2016-06-30
Everything that a struggling 20-year-old psychic could do, I did. I read at a psychic fair at a women's university while religious protestors waved signs out front. I read at bookstores and coffeehouses. Around this time-in the late 1990s-psychic phone lines were tremendously popular... It was my dream to work on a psychic hotline. It seemed too good to be true-I could work from home and do what I loved. I was hearing at the psychic fairs that some people were making $2,000 or $3,000 a month working psychic lines, plus bonuses. That was big money to me. I called the Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline and got hired on the spot over the phone. I didn't realize before, but it seemed like if you could talk, you were hired. They couldn't have cared less if you were psychic. I was in. I was asked to get a second phone line installed in my house and was sent a packet of information in the mail.

The way it worked was that I dialed in to an 800 number and heard a broadcast message. A woman would come on and say something like, "Hey, everybody, commercials are on at 11 tonight. We're going to have very strong hits between midnight and 3 a.m." All the psychics were arranged on a priority list, so when I started, out of 1,500 psychics who worked there, I was number 1,499. When someone wanted to call in for a reading, they were plugged in to psychic number 1. The second caller went to psychic number two, and so on down the line. There would have to be 1,499 simultaneous calls for me to get one. But I didn't realize that on my first night. The first time I logged in to the system, alerting them that I was plugged in and ready to receive calls, I was so excited! Of course, I was trying to be very spiritual. I had soft music on and candles lighted, and I was sitting with my tarot cards in front of me, ready for fire. Twenty minutes later, I kind of leaned back and relaxed a bit. An hour into it, I picked up a book. By 2 a.m. I had the radio on and was dancing around the room, wearing my headset. Finally, the phone rang at 4 a.m. I leaped on it. Protocol was to ask callers for their name and date of birth.
"Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline. My name is Dougall. May I please have your name and date of birth?" I said breathlessly, all in a rush. The young man on the other end happened to be 18 on that very day (you had to be 18 years old to call a 900 number). It was ridiculous; I'm sure he was probably 13. He said, "All I want to know is when I'm going to lose my virginity." I said, "You've got to be kidding me." And he hung up. That was it. My first call. My only call, as it turned out, for the entire week. I was logged in to the system for 20 hours-from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. five nights in a row-and received that one phone call. When I had signed up to work on the Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline, I'd been promised that I would make between $12 and $24 an hour because I'd be paid by the talking minute. But if the phone didn't ring, I got nothing. I called the office the day I got my check in the mail for my first week of work. My net pay was about $1.50. I complained, "I was online for 20 hours and only got one phone call." The supervisor was very nice. She explained the whole priority process to me and said, "Well, I'll increase your priority and we'll see what happens." She bumped me up in the system to probably number 25 or so. That night I logged in, and the phone didn't stop ringing. As soon as I put the receiver down, a new call started ringing in. I did ten readings an hour, from midnight until 4 in the morning. I literally could not get off the phone. I couldn't pee; I couldn't stand up-that phone rang every seven seconds.
And the callers! They were on welfare; they were getting beaten by their husbands; they wanted to know when their sons were getting out of prison. I couldn't believe it. These callers were way out of my comfort zone. First thing, nine out of ten callers would ask if they could speak to Kenny Kingston, the man they saw hosting the commercial. And those free minutes they were promised? I found out later that there weren't any free minutes. At least half my callers hung up after two minutes, when I would be right in the middle of saying something. This was because they thought they wouldn't be charged because they had seen the advertisement offering two free minutes. It was like getting kicked in the stomach each time someone hung up on me. Nobody really wanted a reading anyway. They just wanted someone to listen to them, and apparently they didn't mind paying for the privilege.

When I logged out at 4 a.m. that first night after being bumped up, I was freaked out. I could not even do it the next night-it was too weird and scary. The Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline was not doing it for me. So I quit working for them and turned to a classier venue, the Psychic Friends Network. I had heard through some fellow seers that it was much better. I called the main office in Atlanta and spoke to someone in personnel.

The woman on the other end of the phone explained the whole Psychic Friends Network to me. I had to send in letters of recommendation, a picture, and a résumé. They required proof that whoever worked for them had been a practicing psychic for 10 years. This was a tough one for me; I was only 20 years old. So in my application I just left off my date of birth. I wrote a letter saying I had studied tarot, taught meditation and Reiki, and been a practicing psychic for 10 years. I got a call back from what I called ESP Central, and they set up three test readings. They were carefully screening me, and I was glad. My only worry was that I wouldn't meet their standards.

I dialed a number in Colorado for my first test reading.

"Hi, this is Alan. Is this Dougall?"

"Yes, sir. I'm a little nervous."

"Don't be."

"Alan, the first thing I see around you is blue. Did a relationship just end that involved the other party cheating?" We were on the phone for about 10 minutes. He seemed genuinely impressed that I was able to target the demise of his marriage after he discovered his wife's affair. I was also able to come up with his current girlfriend's name and that he really didn't want to marry her. He was blown away. Then he went through his list of questions.

What if someone called you and wanted to get their boyfriend back? Would you teach them how to put a spell on him?" "Absolutely not," I said. "There is nothing anyone can do to help you get someone back if they don't want to be with you. You need to pray for the highest good for everyone concerned and make your peace with the situation." That was the right answer-he had to make sure I wouldn't manipulate the callers. "What if someone asks for your home number and wants to talk to you privately for less money?"
That sounded just fine to me, but I knew that operators monitored the calls, so I said, "I would never do that! I'm here to make money for the Psychic Friends Network!" I was the perfect applicant. I did another phone reading for another executive, who was pleased, and for my third reading, I read for the woman who ran the office of the psychics. I didn't get a good vibe from her; I couldn't connect with her. I could tell that she had a harsh personality and that men felt dominated by her. But I was 20 years old, applying for a job. What was I going to say? "You're intimidating, men don't like you, and you don't have a lot of friends. Hire me." So I ignored all that and did the best I could. And it was awful, a really bad reading. At the end of the session, she said, "Well, you're hired." I was so surprised, I blurted out, "I can't believe you're hiring me. I thought that reading for you was really bad." She was very blasé. "You did? No, don't worry. It was fine." I decided to make up a name to use for my readings. I was already thinking ahead to a time when I might become a well-known psychic and might not want everyone to know I had done this. So I became Sean. And I have to say I felt much better about this new venture. The professional interview process had reassured me; I felt renewed optimism about being a phone-line psychic.
There is a constant, 24-hour-a-day stream of calls coming in to the Psychic Friends Network. But I learned that if I logged in during the middle of the day, when commercials weren't constantly running-let's say at 2 in the afternoon-I got only three or four calls an hour. I liked that pace. I hadn't liked working in the middle of the night, lonely souls pouring out their hearts at 4 a.m.; having breakfast at 2 p.m. This was more like regular working hours. The people who called Psychic Friends Network were a more sophisticated bunch, though there were still a few who called and wanted to speak to Dionne Warwick. I'd be like, "Lady, I'm at home in my pajamas, and I've never met Dionne Warwick." No, I didn't really say that, but I wanted to. I used to turn on the TV across the room and monitor the commercials closely while I was logged in, to see at what point people started dialing in. Was it Dionne's tear that moved them? Was it when Vicki Lawrence was so wowed by her reading? The whole marketing process fascinated me. And even though I understood the business behind the whole entertainment aspect of the infomercial, a big part of me still wanted to believe in it. The Psychic Friends Network certainly felt like the most reputable of all the psychic phone lines. With every paycheck, I received a whole sales sheet breaking out each of my calls, showing how long each person had stayed on the line, how many people had specifically requested me-everything. It was highly professional and organized on one hand, but I was starting to get pushed in a direction that made me uneasy. I was urged to sign my callers up for a special "club," so at the end of each call, I had to ask, "Would you like to join our Psychic Circle? For $9.95 a month, you'll get a voice mail system that gives you a free astrological reading every day!" I think what the company really wanted was a name and an address with a matching credit card number that could be automatically charged $9.95 every month.
I started getting bombarded with training brochures from the corporate office in the mail. It was never as flat-out as "How to Keep Callers on the Phone." They had cheery titles like "Ideas to Make Your Readings Better!" For example, start readings by asking your clients to count backward from 10 to one and center their thoughts. Well, that's an additional 10 seconds of time charged. I really wanted to believe that it was a good company and I was doing good work, but it was getting harder. Let's say you as a caller decided to call the Psychic Friends Network. You would dial their 900 number and speak to a psychic who worked there. But say two hours later you're watching a commercial for the Nell Carter Psychic Hotline and decide to call there, too, maybe get a second opinion. You would dial a different 900 number and speak to someone else. But on my end, whichever number you dialed, my phone would ring. Whenever I lifted my handset, the first thing I'd hear was a whispered, "Nell, Nell." (Or "Psychic Friends," or "Kenny.") In the beginning, I didn't know what the little whisper meant, so I ignored it and said, "Psychic Friends Network. This is Sean. May I help you?" The person on the other end of the phone was sometimes surprised. "Wait a minute. I just called the Nell Carter hotline."

"That's impossible. I work at the Psychic Friends Network." This happened a few times until I finally figured out what was going on. They were all the same company. If you called LoveLines, you got me. You called the Linda Georgian Psychic Hotline, you got me. You called Psychic Friends, you got me. All the smaller companies were merely divisions of the same big corporation.

From my impression, there seemed to be three huge corporations that owned three or more lines each. And the psychics who worked for one of these companies worked for them all. I quickly learned to catch that little whisper in my ear at the beginning of each call. It was to alert me to which number the caller dialed so I would answer the phone correctly. "Thank you for calling the Zodiac Hotline.." "Thank you for calling Astrology Readings." All me. I became further disillusioned but still wanted to believe I had a great job at a good company. But it was getting harder. I had a regular caller, Champagne, on the Psychic Friends Network. She called in every day at 11 o'clock and always requested me. She had the same two questions for me every day: "When is my husband getting out of jail?" and "When am I getting my welfare check?" One day, I couldn't take it anymore. I said, "Champagne, the next time you want to call me, I want you to take $50, open a window, and throw it out. Because that's what you're doing every day. It is a complete waste of your money." She hung up on me in a huff, and that was the end of Champagne. Every now and again, I'd get the frisky callers. I'd be saying, "As I'm turning over the cards, I see." and they'd be interrupting every five seconds: "What are you wearing?" Most of the callers really started to depress me. The last straw was when I started getting calls from people saying, "Sean, I got your letter saying you really needed to speak with me urgently." and I'd say, "What are you talking about? I didn't send you any letter." They'd insist, "I have your letter right here. You're Sean at extension 5842, right?" I didn't worry about it too much until one day when I got a call from a woman who was livid. "You sent my husband a letter, Sean. You said that you have important things to tell him about love and life and money." She paused, then really screamed, "My husband's dead! He just died of cancer! He was desperate. That's the only reason he would have called you! You don't have any fucking thing to tell him about love or life!" She really went off on me. I couldn't figure what all this letter stuff was about, so I called the line myself and posed as a caller. And 10 days later, I got a postcard in my mailbox, saying, "Dear Dougall, Your psychic Tom at extension 4821 needs to talk to you immediately about urgent matters concerning." I felt like a hooker. The ploy disgusted me. To this day, I believe that working one of those lines is one small step above being a prostitute. Those letters sent in my name were the end of it for me. Several years later, when I had achieved some success in the psychic world, I was offered my own psychic hotline. I turned it down flat. More than once, I have been offered a lot of money to lend my name to one. There is not enough money in the world for me to do something like that. Ever. Those corporations were making millions and millions of dollars. They had more than 1,000 psychics working for them. The psychics were paid 15 cents for every minute they were on the phone, while callers were being charged $3.95 a minute. The biggest check I had ever gotten was for $195. My whole experiment with psychic hotlines lasted about 6 months, and over those 6 months, I tried working for them all. For a long time, I just couldn't let it go-the idea of doing my work, being psychic and helping people, from home, and the lure of good money. I kept thinking that I just had to find the right line and it would be the perfect job, but there was no good one. In my view, the Miss Cleo line was the worst. The worst. Apparently, as long as you had a heartbeat, they'd hire you. It later came out in a lawsuit against them that the United States government used to list them as an employer for people on welfare. Working a psychic hotline had become a guaranteed job. So while people in the media were investigating these hotlines and exposing their shams, the government simultaneously fielded complaints and used the hotlines as employment opportunities. The authorities knew that all of those people couldn't have been psychic. They should have been steering the people to phone sex lines or telemarketing, opportunities in which the consumer isn't paying for any particular talent. And, man, these companies were raking in the bucks. In the middle of the night, my private line used to ring and ring, and when I finally picked up, there would be an automated voice saying, "Please log in now. The system is very busy." They were making tons of money. Of course, the whole psychic hotline craze collapsed eventually in a maze of lawsuits. But I was done with it. I felt cheapened and abused and embarrassed. I was completely disheartened by the whole experience. Oh, there were talks around Dallas with friends of mine about starting our own line and doing things correctly, but I just couldn't see how it could be done. There's a reason it costs so much a minute-setting up the 900 number, getting advertising..It takes a corporation. But if you had the capital to get started, you could make millions. Many did. Supposedly when the Psychic Friends Network started, they had only 50 psychics working for them, and they made comfortable money and had decent hours doing what they loved. But then everyone got greedy and it all went crazy. I have experienced every aspect of being a psychic. Part of the reason I'm so confident in my abilities now is that I know what it's like to be treated like a fortune-teller. I know what it's like to be sitting hunched over your coffee table with a lit candle, waiting for your next call to come in. I know how it feels to sit behind a card table in a small New Age bookstore in a strip mall, hoping to get a $10 reading. The whole psychic hotline experience was a big lesson for me: I know that even something as sacred as a psychic connection can be exploited for excessive profit, to feed someone else's enormous greed for cash. More than anything, psychic lines taught me the power of television. So many people believe anything they see on TV. Anything! I understand that Dionne Warwick now has it written into her contracts that when she makes any kind of appearance, no one is allowed to ask about her psychic line. You are not allowed to even mention it. I can certainly understand why she might want to distance herself from it all. Right around this time, I was praying hard. The psychic hotline thing was clearly over for good. My dad's financial assistance was going to end very shortly, and though I had a growing following, I wasn't making enough money to support myself as a psychic. I needed an answer. I hate massage, I love doing readings..How can I make a living doing what I love?

Three weeks later, I got a call from the Dallas Observer, saying they wanted to come take a picture of me to accompany an article they were writing about me. I had been named "The Best Psychic in Dallas." Now, why hadn't I seen that in my future?