May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

What’s heaven like? TV psychic John Edward says he’s had a glimpse. His mother’s spirit, he claims, has shown it to him. “Rolling hills, beautiful trees, fountains,” says Edward. “And there are no colors to describe it.”

Such alleged postcards from eternity are delivered five days a week from the host of TV’s Crossing Over with John Edward. Edward, who claims to have first experienced the paranormal as a 3-year-old—he says he would leave his body and float over to relatives’ homes—at 32 has developed into a whole other sort of astral projection: a TV star. Crossing Over, which grew out of One Last Time, Edward’s 1999 bestseller about his life as a medium, was an immediate hit when it premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel in July 2000. Since last fall it has also become the most successful new show in daily syndication, with an audience of more than 3 million. Now, while working his way through a three-year waiting list of one-on-one private readings ($300 a session)—and fighting off suggestions that his act is really a meticulously tuned parlor trick—he’s developing a TV drama: “It will be like Touched by an Angel meets The X-Files.”

The truth is out there, Edward insists, and according to him the dead are far nicer than Scully and Mulder. “Their message is, ‘We’re still around, we love you,’ ” he says. At the start of each show, he stands before a small studio audience and begins, he says, picking up vibes from what he calls “the other side.” Then he rattles off questions with the speed of a cattle auctioneer. “I’m getting an A or—an Anthony? Does anyone have an Anthony who recently crossed over?”

What makes Edward entertaining—believers would say uncanny—is how he nails down concrete details from wispy hints. Even though his attempts to connect audience and spirits sometimes don’t pan out, “he’s a bulldog when it comes to facts,” says Gary Schwartz, director of the University of Arizona’s Human Energy Systems Laboratory, which studies paranormal phenomena. Testing mediums in a clinical setting, he found that Edward was largely accurate in his readings. When onetime John Lennon girlfriend May Pang, 51, had a private session with him in 1999, Edward sent her a greeting from a man, first initial J, who had been riddled with bullets. (The appointment was set up by a friend, and Pang says Edward didn’t even know her name.) He also sensed an identity involving a twin and a knife—a reference, Pang says, to her sister, one of a pair of twins, who died in a stabbing incident. “I was acting cool,” says Pang, “but I was really excited.”

Or, many would argue, really gullible? Psychic debunkers charge that Edward is simply an ace manipulator, throwing out questions in a way that tricks the audience into giving him information. Magicians know the technique, says Joe Nickell of the Amherst, N.Y.-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: “It’s called cold reading.” And by the way, Nickell asks, why would the dead, articulate in life, be reduced to mumbling into a psychic’s ear? Says Edward: “It’s like I’m at the bottom of a pool, and they have to hold their breath and dive down to connect with me.”

Edward says his mother always believed he had special abilities. “I didn’t feel like a freak,” says Edward, who was raised by his mother, Perinda, after she and his father, John, a police officer, split up when their only child was in sixth grade. Perinda herself was a paranormal enthusiast, hosting spirit salons in her Long Island home. That was how Edward met a psychic named Lydia Clar in 1985. “She told me,” says Edward, “that she was there to put me on this path.” Starting with tarot and palm readings, he says, “I began making connections with the other side.”

But you can’t count on the other side to put bread on the table. At the beginning of the ’90s, while building his reputation as a medium, Edward worked as a lab blood technician and even taught ballroom dancing on Long Island. He first learned to dance from an Arthur Murray instructor named Sandra in 1992. Kindred spirits, they wed in 1995. “John is so down-to-earth,” says Sandra, 30, who adds nonetheless that she “had to get used to Andrew and Mikey,” child spirits who occasionally contact Edward. “I’m always getting used to something.”

Her husband says understanding the ways of the otherworld hasn’t been easy for him either, especially after Perinda was diagnosed with cancer in 1989. “The doctor told me if we’d known earlier, she would have had a chance,” says Edward. So why didn’t his psychic ability warn him? With time, he says, he realized the spirits “weren’t playing with me—they were teaching me that this isn’t about me or my ego. There’s a higher power here.”

Edward believes Perinda, who died a few months after her diagnosis, has contacted him, usually through other mediums. (Mother and son agreed before her death, he says, that she should speak to him indirectly because his emotional attachment is too strong for him to trust his objectivity.) “She’d say,” says Edward, “the good thing about her dying was she knew she’d still be able to talk to me.” He smiles. “She’s definitely around.”

Tom Gliatto

Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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