James Van Praagh is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of it when Heath Ledger shows up in the middle of his morning routine. “I was shaving and all of a sudden I see his face in the back of my mirror,” says Van Praagh, in his Laguna Beach, Calif., home. “A thought comes from him immediately: ‘I f—– up.’ Then he thought about his daughter. Then he was gone.” Van Praagh believes Ledger, who died a few weeks earlier, then went on to visit Michelle Williams and their daughter Matilda in Brooklyn. “I want to talk to Michelle and do a reading to help her,” Van Praagh says.
Of course, Van Praagh doesn’t usually make house calls. Instead the self-described “ambassador of the spirit world” is more of a mass medium, which is why he is rivaled only by a few, like John Edward, as one of America’s best-known conduits to the hereafter. Van Praagh, 49, prefers to do his stuff via television; he’s co-executive producer of CBS’s Ghost Whisperer and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live. Then there are his books—seven so far—including current bestseller Ghosts Among Us. “If I did do private readings?” Van Praagh says. “Boy, could I charge a lot!”
Occasionally Van Praagh does sit with celebrities, like Eva Longoria Parker, Ted Danson and Cher—who through Van Praagh once got Sonny’s guidance when picking shoes for the Oscars. Whisperer star Jennifer Love Hewitt recently had Van Praagh rid her home of the ghost of an obsessed fan. “Through James I was able to talk to my grandmother,” the actress says. “Death is something people are really afraid and unsure of. When somebody can shed a good or hopeful light on it, like James can, why wouldn’t you be intrigued?” Joan Rivers spoke to her husband, Edgar, who died in 1987, through Van Praagh. “I think James really does have the gift,” she says.
Van Praagh’s many debunkers suggest his entire career is built on illusion. “Magical thinking is powerful,” says Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things. “We would like to believe that this is not all there is and that our loved ones are close by, and maybe even in the room, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Van Praagh takes naysayers in stride. “I invite skeptics, because this is all about open minds and hearts,” he says. “It is not my job to force this down people’s throats. Everybody has a right to believe what they believe.”
Van Praagh, however, believes that the typical ghost is the soul of a person who died but for whatever reason—obsessions, unfinished business—just can’t let go of terra firma. The ghosts, he says, can take the form of shimmering lights or the person and tend to hang out in bars, churches and homes, and yes, they go to their funerals. “At his funeral, my father commented that his teeth looked so much better,” says Van Praagh, who is single and grew up in Queens. First thing you should know about ghosts: They’re nothing like they’re portrayed on his show. “My latest book was in part to educate readers about what ghosts are and if they haunt people like on Ghost Whisperer,” he says. “The answer is no. They aren’t really violent. That part of the show is very Hollywood.”
Van Praagh says he first noticed his ability to connect with the otherworldly when he was a boy—while at Mass he’d watch the ghosts of little children play in the pews of the church. As a teenager, Van Praagh says he lost his gift. “I shut down sometime around puberty,” he says.
It wasn’t until years later that he realized what he was capable of: After moving to Los Angeles in the ’80s to pursue a career as a sitcom writer, he saw the spirit of a coworker’s grandmother at the next desk. “After that day, I saw that I had come here to demonstrate to the world that there was no such thing as death and no limitation to consciousness,” says Van Praagh. “Your loved ones will always come and get you.”