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"Randi is my best unpaid publicist," Geller says in a phone call from his home in London. "If I had to get a calculator and see how much a high-priced Madison Avenue entertainment publicist would cost, I'd have to say that I got around $10 million worth of free publicity from skeptics."
Geller speaks with an old-world show-business charisma not unlike Randi's. Under other circumstances, the two might have even become friends, but to Randi, Geller has crossed an ethical line — he never came clean about his tricks.
Geller doesn't see it that way. "Without the skeptics, I wouldn't be Uri Geller," he says. "They made me. They created me. They kept the aura, the legend, the mystery, the mysticism around Uri Geller. I owe them bouquets of flowers for keeping my career alive. If they wanted to finish me off over three decades ago, all they had to do is not talk about me. They should have shut up."
Randi, of course, has offered to test Geller and to give him $1 million if he can prove his claims. But Geller has always declined, saying anything that would quiet skeptics — and by extension make him less controversial — would hurt his career. "If someone wants to stay in the business of being a psychic," he says, "they should simply ignore the skeptics."
Enticed by the warm weather, Randi moved to Florida in 1985, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. He wanted an organization of his own from which he could launch his lengthy investigations of paranormal claims. He established the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 out of a split-level white Fort Lauderdale building with Spanish tile, stained glass over the entrance, and peacocks frolicking in the yard. Images of flying pigs hang on the walls next to old posters, magazine clips, and a letter from Johnny Carson (it accompanied a $100,000 donation). In Randi's Isaac Asimov Library are shelves of books on all things paranormal, from phrenology to faith healing, and a portrait of the writer friend for whom the room is named.
The truth is, Randi's obsessions with incredulity and prestidigitation flowered from the same seed. He has always delighted in watching the stunned faces of audiences as he makes them believe — perhaps only for a moment — that they've witnessed something impossible. At lunch, for instance, he makes the salt shaker vanish under a napkin, and when his tablemates finish applauding, he says, "Yes, yes, great dinner entertainment, horrible table manners. Now, has anyone seen the salt?" He gets the same giddy satisfaction making the careers of psychics disappear.
But even before his cancer diagnosis, Randi had faced recent challenges. Like many nonprofits, his foundation has taken a severe financial hit. It is funded through sales of books and DVDs, grants, conferences, donations from wealthy friends, and Randi's speaking engagements, which command as much as $30,000.
According to tax records, Randi's organization lost nearly a quarter of its $2 million overall worth last year. (The $1 million for the challenge is held in a separate, Goldman Sachs account.) Randi takes an annual salary of about $200,000, which he justifies by saying that it's in line with what he was making as an entertainer and hasn't been adjusted much in the 13 years since the foundation was started.
Critics of Randi — and he admits that there are hundreds who write to him every month — call him the charlatan. "Mr. Randi, admit you're a fraud, that your offer's a fraud," demanded Greg Price, a Minnesota man who claimed he could dowse, in a video he sent to Randi. "Your foundation should be disbanded immediately!"
In the 40 years since Randi has been putting up money to test paranormal ability, nobody has made it past the initial testing stage. The vast majority of failed or debunked applicants complain that Randi surreptitiously affects the outcome in his favor. He has been accused of both having paranormal powers and of violating the showbiz brotherhood by trying to expose a lack of paranormal powers in others.
He has also been accused of having inappropriate relationships with his apprentices. The accusation went public on an episode of Oprah in which Randi was asked to debunk psychics. One of the psychics accused him of improper relationships with young boys. Randi denies the allegations: "She was referring, of course, to my apprentices," he says. "I've had many fantastic apprentices over the years."
Those closest to Randi are fiercely loyal. His longtime companion, Jose Alvarez, met Randi 20 years ago, not long after Alvarez was involved in a cult. "Randi showed me that reality — the real world — has a very special kind of beauty," says Jose, now 41.
The other frequent criticism of Randi is that he's just wrong. Like many of the psychics Randi encounters, Geller says reality is composed of paranormal events every day, though science can't yet understand or quantify it. Geller contends that everyone, Randi included, has some psychic powers. "It's simply not developed in everyone," Geller says. "We all have a sixth sense, because we are animals. It's a part of our chromosome buildup. It's a part of our DNA. There are too many synchronicities in your life to ignore it as coincidence."