Culture

The Hollywood Medium has a secret

You can probably guess what it is.
Culture

The Hollywood Medium has a secret

You can probably guess what it is.

Television’s Michael Corbett, the ruggedly handsome Daytime Emmy Award-winning actor and host of Mansions and Millionaires, was at a Christmas party in Beverly Hills in 2013 when he met a teenage California native by the name of Tyler Henry.

Henry, a blond, slender, Macaulay Culkin look-alike, was smiley and soft-spoken. He claimed he had the power to communicate with the dead.

Corbett, a self-described "total skeptic," said he immediately booked a private reading at his home to see if Henry was truly up to snuff. He was impressed.

Show Gratitude

"Tyler tapped right into two people I knew who had committed suicide and gave me horrifyingly shocking details about who they were and how they died — things that could not be researched in any way," Corbett told TV Insider. “By the end of the reading I was a firm believer and knew I had to create a TV show for him.”

Now, Hollywood Medium With Tyler Henry on E! draws a reported 900,000 viewers per episode. On the show, Henry gives readings to A-list celebrities like Kris Jenner, Austin Mahone, and Margaret Cho, who gush about his abilities. "Someone like Tyler that can connect with the other side... It's just amazing that they can help someone like me," rapper and music producer Lil’ Jon said after his reading. He asked to keep the piece of notebook paper Henry scribbled on during their session.

This should sound insane, but it probably doesn’t. The television industry has a history of propping up alleged psychics, from "fuzzy sweater psychic" John Edward to Long Island mom Theresa Caputo, who claim to communicate with the dead, glimpse the future, and even psychically diagnose physical ailments.

The young star is now a sensation. He reportedly snagged a multi-million-dollar contract for Hollywood Medium’s second season, and his memoir, Between Two Worlds, was published in November.

By working with celebrities, he’s targeting a lucrative, entertaining, and easily researched clientele. His techniques are no more sophisticated than any of the psychic entertainers who have come before him. And yet, we accept it.

A star is born

Henry was born in 1996, the only child of parents David and Theresa Koelewyn, and raised in Hanford (pop. 55,840), about 40 minutes outside of Fresno in central California. His parents were "pretty staunchly religious," he told The Outline, but “as time went on, became more spiritual in their beliefs.” He’s still very close with his mother, who sometimes appears on his show.

Henry said he discovered his gift at age 10, when he had a vision of his grandmother passing. In an interview with Real Housewives star Heather Dubrow, he said he kept the information to himself; in his memoir, Henry claimed that he told his mother of his vision, warning her that they would need to see his sick grandmother immediately, while they still had a chance. Regardless, in both versions, the next detail is the same: Shortly after his premonition, his mother received the call that his grandmother had passed away. Henry said that is when he knew for sure that he had a gift.

“Where are the two sisters on your mom’s side?”

In the years that passed, Henry did small readings at a local spirituality shop owned by Tom and Joy McGuire, called The Cosmic Corral: Gifts for the Soul. The physical shop closed last February, but the McGuires have since taken their wares online and are touring Renaissance festivals.

Tom McGuire remembered meeting Henry: "He was 16, and he’d come in and linger, listen, watch. A very, very intelligent young man." After discovering Henry’s interest in mediumship, McGuire encouraged him to look at the practice from a business standpoint despite the fact that he was still attending the nearby Sierra Pacific High School. Henry began giving one-on-one readings for $40 a session, McGuire said. The young man also co-taught what McGuire described as “grieving classes.”

Henry had trouble in high school, he told The Outline, and left in favor of homeschooling, which allowed him to graduate at age 16. His first instinct was to take his abilities — and his fascination with death — and become a hospice nurse. He reportedly enrolled at West Hills College in Coalinga but never got a degree.

Tyler Henry.

Tyler Henry.

Instead, he reportedly approached Fresno talent agent Carollyn DeVore. It was DeVore who suggested he attend an open-call talent search, according to Henry’s book, where he met Hollywood publicist Ron Scott; Scott took over booking and operations for Henry, and his client base began to quickly expand from friends and neighbors to Days of Our Lives cast members and movie executives. Shortly thereafter, the legend goes, Henry was discovered by Corbett.

Henry is charming, hardworking, and extremely gracious with his fans. However, he is not having psychic visions. There is no evidence that psychic phenomena exist, but there is a long history of people like Henry using tricks to simulate them. So, what’s his secret?

Hot and cold

Each episode of Hollywood Medium consists of individual readings of three or four celebrities. Henry explains that he’s being shipped off to read a celebrity client with no knowledge of who he’s going to read.

We’re repeatedly reminded that Henry doesn’t know much about pop culture or celebrities to begin with, due to his small-town upbringing. "I don’t watch much TV," he tells his subjects, apologetically. “Tyler is just a simple kid whose idea of a good time is sitting on the porch of the family farm in Hanford and looking out at the trees,” Corbett told TV Insider.

The readings always take place on the celebrity’s turf, with a friend or associate sitting in a nearby room and watching on a monitor. The sessions last at least an hour, Henry told The Outline, and are edited into a much shorter segment, intercut with scenes from "backstage" and a confessional-style, straight-to-camera testimonial from the subject after the reading.

In one episode, Henry met the musician Moby at his restaurant Little Pine. Moby’s girlfriend, Lindsay, sat in another room watching on a monitor so she could observe and react. (Occasionally, those sitting backstage send signals to Henry, whether they realize it or not. In the reading with the plastic surgeon behind Botched and former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Dr. Paul Nassif, Nassif let it slip that he and Henry could hear Nassif’s grieving sister, Alexis, sobbing in the other room.)

Henry brings a notebook and pen to his readings, which he uses to "distract himself." He typically opens the notebook up right away and starts drawing in circles, his eyes cast upward and his mouth mumbling out fragments of statements like “Uh huh” and “Yes, there’s that.”

"Have you ever had a reading before?" Henry asked Moby. Moby had not but said he’s in the “spiritual” camp. “I like to focus on the sentimental details that nobody could possibly know,” Henry said.

Henry asks his subjects to bring an object related to the person they want to communicate with. Moby brought a painting, which Henry touched as he closed his eyes while scribbling and mumbling. "What's interesting is that I have two distinct energies that I need to kind of highlight," Henry said. “One that I view as being very maternal and one that is very paternal.” Moby nodded.

Henry tells his subjects that he requires what’s called "validation" in order to give an accurate reading. This means they have to let him know when he’s on the right track. If Henry guesses something that a subject doesn’t validate, he either slides past it or doubles down on his suggestions. When reading singer Austin Mahone, Henry insisted that Mahone’s mother was a smoker. Mahone denied this adamantly while in the next room his entourage concluded that she must be smoking in secret.

In his session with Moby, Henry guessed that Moby’s family is from New Jersey (information available on ancestry.com), that his family was dysfunctional and struggled with alcoholism (Moby's own alcoholism has been widely reported, as has the fact that his father died in a drunk driving accident), that someone he knew had "the cancer that ultimately affected the lungs" (his mother, also widely reported), and that his mother doesn’t want him to feel guilty about not visiting her grave, something that could apply equally to someone who visits compulsively or doesn’t visit much. Moby was flabbergasted. At the end of the interview, he told the camera, “There’s a lot of baffling legitimacy to this.”

How it works

"Cold reading" is where a medium has no prior knowledge of a client but combines vague statements with guesses based on their appearance, mannerisms, and reactions. “Hot reading” is where they research their clients ahead of time and weave facts into the performance. Henry appears to be using both. When he doesn’t have details ahead of time, he falls back on cold reading.

There are some cold reading phrases that are either true for most people or such a big minority that they’re worth trying, said Carrie Poppy, host of the podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie, which investigates fringe science and paranormal claims. One not-so-obvious example: "You almost drowned when you were a kid."

“Who had the cancer that ultimately affected the lungs?”

"A lot of people do almost drown when they’re kids. We’re not ready for water when we’re kids, so it’s millions of people," she said. “If you hear that and you think that you’re extraordinary for having almost drowned, it lands on you like a pile of bricks.” (Another one: You have a scar on your knee. Lots of people have scars on their knees — it’s a particularly vulnerable spot when we take a tumble.)

When Henry spoke to Ross Mathews, former comedian on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno and judge of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the medium asked, "There’s very distinctly a father reference… has your dad actually passed?" followed by, “Mom’s still here though, right?” These guesses are formed as questions, not statements. This allows Henry to follow them up with “Ah yes, I knew your father had passed” or “Ah, see what I’m getting here is a father figure that has passed. Perhaps your grandfather or great-grandfather?” (By suggesting a grandfather, you double your chances of a hit. By suggesting a great-grandfather, you quadruple it. Even more if you start taking into account stepfathers, uncles, and family friends.)

Henry is likely also doing hot reading on his clients, as seen when he seems to intuit highly publicized facts, such as Moby’s family’s alcoholism or Real Housewives cast member Carole Radziwill’s close friendship with the deceased Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. In one episode, during what is presented as an at-home diary-cam session, he wonders if he will one day read comedian Margaret Cho. (Surprise: He does a few weeks later.)

It’s easy to learn a lot about someone in the days of social media, even if that person isn’t a celebrity. Poppy pointed to Henry’s contemporary Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium. "I went to one of her live shows, and she made a really big deal about how there was a guy in a particular row that had an angel tattoo on his wrist and… gasp, he did!" Poppy said. “That night, I went to her Facebook page, and he had, eight or nine hours earlier before the show, written, ‘So excited to see you. Hoping to hear from my aunt who was like a mother to me.’ So I clicked on his bio and oh, look at that! The background image on his profile was his angel tattoo.”

Supporting cast

Henry’s shtick is polished, but it only works because he has such great support. Besides the celebrities he interviews, Henry seems to have the full-throated endorsement of the entertainment press.

Henry has appeared to either display or discuss his abilities on Ellen, The Talk, The View, and Access Hollywood, where he’s introduced as a psychic and fawned over by the hosts. Henry has also appeared multiple times on The Today Show. When co-host Matt Lauer finally got his reading, he was credulous. "There were times where my hands were shaking and I felt like I was perspiring because the things he was saying were so spot on," he said. "It was incredible.”

Pop culture writers have also declined to question Henry’s powers. Outlets like Entertainment Weekly and Deadline Hollywood refer to Henry as "clairvoyant" and “psychic,” no questions asked. “This Celebrity Medium Once Channeled Brittany Murphy's Spirit During a Reading, No Really” is one Cosmopolitan headline.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed had the star read three of its writers without telling him or his team in advance who they would be. The result is a breathless endorsement. "Where are the two sisters on your mom’s side?" Henry asked writer Lindsay Farber. “Right then, my mind was BLOWN,” she wrote, because he was clearly talking about her mother and her aunt.

“There’s very distinctly a father reference.”

That’s despite the fact that Henry’s question was essentially, are there two sisters anywhere on your maternal side? If her maternal grandmother had had a sister, or her great-grandmother, or her cousins, or a female relative had a friend she considered a sister, he still would have been right. Farber had also brought her grandmother’s necklace to the reading to assist Henry in his reading, tipping him off that there might be a woman worth asking about.

Ellen, Access Hollywood, BuzzFeed, and The Today Show are part of the Comcast/NBCUniversal conglomerate, which has made a concerted, public effort to cross-promote its projects. The Today Show is especially infamous for cross-promoting its sister shows.

John Edward and James Van Praagh, two of Henry’s heroes, have also been supported by the media. Edward "converted" an allegedly skeptical Dr. Phil into a believer; he also read Anderson Cooper and appeared on Anderson. Van Praagh has hit Larry King Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The New York Times Style section. He plugged his book in a friendly interview on Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Lately and blogged for The Huffington Post.

One notable exception is Barbara Walters, whose producer pretty thoroughly exposed John Edward in a 2003 ABC News piece on 20/20. Walters also skewered Van Praagh, who told her her white blood cell count was too high. Her doctor tested her blood and found her in fine health. Later, the veteran journalist called bullshit and told her co-hosts on The View that she thought it was a "dangerous" prediction to make. Two years later, when Walters had surgery, not for elevated white blood cell count but to replace a heart valve, Van Praagh declared himself vindicated — a claim parroted credulously by the New York Post.

As for the celebs, so far, the only person to come close to criticizing Henry has been Boy George, who laughed at the medium’s attempts to connect with ex-addicts and musicians in his past. "It’s quite vague," the ’80s icon said when asked if a description of someone who fell off the wagon, and then passed away, fit anyone he knew. How many people in the star’s past did it fit? “Oh, a lot of people,” he said. In the next room, Boy George’s manager appeared frustrated. “He’s so obviously Steve Strange,” he said. He then interrupted the reading and told George to cooperate. Eventually, Henry got a hit by asking George about his having a relationship with “someone who would go by ‘Rob,’ not by ‘Robert.’” It was at this point in the reading that Henry seemed to have finally won George over.

Do no harm

Henry and a publicist from his publisher Simon & Schuster, Kristin Dwyer, met myself and a video crew in an office space we’d rented for an interview during his book publicity tour.

The medium is animated, polite, and charismatic. He has dark eyes that look almost black against his platinum blond hair. We asked him who would win the election. He said we should "tune in next week," but “I’m not worried,” his stock answer for the press. After Donald Trump’s win, the openly gay star tweeted at a fan. “I knew who I hoped, had a non-psychic opinion, but didn't see the outcome,” he wrote. “Regardless, I never encouraged worry, we'll be okay.”

Despite his gregariousness, Henry is inscrutable. He proved adept at repeating stock answers and dodging criticism. "I think skepticism is an important thing, and I’d love to be able to go and to undergo testing, to some extent, to be able to figure out the span of what this is," he said. “Unfortunately there are a lot of people who are not legitimate, but in the same vein there’s also cynics who have their own agendas as well, who aren’t scientifically minded but claim to be.”

I myself wondered, especially after meeting the extremely likeable, extremely nice, highly accommodating TV star, whether it really matters that Henry is a fraud. If he’s making some people feel closure about a loved one’s death, and it brings joy to millions of viewers, what’s the damage?

Well, here are some examples of Henry’s more audacious readings. On his show, he strongly suggested to football star Michael Sam that his long lost brother, who went missing as a teenager, is still alive somewhere. He told Maria Menounos, a television presenter on the E! network hoping to conceive, that her efforts with IVF would take a few years to succeed.

“You almost drowned when you were a kid.”

He also gives health readings, which Kris Jenner joked could replace her regular doctor’s visits. Though Henry often sticks to mild and common complaints, such as indigestion or back pain, he’s occasionally delved into claims that his client has more serious issues such as cancer (a story he relays in his new book).

"It seems to really betray his own overconfidence," Poppy told The Outline. “He probably thinks, ‘Oh well, no matter. I’ll just send them to the hospital if they need to go to the hospital.’ But, and let me stress this, he doesn’t know. He’s not a doctor. That’s inexcusable.”

If you’re still asking, "What’s the harm in a little entertainment?" consider that people who are grieving are highly vulnerable to being taken advantage of financially. This phenomenon was egregiously apparent in the case of Niall Rice, a 33-year-old consultant who was swindled for $718,000 by two Manhattan psychics who promised to reunite him with the woman he loved, even after it was discovered that she was dead. A 2005 Gallup poll found that three in four Americans believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon, while a study earlier this year found that believers tend to have poor cognition. Americans spend $2 billion a year on “psychic services,” according to market research by IBISWorld.

Henry says his ultimate goal is to "work with parents who have lost children to suicide, because that’s something I’ve seen through clients and I’ve known people affected by suicide."

Tyler Henry and Kris Jenner.

Henry has told us that "under the proper circumstances" he would “love to” submit to a test of his abilities, but he declined to specify what that would look like, saying it would be up to the scientists.

The Independent Investigations Group at the nonprofit Center for Inquiry - Los Angeles offers a $100,000 prize for proving the existence of supernatural phenomena. Henry would be allowed to design the test with the organization’s staff to his own specifications.

We spoke with James Underdown, the the founder and chair of the Independent Investigations Group, about what such a test might look like. "There would be different ways of testing someone like Tyler, depending on what he says he can do," said Underdown. “Since cold reading depends on using both general statements that might apply to lots of people or making tons of specific guesses, we’d probably want to bring him someone he doesn’t know and ask for specific answers to a fairly few questions. Or request an answer to a unique question only the ‘spirit’ would know, like a ‘Where-did-you-hide-the-money?’ type question.”

Psychic entertainers do better when they ask a lot of questions, running through misses until they get a hit. "If we give mediums too many guesses, they’ll eventually get something right, or close, just by chance alone. This is what believers lock into, by the way," Underdown said. “They hear the medium say something they couldn’t know, then get excited, despite the fact that the medium might have taken dozens, or hundreds, of guesses to get there.” In another investigation, Underdown found that a psychic named Rebecca Rosen made upward of 410 guesses in an hour-long call with a client.

“If we give mediums too many guesses, they’ll eventually get something right, or close, just by chance alone.”

Henry declined to do a reading in person for The Outline, citing his wish to focus on his new book. A publicist for Henry did not return comment when asked if he would cooperate with the Independent Investigations Group to test his abilities.

For all his fame-seeking and fantastic claims, Henry has yet to attempt any scientific review. In fact, nobody has been able to win this prize or a similar $1 million prize previously offered for paranormal abilities by The James Randi Educational Foundation, a semi-defunct skepticism-focused non-profit.

If Henry can truly speak to the dead, it would be the most important discovery in the history of the world. But rather than take his gift to scientists or religious leaders, Henry has decided to speak to actors about their grandmothers and deceased pets on a reality show. Before this story published, The Outline asked Henry’s publicist one last time if he could prove his abilities. We did not get a response.

If you’re grieving and need support, you can find help and community at Open to Hope Foundation, The Compassionate Friends in the UK, or TAPS for veterans. If you’re looking for further skeptical analysis, please contact the Independent Investigation Group. If you’d like to play along at home during Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry, we suggest the Cold Reading Bingo Game.

Ryan Houlihan is a writer and comedian in New York.

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