As Simran Singh stepped into the spotlight to give the final talk of the TEDxCharleston conference on May 15, she was literally radiant. In a flowing white top and sequined white pants, she gave off a faint glow in the dark of PURE Theatre.
"We are all divine sparks, here to shine and shimmer in brilliance," Singh announced halfway through her talk. "And when we go off track, we're sent conversations from the universe, and they show up as numbers and birds and insects. They show up as words on billboards or on a greeting card that you receive. They show up as animals. Most importantly, they show up as other people." By this point in her talk, many in the audience were nodding along. At least one person was crying.
In Singh's world, nothing is a coincidence and everything is a sign. As she spoke, a slideshow on a screen behind her circulated through pictures showing the numbers 11:11, 1111, 111, and 11 on license plates, in phone numbers, and on digital clocks. Singh sees the number 11 everywhere.
The program for TEDxCharleston, a local iteration of the TED innovation talks, listed Singh's profession as "humanitarian," but her professional life is hard to sum up. From an early start in the fashion industry, she has transformed into a life coach, motivational speaker, reconnective healing practitioner (more on that in a moment), magazine publisher, book author, and online radio talk show host with a monthly listening audience in the hundreds of thousands. She is a small hero in the pantheon of New Age personalities. And she is Gov. Nikki Haley's older sister.
"In the end, I think we're doing the same thing," Singh says of Haley. "She's helping to clean up the outer landscape. I work on cleaning up the inner landscape." Singh says the sisters' paths diverged at a young age, eventually leading Haley to the Statehouse and Singh to Charleston. Growing up as Simran Randhawa, a member of the only Indian-American family in the Midlands town of Bamberg, S.C., Singh says she learned an early lesson in Southern racial politics at the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, an event that also gets a mention in Haley's 2012 memoir, Can't Is Not An Option. Singh says she was seven years old at the time, Haley just four. When they went onstage, Singh says, the judges informed them that they were disqualified because the pageant traditionally crowned a black queen and a white queen — and the Randhawa girls were neither. But while Nikki was invited back onstage to sing "This Land Is Your Land" at intermission, Simran was told to go behind a curtain and wait. She remembers peeking out from behind the curtain and seeing people in the audience pointing and whispering.
"Nikki didn't take it in that we were disqualified because she didn't have to stay in hiding. She got to come back out and get celebrated," Singh says. "And so in her life, a belief system came that 'I'm embraced and I'm welcome, and I can be onstage and people will adore me.' And so her life took the trajectory of being in the public eye. My life took the trajectory of 'I need to hide.' And I became very introspective. I became very much of a hermit personality. I love writing. I love staying to myself, and that's much of what my life has been, kind of behind the scenes. And that stems from that place."
Singh has come out of her hermit shell in recent years, and it's not hard to find people who sing her praises. "I was riveted the first time I heard her," says Rachel Hutchisson, director of corporate citizenship at Blackbaud and chair of the speaker committee at TEDxCharleston. In combing through the applicants to speak at the conference, Hutchisson says the committee was looking for people with unique insights, real expertise, and apparent passion. In Singh's pitch, they found a perfect match for the event's theme: "Reinvent."
Singh's audience extends far beyond Charleston. Brandy Jackson, general manager of the Phoenix, Ariz.-based VoiceAmerica internet radio network, estimates that Singh gets upward of 350,000 listeners per month on her VoiceAmerica show, 11:11 Talk Radio, and with good reason. "She has a very calm and soothing way about her," says Jackson, who is also the executive producer of Singh's show. "She has a great way of explaining what her material is. And she's a phenomenal interviewer." Guests on the show have included "leading change agents," as Singh calls them, like Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jack Canfield, Emmy Award-winning New Age musician Jim Oliver, and even Singh's own father, Ajit Randhawa, who came on the show in 2009 to talk about his book Evolution of Faith and Religion: An Exploration. Singh's voice, it is worth noting, does not make her sound like a wizened mystic or a quirky guru. She sounds like she comes from Bamberg.
Later in the week after the TED talk, Singh sums up what she does this way: "I consider myself a life catalyst, someone who is there to awaken within the sparks of greatness that we keep dormant." We're sitting on low couches in an anteroom beside an elaborately carved wooden doorway at Seeking Indigo, a downtown Charleston spa where she works with clients.
Shanel Barney, a manager at Seeking Indigo, says she first met Singh in November 2011 — that is to say, 11/11 — and she describes Singh as an inspiration. "She is the most connected and enlightened person I have ever met," Barney says. "Not only does she connect and receive information, but she also acts on the wisdom that she receives." When Singh practices reconnective healing on her clients, she does it at Seeking Indigo.
Reconnective healing, according to Singh, is "a hands-off type of energy healing" based on the idea that "we are all energy beings." Singh teaches that people have energy bodies that extend in about a nine-foot radius from their physical bodies, where painful experiences and false beliefs can get lodged. "That is why sickness and illness really occur. It's suppressed, blocked emotional energy that we aren't dealing with," Singh says.
"All sickness?" I ask.
"All sickness," she says. "Everything has an emotional cause, and everything has a spiritual foundation."
Some of Singh's teachings are impossible to prove or refute. "You are not a spiritual being having a human experience," Singh teaches. "You are experience experiencing itself." Far out.
Other parts of Singh's worldview and business practices are disputable. Teaching that all sickness has a spiritual cause, for instance, is not far removed from medieval priests teaching that sins and demons cause illness.
And then there's the whole 11:11 thing, which seems to fit neatly in the category of confirmation bias — that is to say, people see what they want to see. In her TEDx talk, Singh calls the number "a doorway between illusion and reality," and on her website, she describes it as "a pre-encoded trigger of remembrance on a cellular level." I ask her if people who see the number 23 everywhere are having an equally valid spiritual experience, and she says the different patterns and repetitions people see are just dialects of a language that the universe uses to communicate with us.
"Everything does mean something," Singh argues. "I don't believe that there's anything random in our experience. And if we truly want to engage with life, we'll understand that life is engaging with us in that way." Singh is not alone. The 11:11 phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page and a sizeable number of believers, including Ellen DeGeneres, who named her record label eleveneleven after seeing the number frequently. Singh says she meets 11:11ers on a daily basis, and no fewer than a dozen people approached her after the TEDx talk to say they also see the number.
Whether a valid observation or the product of superstition, 11:11 has gotten Singh through some hard times. By the time she was in her 30s, Singh says, she was a workaholic living a "robotic" life. After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, working for fashion giant Mast Industries in Boston, and starting her own clothing brand called Rajee, Singh had returned home to Bamberg at age 25 to work as a buyer and head of merchandising with the family business, a clothing retailer called Exotica. She was in an arranged marriage, a decision that she says she made out of a desire to "be the perfect child." They divorced this February after 18 years of marriage.
The turning point came in 2008. "At that point in my life, I had completely become what other people wanted me to be," Singh says. One day in her prayer room, she prayed for a sign and then blacked out. She says she doesn't know how long she was out — it could have been hours or days — but when she awoke, the sun was shining on her through the windows and a clock in the room read 11:11. "I sunk into a very deep depression for the next four weeks. In the course of that next four weeks, everywhere I went, whether it was to stay in bed half the day and roll over and look at the clock, or whether it was to go out to pick up my son or get groceries, I would see 11:11 or 111. It was license plates, billboards, clocks. I would come down from my bedroom at 3 in the afternoon, and the microwave would be flashing 11:11. That would happen 20 to 25 times a day."
What to make of all this? "It is a tapping from the universe to let you know that something's got your back, and it's bigger than you, so you don't have to worry as much," Singh says. In 2008, soon after this point of crisis, Singh started publishing 11:11 Magazine, with outlines getting "downloaded" to her mind every September. Early on, she says, the magazine was picked up by Barnes & Noble, although now Singh distributes it for free online. After that came the online talk show, the books, and the training in energy healing she received at the Inner Visions Institute in Maryland. At one point, she operated the Believe Center, a coaching and healing center in Lexington that she closed upon moving to Charleston two years ago.
Hard times came again. In 2010, the news website FITSNews reported that Singh and her company, Simrick LLC, were late on paying some property taxes for two condo properties in Lexington County. Tax records show she had to pay late fees again in 2012, and in 2011, Singh and her husband sold a piece of lakefront property for $1.5 million. The reason for the late taxes, she says, is simple: Property values were tanking and she was upside-down on a mortgage. "FITSNews, they have a vendetta against my sister, so they were pulling at any and everything they could to slander her and to affect anyone around her," Singh says.
But from the Little Miss Bamberg pageant to the divorce, Singh says she wouldn't take any of her experiences back. "Who we become is based on what we experience, right or wrong," Singh says. "Look at the beauty of how what the world needs gets created. The world needs Nikki in this way, and she's showing up in the way she's supposed to. The world needs me in my way, and I'm showing up the way I'm supposed to."