Savard, JoJo (Profile)
The sun was in Leo and the moon was in Cancer as the taxi pulled up outside a prosperous white house nestled below Mount Royal on a leafy Montreal boulevard. The day had been listed as one of the 10 most favorable dates in that month's horoscope, but a visitor could be forgiven for suspecting a planetary mix-up. From the street, the terraced tri-level appeared a model of bourgeois sobriety, betraying no trace of its proprietor's trademark flamboyance. Then, the front door swung open to reveal cascades of blond hair exploding from a black velvet bow. Even from the sidewalk, there was no mistaking the face that has launched millions of phone calls seeking celestial guidance at the rate of $4.99 a minute - that of Jocelyne (JoJo) Savard, who has become the leading Canadian contender in the continent's booming psychic phone-line business.
Ever since she burst onto the late, late-night airwaves in May, 1994, a startling apparition in a flurry of blond ponytails and purple ruffles, the Quebec astrologer has become a celebrity of a distinctly 1990s variety. Her fame has sprung almost exclusively from her post-midnight televised pitches for a 1-900 network of telephonic fortune tellers called JoJo's Psychic Alliance. More than two million Canadians a day have tuned into those after-hours infomercials - 30-minute ads masquerading as TV talk shows, complete with game show host Geoff Edwards, guest appearances by soap opera stars and melodramatic re-enactments of predictions-come-true.
That response has brought a windfall not only to the self-styled "Goddess of the moon and Queen of the stars," but also to the country's telephone and broadcast companies (page 44). And, although previous American psychic lines have used such personalities as pop crooner Dionne Warwick to plug their wares, it has launched Savard as the chief Canadian example of a new show business species - the infomercial star. Already a fixture in Quebec tabloids like Allo Police, she has no qualms about her newfound fame. "It's nice, after all the years of struggle," she says, "to have a little applause."
First aired on 19 private TV stations across the continent - and featuring a controversial testimonial letter from the Prime Minister's wife, Aline Chrétien - Savard's initial infomercial quickly accomplished its aim: to stop late-night channel surfers in their tracks with her outlandish image. As she notes, "People see me and they don't seem to forget!" Currently, a second edition, which she refers to as her new show and has named The Power of Love, is running in Boston, Chicago, upper New York state and Florida. Over the past 16 months, both have generated thousands of calls a day - not to mention huge profits for Ormazd Inc., the Miami telemarketing firm that contracted her to front one of its three psychic phone services for a six-figure fee and a small royalty on each call.
Although Savard's line remains a modest player in a field notorious for its secrecy, it ranks as the top-grossing entrant in the Canadian sector of the new dial-a-destiny industry. According to experts, that industry racked up an estimated $100 million in telephone sales last year. As Savard observes, with her customary fractured exuberance, "It's mind-smashing to see people are so much in need of a human connection."
But that need lies at the heart of the contentious question that hovers over the psychic phone trade: is it merely a harmless high-tech update on old-fashioned fortune-telling fun - or, as Savard's critics charge, costly hucksterism designed to cash in on the era's rampant loneliness and alienation? She herself characterizes her service as "light therapy - it's almost replacing a certain disappointment about religion and psychiatry. People are searching for something more." Agrees Jacqueline Stallone, the mother of macho movie star Sylvester, who has just filmed her own psychic infomercial for Savard's producers. "Basically, it's a quick fix. At 2 a.m., when you're having troubles with your lover, this is the time you want instant relief. Who else are you going to call - your psychiatrist?"
Some psychiatrists have argued that those who are depressed would be better off doing just that. Los Angeles psychiatrist Daniel Borenstein worries that, by turning to a psychic hotline, truly disturbed patients may put off needed professional help. But Zindel Segal, a psychologist who heads the cognitive-behavior therapy unit at Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, hesitates to damn those who are telemarketing reassurance at 3 a.m., the proverbial dark night of the soul. "We have to recognize there are a lot of people who don't come into contact with the mental health system," he says, "or who have lost faith in it."
Ironically, the most scathing denunciations of phone psychics have come from Bob Garfield, the Washington columnist for Advertising Age. Despite the fact that their increasingly slick infomercials have proved a boon to the ad world, he rails at them as "sleazy. The ultimate product they're selling is company - to have someone to talk to at $5 a minute." Acknowledges Nikki Pezaro, a Toronto actress-psychic who works the 4 a.m. shift on one of Savard's rival's lines: "There are a lot of desperate people out there."
One would appear to be Jonita Anderson, the 23-year-old wife of a U.S. navy officer, who pleaded guilty last March to running up $45,000 in unpaid phone bills to psychic lines while her husband was away at sea. Said Baltimore circuit court Judge Thomas Bollinger, who gave her a three-year suspended sentence: "We are talking about a sickness here."
Garfield compares telephone soothsayers with the purveyors of phone sex, who employ the same technology. "As tawdry as the sex lines are," he says, "at least you're getting what you paid for - a fantasy." But that may, in fact, be what Savard and her fellow phone seers are also providing: the illusion of certainty in an uncertain, angst-ridden age and the promise of a brighter tomorrow. "Our service is pushing an uplifting, positive approach," Savard says. "I tell my psychics that I don't care how bad it is, you say: 'Things may be difficult now, but it's a transit. It won't last forever.' "
Turning to the otherworldly for counsel is hardly new. From Oedipus' tragic misreading of the Delphic oracle's cryptic pronouncements in ancient Greece to former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's regular séances with his dead mother, both the powerful and powerless have sought answers from the realm of the paranormal. But computerized telephone technology has brought a revolutionary twist to the prophecy business. "Before, you had to go down to your corner psychic," says Barry Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. "Now, in the age of the information highway, it's as close as your telephone."
A member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Beyerstein is a militant nonbeliever. But even those like Toronto author Sylvia Fraser, who gives credit to some elements of the supernatural, are skeptical of divination on demand - above all when the $50 billing cap imposed by Canadian phone companies effectively limits calls to 10 minutes. Says Fraser: "Any kind of psychic nurturing takes concentration and focus."
Savard counters that the telephone heightens telepathy. "You meet somebody and you check out the clothes, the makeup," she says. "When there's nobody there to look at, it's much more powerful." Most of her 1,500 psychics work on contract out of their homes. But some low-budget services such as the British Columbia-based Evanly-Rays Psychic Answers run boiler-room-style operations: their card readers ply their skills from a noisy office on the outskirts of Kelowna.
Still, to the shock of many of her infomercial fans, Savard doesn't do psychic phone duty herself. In fact, as she alights in her cozy Outremont living-room, where crystal balls stud the rose-colored decor, she ignores her own private line ringing incessantly beside her. At five feet, nine inches, with a gold ankle bracelet and an earthy laugh punctuating her energetic monologues, she seems even larger in life than on her infomercials. But she admits even she failed to foresee the scope of her success. So staggering was the initial response to her ad last year that she faced an unforeseen crisis: "We were out of psychics," she says.
On a recruiting blitz, she and her backers papered New Age outlets with flyers announcing, "Psychics and Astrologers! Money-making Opportunity!" She insists supervisors test and screen each clairvoyant. But otherwise Savard leaves the details to aides - among them, Tom Slupski, her husband of one year. A boyishly handsome Polish immigrant, his business card features a picture of her in a low-cut scarlet gown on one side and, on the other, his title: impresario.
Slupski fields the offers that have poured in: endorsements for JoJo dolls, tarot decks and even her own makeup line. With her JoJo's Love Horoscope and astral calendar sold out, she will launch a new national horoscope column later this month. And she is booked up this fall as an after-dinner performer on the province's banquet circuit, where she is currently predicting grim times ahead for Premier Jacques Parizeau and a united Canada in 1996. As for her own future, she says that Ormazd may export her bilingual psychic line to Paris. "This is so huge - it's an empire," she exults.
She credits Slupski with her good fortune. But, as he notes, "it wasn't hard to sell JoJo." In a series of star-crossed coincidences that would warm the heart of any network caller - 75 per cent of whom are women - they met six years ago in a Montreal hotel lobby. But she says she had already seen him in her chart. At the time, Slupski was running his own Winnipeg delicatessen and seemed an improbable soul mate for a gadabout who loved the Montreal club scene and never bothered to keep groceries in her apartment. But he sent her roses, poems and even takeout pizzas. And five years ago, they moved in together, along with his five-year-old son, whom she helps raise. "You know what I've discovered?" she marvels. "I'm the most unbelievable housewifely person in the world!"
Last year, they decided to get married. The ceremony, she claims, took place atop the Mayan pyramid at Chichén Itzà on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula - a mind-boggling notion considering that each of its 91 steps is thigh-high. Savard says she climbed to the summit before donning her hastily devised bridal costume - a strapless white bra and crinoline she had strewn with silk flowers. Now Slupski shies from the limelight. "He loves me shining," she says, "but he wants to be in the dark."
Both also avoid discussing money - either the fees Ormazd pays its psychics or her. They argue that the rough-and-tumble world of psychic telemarketing is too competitive to offer rivals that insight. But Savard is also wary since she discovered the flip side of celebrity. In June, she suddenly found herself on the front page of La Presse, where Didier Vrac, a Swiss publisher, accused her of plagiarizing U.S. creative-visualization guru Shakti Gawain. Her longtime Quebec publisher, Pierre Nadeau, quickly issued a news release blaming a ghost-writer he had hired to flesh out her text. And Vrac has since dropped his threat to sue. But Savard was so shaken by the allegations that she landed in hospital. For, as she notes, "we all wear masks." And she is both shrewder and more sensitive than her outrageous public persona betrays. "She really reacted physically to the whole thing," says her sister Johanne, a Montreal labor lawyer. "Her whole credibility was at stake."
In fact, some commentators seized on the occasion to make snide jokes about Savard's psychic gifts. Demanded the Montreal Gazette's Peggy Curran: "Why couldn't JoJo see it coming? Hadn't she read her horoscope?"
On a recent steamy summer morning, JoJo Savard was preparing for a photo session. Ensconced on her backyard patio beneath a huge statue of an angel holding aloft a red light - a souvenir from a spiritualist fair - her longtime makeup artist, Eliane Rozga, was ministering over her with a powder puff. A staunch believer in her friend's supernatural talents, Rozga is also a regular caller to her psychic phone line. Two nights earlier, when she couldn't reach Savard, she called her 900-number instead - three times. "The next morning," Rozga laughs, "I said to her, 'JoJo, last night was an expensive night!' "
Rozga knows what few fans suspect: behind Savard's artful mask of makeup and blond bangs lie the ugly scars from a disfiguring car accident that she suffered on the French Riviera in 1977. She awoke from a coma, she says, looking like "a monster." Months of plastic surgery reconstructed her face, but she is still missing part of one eyebrow and retains no feeling in her chin. "I drink coffee and it dribbles down my face," she says. "But who cares? It made me aware of the miracle of the body."
She claims that near-death experience - which she dubs her "resurrection experience" - merely heightened her spiritual sixth sense. And her upbeat take on the ordeal is only one example of her knack for putting a determinedly happy face on a life that has not always been easy - even if she seems a little hazy on its details. The biography supplied by her publicist reports her birth date - the cornerstone of any astrological chart - as July 11, 1955. A second, which she faxed to Maclean's, lists it as July 7 - no year. But records suggest that, like many entertainers, Savard may have hedged her future by shaving eight years off her age. "I don't believe in age," she says.
What seems certain is that she was born in Quebec City, the daughter of a merchant marine officer whom she adored and scarcely ever saw. After years of following him from port to port, shunting Savard and her two sisters in and out of convent schools, her mother finally gave up on the marriage. "I remember her crying so often - always alone," Savard says. "That's why it took me so long to get involved." Constantly hamming for the family, she spun her own fantasy world, whipping up costumes on her sewing machine and, during one period, wearing only pink. "If they didn't sell something in pink, she dyed it," says her sister Johanne. "Most people think it's a personage she created for TV, but she's always had that style."
Savard enrolled in fine arts at Montreal's Sir George Williams University, now known as Concordia University. Despite her résumé's claims that she graduated in 1976, archives show she attended several years earlier without receiving a degree. But as the swirling, stylized paintings on her walls attest, she was an accomplished artist - a pastime her family expected her to pursue when she took off for Europe.
By then, she had already displayed another unsettling gift. At 5, she had begged her mother to hide her two-year-old brother in a closet because the angels were going to take him away in a train. Weeks later, he was killed in a freak railway accident. Over the years, her family began to heed her periodic quirky pronouncements. Says Johanne, a longtime skeptic who is now married to a man named Georges - Canadian Pacific executive Georges Bélanger - as her sister predicted: "After a while you think it can't all be a lucky guess."
In the wake of her accident, Savard's feverish visions increased. And after that mishap, both her path, and her accounts of it, grow picaresque. Along the way, her sister recalls her as "a 'granola' - no makeup, long dresses and flowers in her hair." During that incarnation, she made her way to Bombay to study for what her press biography reports as "an ma in astrology" from the "Swami J. Institute." Her guru, it turns out, has shown a knack for making headlines himself: Shri Chandra Swamiji Maharaj, known as "Swamiji," allegedly helped finance Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi during the 1986 Iran-contra affair.
Disillusioned, Savard found herself in Vancouver in 1981, where she landed her first short-lived job as a television astrologer. But back in Montreal a year later, she got a call from a producer for CFCF TV, who hired her to read horoscopes on the station's morning show. Thirteen years and countless hosts later, she still does that weekly gig, with stellar ratings. In 1989, CFCF rewarded Savard with her own weekly five-minute show, which now runs between the Friday night late news and The X-Files.
But Savard's first foray into the astrological phone business proved ill-fated. In 1992, two young Montreal promoters hired her to pre-record generic horoscopes. She swears she checked out their charts, but two years later they fell out over her fees. In December, she sued them for $49,000 in back royalties and other payments. She waves off protests that she should have foreseen the debacle: "It's like I'm supposed to be God."
Then in the summer of 1993 on a visit to New York City, she glimpsed her destiny: watching late-night TV in a friend's apartment, she stumbled on Dionne Warwick playing host for The Psychic Friends Network, the original psychic infomercial that debuted in 1991. Slupski promptly patched together a video sampling of her TV guest spots and took it to David Greenberg, the president of Ormazd's parent, Integrated Communication Network Inc. in Miami. A telemarketer, Greenberg already had a psychic phone line - in Spanish. In fact, that infomercial, starring a Hispanic astrologer known as Profesora, provided the model for Savard's own second ad, shot at CFCF last spring.
Slupski's approach also came at a propitious time. In April, 1994, a month before Savard's first infomercial aired, the 1-900-number technology vital to psychic phone lines had finally arrived in Canada. In anticipation, she sent out letters soliciting testimonials. Among them was one to 24 Sussex Drive. In 1988, she had dreamed of recently retired Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien astride a radiant white dog. For her, that meant one thing: he would be the next prime minister. That prospect seemed so improbable that Johanne Savard told her not to go public because "she'd look like a fool." But the astrologer tracked Chrétien down to a Montreal hotel. "He said, 'Oh, no, don't wish me that,' " Savard recalls.
But she stayed in touch with him and his wife. Still, she admits that, on March 18, 1994, when she wrote Aline Chrétien requesting some confirmation of the prediction for her infomercial, she regarded it as a long shot. But she had forwarded her plea through André Gourd, then the Quebec Liberal government's representative in Ottawa. And within a month, a courier arrived with a two-paragraph missive. "I hope that your predictions regarding American politics turn out as well as your prediction, many years ago, that my husband would become Prime Minister of Canada in this past election," wrote Aline Chrétien. Says Savard: "When I got that letter, I thought, 'Shucks, she's giving me the break of a lifetime!' "
Her infomercial had been on the air two months before the Prime Minister's incredulous aides discovered her coup. Fearing a replay of the 1987 uproar over Nancy Reagan's astrological dabblings, they swiftly undertook damage control. Spokesman Patrick Parisot dismissed it as a "standard response" never meant for public consumption. But Savard's detailed request belies that assertion. "Do you think I would have done such a thing without permission?" she says. "You think I want to become an enemy of the government?"
Throughout the controversy, Aline Chrétien herself maintained a sibylline silence. But Gourd received no indication of her displeasure. "The office of the Prime Minister reacts to its own agenda, but I'm not sure it's the agenda of Madame Chrétien," he says. "It just showed she was a very nice person to write back."
Nevertheless, Savard's new infomercial omits the offending letter. And, ever canny at marketing her image, she now presents herself as "a motivator" rather than a prophet. With her usual penchant for looking on the brighter side, she even promises that the current global upheavals - which have produced the very alienation and despair on which her service thrives - are but a passing planetary phase, the last violent shudders before a new spiritual age dawns. After all, as she says, nothing lasts forever - either astral transits or perhaps even the psychic phone-line phenomenon itself. Meanwhile, no matter what time of the day or night, her recorded voice greets troubled callers with the breathy reassurance that "We are here for you always" - or at least as long as they can pay their phone bills.
Maclean's September 4, 1995