Posted on Sat, Mar. 21, 2009
Flashy TV astrologer Walter Mercado seeks rights to his own name
BY LYDIA MARTIN
Walter Mercado, guru of the galaxies, has spent four decades delivering astrological and spiritual advice to the Latin world -- cementing his flamboyant, profitable persona through TV shows, syndicated columns and radio segments.
But he didn't see drama coming when he signed a contract with a Miami promoter who promised to make him an even bigger, richer star. Now, Mercado, known as the Liberace of Astrology, may have lost the commercial rights to his own name and likeness.
A federal jury ruled that he breached a contract that gave promoter Bill Bakula ownership of the Walter Mercado trademark throughout the ''universe'' and into ''perpetuity.'' Bakula says that means he -- and he alone -- can make money off the name.
Mercado, who at 77 has no plans to quit delivering the horoscope to his fans, has to either find another universe or get the ruling clarified. A judge has been asked to sort out the mess.
''He wants to own me through all of my incarnations and across all of the stars,'' Mercado says while sipping espresso from a china teacup in the den of his antique-filled condo near downtown Miami.
Mercado is one of the Latin world's most beloved stars, mainly because he always gushes positivity. Yes, you can, his horoscopes affirm. And then he'll offer Leo a recipe for a love potion and Aquarius some numbers to play in the lottery. He remembers to stay upbeat, even when things are thorny.
''Walter Mercado has just been reborn!'' he says with typical flourish in late January after the federal trial that pitted him against Bakula, who was in charge of producing and marketing DVDs, CDs, TV segments, psychic telephone lines and a variety of products.
SUIT AND COUNTERSUIT
Bakula sued for breach of contract when Mercado tried to end their business relationship in 2006. Mercado, who said he wanted out because Bakula never paid what he had promised, then countersued, claiming that Bakula and his Bahamas-registered Bart Enterprises owed him $5 million.
The jury found that Mercado had improperly terminated the 1995 contract. Although Bakula was awarded no damages, he and his lawyer say the verdict means that the contract remains valid. Mercado has a different take.
''I give thanks to my celestial father. In the end, I'll be free of having to work with someone who I should have known better than to work with. He always had a darkness around him,'' says Mercado, his face tighter and his lips plumper than in the old portraits of him that hang in his den.
His condo is hardly minimalist. Everywhere you look, there are Buddhas, Ganeshes, Shivas, statues of Our Lady of Charity, Santa Barbara and other saints, plus candles, witches, gemstones. There is a permanent scent of incense. Photographs and paintings of Mercado line several walls.
In some of the photos, he has a mane of long, dark hair -- the apostle look he sported in the 1970s. These days, Mercado keeps his hair cropped, pouffed and lacquered. He's a honey blond now.
His hair looks more low-key than usual ''because I had to go to my lawyer's office today, and I didn't use hair spray,'' Mercado says. ''And my face is freshly washed with soap,'' although he usually wears makeup and eyeliner. There's also the high-spirited roll of Spanish R's -- Escorrrpio! -- and the way his hands fly with near-flamenco drama.
Subdued he's not, which is what made sitting through a federal trial particularly excruciating.
''My lawyer made me wear only somber things to court,'' Mercado, famous for his bejeweled capes, says, laughing. ''I spent a month in a crisis of black. I was horrified. There was one day that he let me wear a burgundy coat to court. That was el dia de la alegria.'' The day of joy.
Mercado may have kept his look in check. But his pockets were stuffed with amulets.
''I had a Ganesh. I had a Virgin. A rosary. The red cords of Kabbalah. And a few other little things,'' says Mercado, whose niece sat in the back of the courtroom one afternoon, reading planetary charts to determine how Mercado would fare at the end of the trial.
''I had some pretty aspects in my chart,'' says Mercado, a Pisces. ``Jupiter is in Aquarius, which is the house of dreams turning into reality. And Neptune was there for me like a guardian angel.''
As for Bakula, a Capricorn, ''he has some planetary aspects that are very difficult right now,'' Mercado says. ``There is one planet that will force him to get on the right track.''
Just in case Bakula gets to keep the Walter Mercado trademark into infinity, the astrologer, one of the most recognized -- and most impersonated -- characters in the Spanish-speaking world, is trying several other names on for size.
''I have been given four different swami titles in my travels to India,'' Mercado says. ``I could be Swami Shanti Ananda. Or Swami Shanti. Or Swami Walter Shanti.''
''Mercado can continue to use his name, but if he uses it for astrological or psychic purposes, there will be new lawsuits filed, I'm sure,'' says Scott Orth, Bakula's lawyer.
''He is going to keep his name until the court says otherwise,'' says Carmen Cuetos, one of Mercado's attorneys. ``The court has barely given an explanation as to who prevailed.''
Mercado says he'll never work with Bakula again. But Bakula hopes he'll have a change of heart.
''I love Walter,'' says Bakula, who over time paid Mercado about $740,000 for various appearances and projects. ``We still have a valid contract. I want to make him more money. I took him to Brazil. I crossed him into the general U.S. market. I got him on Regis and Kathie Lee, The Howard Stern Show, Sally Jessy Raphael.''
The two men met in the early 1990s, when Mercado was flying from Miami to New York and Puerto Rico, his home base, to do one-on-one consultations, for which he charged clients $150 an hour. Bakula showed up at Mercado's Miami office in a strip mall at Calle Ocho and 81st Avenue and sold him on the idea that they should work together.
Although Mercado's astrology show on Telemundo had just been canceled, he continued to tape it from his home in Puerto Rico to air locally and in several other markets. He did horoscope segments on a string of Spanish-language radio stations, including Miami's Radio Mambí, and wrote horoscopes for several Spanish-language newspapers, including Miami's El Nuevo Herald and Puerto Rico's El Nuevo Dia. All of those ongoing projects, which began before the relationship with Bakula, belong solely to Mercado.
Still under contention is a three-minute segment that airs daily on Univisión's Primer Impacto.
''Walter entered into a new relationship with Univisión a year ago,'' says Carlos Velasquez, Mercado's lead attorney. ``He negotiated it without Bakula.''
Mercado says he started to lose faith in Bakula several years ago, when money owed by the promoter for a variety of projects started to come in late or not at all.
''There was always another promise and another lie,'' says Mercado, who points out that while he was on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques filming a DVD (in which he offers recipes for love potions and aphrodisiacs), he fell in the bathroom of the house where he had been put up and broke his ankle.
''My foot was hanging,'' Mercado says. ``I had to snap it back in place. Bakula had said he had $1 million in insurance to cover any medical needs for any of the talent and crew. But that was a lie. I had to pay my own medical costs.''
''We did have insurance,'' says Bakula, 46. ``And it covered through the end of the shoot. He got hurt the morning everybody was leaving, after the shoot. We weren't going to defraud the insurance company.''
Mercado alleged in court that Bakula was putting out horoscopes that were outdated or aimed at the wrong day, something that seriously peeved the astrologer.
''I take what I do very seriously,'' he says. ``I study all day. It has never been a game to me.''
Mercado was 5 when he noticed a bird on the ground outside his house in Puerto Rico. It looked dead, but he picked it up and started to pet it. Suddenly, the bird took flight.
'A neighbor saw this and said, `It's a miracle!' People started coming. They wanted me to touch them. They had a pain here, a pain there. My parents didn't love this, but they allowed it. I would stand on a chair -- my legs were skinny like ropes -- and with complete innocence, I would put my hands on these people. They said they felt better. A large number of ailments are psychosomatic. It's the faith that people put into something that cures them. I had faith, and they had faith.''
Mercado started to read about spirituality and astrology before he was a teenager. To please his parents, he later studied to be a pharmacist.
''But I really liked dancing and acting,'' says Mercado, who landed a couple of roles in Puerto Rican telenovelas when he was in his 20s and had heartthrob looks.
In one novela, he played a swami-like character from India. One day, a friend who did a local talk show was desperate for a guest, and Mercado, who was in the studio next door, went on in his novela costume. To fill time, he started to talk about astrology and the characteristics of each sign. The audience loved him, and he became a regular. Soon, he had his own astrology show.
Mercado says he is not attached, and while he is old school enough to keep the details of his private life to himself, he has always been willing to let his look do the talking.
``I started wearing capes a long time ago, and nobody ever dared to say a word, Mercado says. ``I was the first man on Spanish-language TV with long hair, like Christ. When I was a boy, I danced with castanets.''
''How can Walter Mercado lose his name? There is only one Walter,'' says Univisión personality Raul de Molina, of the talk show El Gordo y la Flaca. ``I used to impersonate him. I would come out in capes that were made for me by the same woman who made Walter's. There is nobody else like him in the world. His audience loves him.''
Even the whippersnappers love him. Andrew Yeomanson, aka DJ Le Spam, was fishing through crates of secondhand records one day when he found an LP from the 1970s featuring Mercado talking about all the astrological signs -- bits that the deejay now samples in his live shows.
The hipsters, who grew up hearing Mercado's honey-drenched but high-drama horoscopes, eat it up.
''If someone is celebrating their birthday, I'll sample Walter talking about their sign,'' Yeomanson says. ``It puts a smile on everybody's face. It's his delivery. It's amazing.''
Mercado just wants to move forward. He sees a bright future for himself.
''I don't want to be a slave to anybody. Slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln,'' he says. ``I still have so much to do. And I need to be free to do it all.''
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