In high school Spanish class, I met someone who was a little androgynous. Withdrawn from high school society, my classmate wore baggy, unisex clothes and a hairdo somewhere between a shag and a bi-level. I eventually found out her greatest passion was following the career of Nancy McKeon, the actress who played Jo on The Facts of Life–a butch girl herself, by TV standards. Ours was a typically overcrowded public high school, and when the yearbook came out in June it was full of faces none of us could remember having ever seen in the halls. When my friend Mike was flipping through the pages, he saw the girl in my Spanish class and got confused. “That guy’s named Wendy?”

Learning a language is a never-ending process; these days my Spanish teachers are Univision and Telemundo, my textbooks magazines like Somos, People en Espa–ol, now and then even Vanidades. I haven’t heard from Wendy in years but I thought of her recently when someone was paging through a Spanish-language magazine at my place and showed me a picture of a familiar figure in heavy makeup, flowing gold robes, and an upswept blond hairdo, kind of like Joan Rivers wears. Since my friend had skipped Spanish in school, the name was the only part of the caption he could understand, and even that didn’t make much sense to him. “That woman’s name is Walter Mercado?”

It’s not a surprise he thought Mercado was a woman, especially without the benefit of hearing his voice. What shocked me more was that he didn’t already know him. Millions throughout the United States and Latin America have made Mercado television’s leading psychic, even though after more than 25 years he has yet to broadcast in English. He’s got a legion of fans who have never understood a word he’s said–there’s something about his shows that stops even the most jaded channel surfers in their tracks. Seated on a throne and all dolled up like the queen of some glamorous faraway planet, he speaks directly into the camera in portentous tones, gesturing like he’s prophesying the end of the world, though all he’s really doing is reading horoscopes. Sometimes a video backdrop shows enormous fish swimming behind him, making him look like he’s forecasting your future from the bottom of an aquarium. The overall effect is more like a hallucination than a normal TV show. Everyone I know who’s ever caught his act has become a fan for life, and the stage seems set for him to conquer the English-language market. These are confusing times, and the public is crying out for guidance on all the spiritual and occult concerns heralding the approaching millennium, the same concerns that have made The X-Files such a smash. The truth is out there–and so is Walter Mercado.

But as freaky as Mercado seems, he’s in a tradition of gender-bending spiritual leaders that extends back to tribal societies and flourishes elsewhere today. A psychic drag queen called Kleo Patra has one of the hottest shows on Serbian television. In the U.S., sprightly psychic Kenny Kingston’s 900-line infomercial is one of the funniest shows on the air, the one where near-hysterical soap star Sharon Farrell reenacts an emotional phone call to her mother. Even televangelists like Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson have fairly gender-neutral on-air personae, though the conservative message and audience prevent them from breaking out the gold lame and Funny Girl eyeliner.

Mercado isn’t quite a drag queen–though his style of dress and makeup is distinctly feminine, he’s not dressed as a woman per se. The look is more along the lines of the school of dress known as genderfuck, though he’s far more stylish than most of its adherents, known for ugly mismatches like wigs with mustaches or tutus with combat boots. In showbiz terms, Mercado’s image is an extreme version of Michael Jackson- or Prince-style androgyny; he’s just to the femme side of Rosie O’Donnell. But the performer Mercado is most often compared to is Liberace, an association that comes with about two tons of baggage. The jury’s still out on whether the pianist was a subversive sissy presence on the pre-Ellen entertainment scene or a creepy, hypocritical closet queen. I lean toward the latter, considering how willingly he’d take to the air to deny he was gay and then scurry back to his mansion to ride his “chauffeur.” Oddly enough, the public seemed to buy it; when girlfriend’s little secret popped out after his death from AIDS in 1987, the press treated it as a shocking revelation.

Of course, in the era Liberace rose to fame, “coming out” would have meant career suicide. A less sophisticated public didn’t recognize what now seems obvious, or at least agreed to look the other way. A man can no longer go on TV in glittering capes and a pound of foundation and expect viewers not to jump to one particular conclusion.

Still, millions live by Mercado’s predictions and spend $3.99 per minute on his phone line–it doesn’t seem to have hurt business. He may not be out and proud, but like Dennis Rodman, a heterosexual queer, he can flame across the media all he wants because he delivers the product. And contact with the spiritual world is something people want even more than a good game of basketball.

But flamboyance isn’t a sideline spun off Mercado’s main job, like it is for Rodman. It defines his public persona and surely wins him more fans than his astrological skills do. His look is almost a taunt, a dare to laugh. But the faithful don’t dare scoff, afraid they’ll piss off supernatural entities he might have an in with. This month, he advises Sagittarians who read Latina magazine to “Count on a marvelous lunar illumination of your love life by the new Moon on March 27,” and it never gets much deeper than that. If he were a singer or an actor with such a swish look and limited range of material, he might get laughed off the stage, but in this case, who wants to take the chance?

A career in the English-language market seems to be his for the asking, but his first crossover attempt–the book Beyond the Horizon: Visions of a New Millennium, which came out last year and is in the midst of a second promotional push–downplayed the very flamboyance that makes him a marketer’s dream come true. A lucid reiteration of common New Age beliefs about life in the coming millennium, Beyond the Horizon is far more convincing than his horoscopes. The premise is familiar: We’re now in a painful transitional period between the ages of Pisces and Aquarius. While the age of Pisces was marked by selfishness and war and capped off with the bombing of Hiroshima, the age of Aquarius will bring peace, honesty, the development of new psychic abilities, and even contact with beings on other planets. Combining familiar occult authorities such as Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce with a far-reaching patchwork of scientific, cultural, and historical sources, Beyond the Horizon would make a useful introductory text for those same seekers who made a best-seller out of James Redfield’s spirituality for dummies The Celestine Prophecy. It could even steer them toward deeper reading rather than an endless line of merchandising. Solidly written and admirably respectful of its popular audience’s intelligence, it succeeds on its own terms but disappoints by bearing little of Mercado’s distinctive touch.

As a book topic, the coming age of Aquarius can’t really compete with the here-and-now mystery that is Walter Mercado. But the psychic stuff has always been the dull part, the part he’s wisely played down while emphasizing looks and personality. He’s a more-than-competent author for a book of this sort, but as a pop personality he exceeds mere competence and is practically unrivaled.

People can find whatever they want to know about astrology by going to the library, but for the story of Walter Mercado we have no choice but to go to the source. Unfortunately, there’s little personal content in Beyond the Horizon. It seems gravely wrong for a book by this author not to include a photo section, but we only see him twice, first in a rather subdued cover shot and again on the back page’s plug for his psychic hotline. The few personal anecdotes he includes in Beyond the Horizon mostly deal with his childhood in Puerto Rico, where he was known as Walter of Miracles, “the child who could see into people’s pasts and futures, who knew the causes of their illnesses and the way to their cures.” But these stories are only mentioned in passing, quickly told to illustrate a point and then left behind. He writes, “I at first didn’t realize that I was different,” but doesn’t tell how and when he found out. Elsewhere he devotes just two paragraphs to his relationship with his spirit guide, an “asexual being of light” who first appeared to him in December 1975 to tell him he “had been chosen to be an instrument, that it was my mission to use my powers to help guide others through this very difficult time in which we live.”

Most autobiographical content here is between the lines, including a possible explanation of his look. “The Aquarian Age will be a time for men and women to come together as one, to think of themselves as human beings, not as men or women,” Mercado writes. “It is a time of integration, a time to join both of those energies within us–the yin and the yang.” Maybe rather than some kind of gender outlaw he’s just fashion forward, previewing the Aquarian look. Clothes clearly preoccupy him; it’s a subject he keeps returning to in Beyond the Horizon, frequently advising us not to let old age-of-Pisces concerns like fear of disapproval dictate our choice of dress: “Why should you want to wear the clothes that everyone else is wearing if you don’t like the way they look on you? Why should you always hide your face behind makeup and lipstick?” (Not one to throw stones in a glass house, he adds, “When you want to, go ahead.”) His passion for personal liberties is strong enough that he offhandedly implies that access to abortion is a spirtual imperative and frequently criticizes the Catholic church, risky for someone who’s made his fortune in the Latin American market. He writes rather movingly about the Aquarian outlook for “true love, total love, that is neither limited by traditions nor restricted by conventions,” but that apparently still dares not speak its name.

Mercado can be a guide to us in these difficult times, as his asexual being of light says, but in more concrete, hands-on ways than he’s attempted in his book. He’s an expert at crossing over–from the spiritual worlds to ours, from male to female–so it’s a little surprising that the book fails to translate his appeal for an English-language audience. The choice of medium is partly to blame; Mercado is clearly made for television, and hopefully he’ll soon be allowed to prove that his broadcast formula will also work in English. Simply by appearing on TV, with his beautiful, bizarre image–and improbable success–he teaches by example the joy of embracing your individuality in ways all the words in Beyond the Horizon cannot. For now, he’s hidden his unique, talented self behind words and facts, and, as he knows, that’s just not right for the age of Aquarius.

Beyond the Horizon: Visions of a New Millennium by Walter Mercado, Warner Books, $20.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Harry Langon/ photo manipulation by Victor Thompson.