The Talking Dead
Who is Justin Bieber’s homeopath? Who tells Emma Roberts her future? Who spray-tans Britney Spears? Welcome to the third installment of “…To the Stars," the series that explores the world of celebrity services.
The first thing I notice upon entering the Los Angeles apartment of Kia Hellman — a medium whose specialties include channeling dead celebrities and who will soon star on a new reality TV show that she is forbidden from disclosing — is that everything is white. The walls are white. The furniture is white. Both of us are white. Normally, this type of monochromaticity brings me great anxiety, an anxiety that falls somewhere on the scale between "pillows emblazoned with golf-related aphorisms" and "patronizing Lululemon bag," but in Kia's home, I feel only great calm. I credit this mostly to Kia herself, who is one of the most soothing human beings I've ever met in my life.
Meeting Kia is like meeting a Nancy Meyers kitchen that became animate and started talking to you about energy healing. Kia looks like a mix between Meryl Streep and all of her daughters, the wide planes of whose faces are comforting in their synchronicity. ("Genes are real, and science will one day have all of the answers." —The message I receive from the faces of Meryl Streep and her daughters.) Kia's voice is soft and low, and she speaks slowly and with perfect elocution, as if possessed by a non-sexist version of Morgan Freeman. She, too, is wearing white. I am wearing ripped jeans and a Pink Floyd t-shirt and feel as if I have perverted the stark holiness of Kia's apartment. She does not confirm or deny this during our time together.
Though Kia has many talents — among other things, she's worked as an actress, a writer, and an assistant to Billy Crystal, Blake Edwards, and Julie Andrews, none of whom know about her more supernatural gifts — I am visiting Kia to confer with a dead celebrity of my choosing. Before our meeting, I had spent several days agonizing over this decision, both internally and to everyone in MTV News's L.A. office and several Uber drivers. My first instinct was to speak to Michael Jackson, but I ultimately vetoed him for being controversial. Prince was deemed "too soon." Same went for Bowie. I considered calling upon Whitney Houston but realized that she would absolutely be like, "Why the fuck...?" By the time I enter Kia's marshmallow palace, I have not yet made a decision; my new plan is to "go with my gut." It is a plan I will later come to powerfully regret.
Kia and I begin our medium session in her office, which is white, and which features a tiny zen garden fountain that burbles quietly behind my head for two hours. This, too, is the kind of thing that would normally drive me to the brink of my own sanity, but in Kia's presence, it is rendered benign. It goes without saying that my preexisting guard for this type of thing — people claiming to be able to speak to other, deader people — has been significantly lowered before we even start talking.
First, I ask Kia to explain how and why she is able to speak to the dead. "I've been able to see things since I was little," she says. "It scared the crap out of me when I was very young." I ask her to elaborate. "At my great-grandmother's house, I used to cry myself to sleep because I was so scared of what was there — it was an older house in Long Island, and I think there may've been some soldiers there, someone who got murdered, some rapes," she states matter-of-factly. "The energy of all that, I could feel it as a little girl."
Kia explains that, as she got older, the spirits and energies that she claims surround everyone on Earth "wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be hanging out with a friend, and it'd be like, there's their dead aunt." I ask if Kia means that she quite literally sees dead people. "It shows up like a flash," she clarifies. "It's different for every experience, but yes, I'd be with a friend and see, like, there's this woman, she's dressed very well, she's smoking, she has this fabulous hat. And when we went to another place and there the aunt was again, I was like, All right, she has a message. So I said, ‘So-and-so is here, and here's what she has to say.’"
Kia admits that she's lost a few friends over these unsolicited messages from beyond the grave. "Everyone responds to this differently. With that particular friend, they took the message and were like, ‘OK, well, I've gotta go.' We were still friends after that, but not for much longer." I ask if she ever saw any dead-person energies around Billy Crystal. "When he would perform, his parents, his mom and dad, were so bright around him, just so lovely," she says. "Did you tell him they were there?" I ask. "I didn't tell him," she replies. "I was there in such a different capacity. Plus you never know how people are going to react."
I absorb this, and wonder aloud if Kia has ever doubted her own sanity. She laughs. "It's interesting," she says. "When I describe [the energies I see], people are like, ‘Oh my god. That's blah blah blah.' I've been an actress since I was a kid, so I definitely have an imagination. But the way that stuff shows up is different from how those other energies show up. It's more like, there's just a sudden awareness: Oh, so-and-so is here, here's what they have to say. And if the person who I'm with is open and is engaged, the fullness with which they then show up and engage just gets even greater. Dialogues can happen and energies can transform and shift."
Even though I am ostensibly there to commune with a dead celebrity, I am suddenly extremely excited to learn which of my dead relatives are floating around my head, smoking effusively and wearing hats. Without exposing too many personal details about my deceased family members, suffice to say that Kia, with zero input from me, proceeds to accurately describe the various people I've lost. She correctly recounts the physicality and personality of my grandfather — a handsome, old-movie-star type with a great sense of humor — and of my grandmother, whom she correctly intuits was less outwardly emotional but loving nonetheless. "I keep seeing a white flower," she adds. My grandmother's name was Daisy. I realize with a horrified start that Daisy has probably seen me mid-coitus.
Kia's voice and physicality change depending on who she's channeling. After we say goodbye to my voyeuristic grandparents, she becomes boyish and energetic, then nails a physical description of a friend of mine who died recently, as well as the details of our relationship. "He loved to tease you and mess with you; you were very playful together," she says. One of my favorite memories with this friend is of an evening we spent chewing up crackers and spitting them into each other's hair. (We were teenagers, but I'm not going to pretend to have matured greatly since then.)
By the end of that first hour, I am a Kia convert. Though some of her extrasensory intel is off — she claims my grandfather has memories of us sailing together, which is the sort of fine-motor-skills-required activity that I have never been able to engage in without certain physical injury — much of it is on point, almost scarily so. Whether it can be chalked up to good guesswork or genuine supernatural ability, I can't say; either way, I feel extremely tranquil, so serene that I could confront a golf pillow head-on and wave at it like an old friend.
I ask Kia where these energies are when they aren't hanging around us, watching us do it. Kia thinks for a moment. "One of my clients comes to check in with his dad, and he once asked him, ‘What is it like?' And his dad said, ‘Well, I can be with you and your mom and your brothers while' — and it was so beautiful, how he said this — ‘I am a drop of dew on a flower petal and a supernova exploding all at the same time.' He is everything. You're part of everything." This last part sounds a little overwrought to me — was this dad reading a lot of Nicholas Sparks? — but I accept that the truth of the afterlife lies somewhere between frolicking atop an exploding supernova and chilling in a drawer at the morgue.
Kia and I have reached the halfway point of our session, which means it's time for me to choose my dead celebrity. I begin to panic. Buying more time, I ask Kia who she's channeled in the past. She begins listing names: Elizabeth Taylor, who was summoned by someone who'd been friends with her in life; Lucille Ball; Jesus Christ, who took time out of his busy schedule of periodically rising from the dead to "fill the room with more love than I'd ever experienced." Some clients commune with space aliens. I ask her why celebrities and aliens would even bother to show up for normies who'd never met them. "Most of the time it's people who've worked with them or had relationships with them," Kia admits. "But I would say we just have to sort of reach out and see if their energy or that energy wanted to engage or had a reason to engage."
It's my turn now. My mind races. Who is dead? Who is even dead? Why aren't more people dead?! The name that pops out of my mouth surprises us both: "I'd like to speak with Ingmar Bergman." I instantly experience the sort of profound regret I have not felt since my fifth birthday party at McDonald's, when a man who'd been hired to sing to my friends and me asked, "Would you like to hear a sad or funny song?" Paralyzed with indecision, I choked. My (ex) friend Jesse, sensing my weakness, shouted out, "Sad!" The man with the guitar proceeded to sing the most tragic, piteous version of "Puff the Magic Dragon" the world may ever know; to this day, I am haunted by the possibility of the funny song. How funny would it have been? Would I myself be funnier if I had heard it at such a young, impressionable age? Would it have drastically shifted the trajectory of my life?
Ingmar Bergman is the piteous Puff the Magic Dragon of dead celebrities. He's one of my favorite directors, sure, but he was also a mopey fuck who died old and white and in an extremely non-controversial manner. Moreover, I am certain that MTV News's audience is sure to give zero shits about Ingmar Bergman. It's too late, though. Kia is already shutting her eyes, hunching her shoulders, adopting a clipped, old-white-dude voice. "We're inviting the energy that was known as Ingmar Bergman to come in and come through," says Kia. "Oh, it's so funny. He's like, ‘Not many people call on me.’" Thanks for rubbing it in, Ingmar. "It's so funny," repeats Kia. "There's a little bit of, ‘What do you want? Yes, a part of me is honored, but mostly what do you want?’"
I literally have no idea what I want, except to die and become an exploding supernova so that I do not have to live in this moment or ever interact with Ingmar Bergman as two separate consciousnesses again. I don't answer this question, instead waiting for Ingmar to pick up the slack. He does. "He sees himself as busy. In his mind, he's got all these things he's orchestrating," says Kia. "Some of them have to do with his legacy. But there is someone whose heart he is still with. He doesn't want to leave her side. I would say a daughter or granddaughter or someone who was very young that he was involved with before he died. He feels like he shouldn't be sharing this information."
I am honored that Ingmar Bergman trusts me enough to share this non-shareable information with me. "Who is it?" I ask, emboldened by my new friendship with my dead favorite director. "There's a woman, she's beautiful, she looks like an Isabella Rossellini, with shorter hair and the big full lips and porcelain skin," says Kia. "He has his arms wrapped around her — it's like he won't leave her side. He's obsessed." Kia pauses and laughs. "‘You're giving all my secrets away,' he says. He very much cares about being embarrassed." Ingmar and I have so much in common. "There's a sense of male pride, but a little bit of chauvinism," adds Kia. She's right — Ingmar was known for being a bit of a chauvinist with women, particularly his lead actresses, many of whom he had extramarital affairs with and apparently referred to as "my actresses." I wonder if Kia/Ingmar is thinking of Liv Ullmann, whom he worked with and engaged in a torrid love affair with for years.
Kia proceeds to reason with Ingmar Bergman's ghost (manifesting as Kia) about letting go of this woman, who may or may not be Liv Ullmann. "Can we release her, Ingmar?" asks Kia. "But I own her, she's mine," she adds, now speaking in Ingmar's voice. I realize suddenly that I have become irrelevant to this conversation. I will present it now, in full:
Kia: Really, ultimately, that's not true.
Ingmar: Yes. But I don't want to think about it that way.
Kia: So what part of you is needing to hold on to this?
Ingmar: I just don't want to be forgotten.
Kia: You will not be. How about we make a little deal with you? You can admire her from afar, but let her go and have a full life.
Ingmar: All right, you're right. This isn't the right thing.
Kia: Will you just release her and know that you're OK? Will you experience this here now, instead of worrying about what you left behind?
Ingmar: What will I be? I'll be everything.
Kia: Yes, but won't that be wonderful? How about this: You can observe, but just let go of the clenching.
Supernatural counseling session complete, Kia turns to me. I am in a daze, both confused and exhilarated by whatever the hell just happened. "That he's willing to do," she says with a smile. She addresses Ingmar, whom she has theoretically just turned into an exploding supernova, once more: "Do you have any advice for Rachel?" Ingmar Bergman tells me the following: 1) "Don't get married. That's the first thing he said," says Kia. "There's this idea of being stuck and committing." 2) "Don't give up. He's showing me writing," says Kia. "I think he's referring to writing you should do outside of work. Don't forget to do that." I nod as if I am taking him very seriously. I don't want him to own me from beyond the grave.
We bid adieu to Ingmar — I forget to say goodbye before moving on because I am rude, but Kia interrupts me mid-question to thank him for his time — and wrap up our session. Kia tells me she can read the energies of living people, too, something she says helped her during her stint as Billy Crystal's assistant. She briefly reads my aura, which is yellow and orange and purple and blue. Neither of us know what this means. She also detects that I have something wrong with my knee and ankle (both of which are obscured by my pants, should you fancy yourself a conspiracy theorist). She is not incorrect: My ankle is currently bleeding into my new shoe, and my knee is purple (like my alleged aura) because I smashed it into the door of one of the Ubers in which I was asking for dead-celebrity-channeling advice.
Kia walks me back through her white apartment into the gray Los Angeles day, where I will shortly bash the same knee while climbing into another Uber. Before I do this, though, I ask Kia if it is exhausting for her to be temporarily possessed by dead people, famous or otherwise. "No, actually," she says brightly. "Since it's them moving through me, I just have to be conscious enough to get out of my head."
I realize that I, too, have more or less left my own head for the past two hours, which is always welcome when you are the type of person who still experiences stress-flashbacks to her fifth birthday party. Whether or not I've just truly convened with an angsty Swede or my dead ancestors, I do feel significantly calmer than usual, like I've just had a cathartic therapy session with Whoopi Goldberg from Ghost. I realize this is probably the point for a lot of Kia's clients: They just want someone to listen to them, to assuage their fear of death, to show them they're a little less alone. And to notify them that the precious, long-deceased daisies in their lives are watching them bone.