative energy. The saltwater replicates the ocean, which makes you feel cleansed.”

Fenton-Smith works as a clairvoyant, a hypnotherapist (thus the chaise lounge), a tarot reader and a counsellor. He has written 11 books on his work, and in 1985 established the Academy of Psychic Sciences in Sydney. But his first love was palmistry, which he began studying in 1978. “I just love the idea that you can tell someone’s purpose in life by looking at their hands,” he says. “It’s like reading a map, or the page of a book.”

Palm reading involves holding the client’s hand and examining it from every possible angle for up to an hour. Needless to say, this is not COVID-safe.

Palmistry, he tells me, is not fortune telling. If you want to know whether you’ll get a pay rise next year or if your boyfriend is going to propose, then a tarot reading or clairvoyance is best. Palmistry, on the other hand (!), involves a “whole-life” reading. “It’s big-picture stuff. It doesn’t use intuition, as such, but it can tell you your character, strengths, and natural abilities.” According to palmistry, I have a low set mount of Venus – the fleshy pad below the thumb – which indicates that I Iove cakes (true), that I have good rhythm (er…?), and that I like to have an emergency savings fund for peace of mind (who doesn’t?).

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In practice, palm reading involves holding the client’s hand and examining it, often with a magnifying glass, from every possible angle for up to an hour. Needless to say, this is not COVID-safe. For this reason, Fenton-Smith stopped giving in-person palm readings in April, and now does them via photos. Clients must supply at least six photos of 1MB or larger. They need to include two shots of the palm side of the writing hand, one of the back of the writing hand, one of the back of the non-writing hand, one of the thumb nail, and one of the side of the hand looking at the little finger. Doing a palm reading via photos is not as accurate as a face-to-face, so Fenton-Smith offers a discount: $80 for an hour with a 30-plus-page report, as opposed to $150 in person.

Tarot and clairvoyance are easy to do remotely. “For tarot, I shuffle and select cards on behalf of clients on screen, and with clairvoyance, I can usually establish a psychic link in the first few minutes of an online session to secure an information stream.”

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The impact of the pandemic has surprised him. “I had expected clients to be asking how secure their jobs were,” Fenton-Smith says. “Instead, people are asking about new career directions. ‘Do I want to continue doing what I’m doing?’ is what many of my clients are asking me. All that time at home has given people a chance to reconsider their career options.”

“People are looking for hope and comfort, so if anything, the mind-body-spirit industry will be more popular going forward.”

“People are looking for hope and comfort, so if anything, the mind-body-spirit industry will be more popular going forward.”Credit:Getty Images

You might ask: why didn’t psychics see COVID coming? Plenty now claim they did. TraShell says she put a message on Facebook, in 2018, that read: “Europe knows more, some sort of Oriental disease.” (She says Facebook took the message down.) In her 2008 book End of Days, US psychic Sylvia Browne wrote that “in around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe”. Then we have Australia’s very own psychic-medium, Harry T, who has said that he predicted the pandemic in 2016. At the time, Harry was appearing as the TV psychic for Today Extra, on Channel Nine (Nine Entertainment Co. is the publisher of this masthead).

“What I saw was very dark,” he says. “I literally saw people dying.” He told the show’s producers, but they decided not to run it because it was too scary. “I mean, the show focuses on celebrities and royals,” says Harry. “It’s daytime TV, not 60 Minutes.”

People are certainly scared now, but this could be a good thing, at least for psychics. “People are looking for hope and comfort, so if anything, the mind-body-spirit industry will be more popular going forward,” Harry says.

I can see the logic in this: fear and superstition are old bedfellows. But Harry goes further. He says that even the sceptics will be more inclined to believe in the psychic sciences, “because in a time of flux and change. people are more willing to expand their perception of things”.

Does Harry see anything spectacular in the near future? “No. We’re going to learn to live among coronavirus, just as we had to with AIDS. The world isn’t ending. We’re just going to keep going and get through it.”

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I say that his “prediction” sounds more like common sense than clairvoyance. “I guess so,” he says. “But like they say, common sense isn’t that common.”

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