If you looked at or were ever near a television in the late 90s or early 2000s, you'll remember the buoyant and boisterous television psychic Miss Cleo.
Born Youree Dell Harris, Cleo was the ostensibly Jamaican frontwoman for the Psychic Readers Network who became a cultural touchstone thanks to her colorful outfits, which exuded Afrocentricity, her occasionally questionable patois, and her memorable “Call me now!” exhortation. Miss Cleo's commercials were outlandish (Cleo: “He’s getting frustrated with this [relationship].” Caller: "He told me that.” Cleo: “Well, [that’s] because you have sex with your eyes closed. You’re scared to death, mama.” Caller: “You hit the nail on the head, perfectly”), but they were always powered by an overwhelming feeling of warmth and levity. Cleo became a ubiquitous mainstay of early millennial television.
Then, in February of 2002, the bottom fell out. The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network, alleging that they made over $1 billion by employing a host of shady tricks, including misrepresenting the nature of the “free” readings offered, failing to make required cost disclosures in ads, and threatening to report negative information to credit bureaus should a caller refuse to pay, among other misdeeds.
Much of the resulting media attention focused on Cleo, though she was little more than an employee and spokesperson for the company and was quickly dropped from the suit. (PRN’s owners, Steven Feder and Peter Stoltz, later settled the suit out of court, to the tune of $500 million.)
Save for her appearance in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and coming out of the closet to the Advocate in 2006, Miss Cleo has stayed away from the spotlight in the past decade. After several years away, she’s re-emerged as a key component of an intriguing new documentary called Hotline, which examines the history of telephone hotlines, and what role they play (or don’t play) in our increasingly digital world.
I met up with everyone’s favorite hotline psychic in Toronto earlier this week to discuss her history with voodoo and mysticism, what actually happened with the Psychic Readers Network, and the tricky business of her controversial accent.
VICE: Were you into hotlines before you start appearing in those infomercials?
Miss Cleo: I was a very well-known psychic in the United States on a hotline for two years out in public, and about two to three years just on the hotline itself.
How did you get into the business?
I come from a family of spooky people. I don’t know how else to say it. I come from a family of Obeah—which is another word for voodoo. My teacher was Haitian, [a mambo] born in Port-au-Prince, and I studied under her for some 30 years and then became a mambo myself. So they refer to me as psychic—because the word voodoo scares just about everybody. So they told me, “No, no, no, we can’t use that word; we’re going to call you a psychic.” I said, “But I’m not a psychic!”
Then they would take me somewhere to do an interview, and as soon as I’d say, ‘I’m not a psychic, and I don’t own the company," the handlers would say, “No, no, no. Tell her to shut up.”
Tell me about the mechanics of the operation. Did you work in a call center?
Well, most of us worked from our homes, not one big room. I was doing television, they had me touring everywhere, and I was always bothered by the fact that, you know, people took the “Call me now” quote very earnestly.
I was at Best Buy one day, and a gentleman said, “Miss Cleo, aren’t you supposed to be on the phone?” I said, “Honey, do you really think that I do that while I'm traveling and doing press?” I said, “You have a better chance of talking to me right here than you do if you called.” I still remember my extension number, though. My extension was 16153.
Were they paying you well when they had you doing all this television and press? Were you seeing any of the wild profits that they were making?
Let me tell you; I’m going to quote you a number from the FBI. They were pulling down—[using] my face, my talent—$24 million a month, for two years straight. For the first 30-minute infomercial I did for them, I made $1,750 for the two and a half days on set. I had a bad contract. But everybody else thought I had more money than God, and my response to that usually was, “Well, God is a poor son of a bitch.”
And still now, people believe what they want to believe. So they say I still have money, but I want to know where it’s at.
In Hotline you mention that your old bosses tried to make you seem more “fresh off the island.” What kinds of things did they do?
My parents were not broke; I went to a very high-end boarding school. The [people I did the hotline with] did not want the public to know that about me. People magazine actually insinuated my parents were drug traffickers in an article they did on me… The people I used to work for didn’t want people to know that I was an accomplished playwright. They didn’t want people to know anything. They wanted people to think I just came fresh from Jamaica.
So I had some Jamaican people who were angry with me, saying that I was a bad representative of theirs. I've always said, "it's not my company." Then they would do this stuff to punish me. I was in Grand Theft Auto, and I wasn’t able to use the Miss Cleo name. I had to use my full name in order to get my credit.
They spent a lot of time trying to make me into something that I completely was not. I speak perfect English. When you grow up in America and you’re Caribbean, your parents beat it into you that the only way to succeed is by dropping the patois. My mother was very deliberate about that, and so was my father.
Prior to working on this documentary, did you follow any of the news about you in the media? There was a BuzzFeed article and something on xoJane.
It’s hard not to, you know? I have children, I have a family. My family took it very hard, because there’s a lot of misrepresentation. According to some articles, I’m still in jail. I never went to jail; I didn’t own the company. It’s taken ten years for me to move through all of that, because in the Jamaican culture—especially with the way my father was—all you have is your word. So it hurts for people to go around and be able to tell a lie to the point where it becomes fact on a [computer] box. So I struggle with it.
Most people were making 14 cents a minute doing the calls. I was on the high side of the equation, making 24 cents a minute.
Cleo, director of "Hotline" Tony Shaff, and the author.
Do people still recognize you when you're out in public?
Unfortunately, yes. I live in a little town, and everybody there knows who I am. But I’m just another neighbor. But there are places where I go and people are like, “Yo! Miss Cleo!” and I try to run. I’ve had people come up to me—there’s a big controversy about "Miss Cleo is not Jamaican," right?
So one day I’m in line to pay my phone bill, and there was Jamaican woman there, and we were chatting, and she goes [heavy patois accent], “You know who ya favor?” I say, “Who?” She say, “Miss Cleo.” I say, “Ya, mon, but me hear she not Jamaican.” And she say, “Yeah, me hear that too.”
And I went about my business. She had no idea. So for me, there are little places where I can feel like I get a jab back. Now that I’m older, I don’t get recognized as much anymore, but just enough for my discomfort.
Do you have a lot of clients now?
Oh, yeah, my clients are international, sweetie. I have clients in New Zealand, Australia, a few here in Toronto, a bunch all over the US, Jamaica, obviously. Honey, that’s how I make my money. I’ve got kids and grandchildren; I like being able to help.
You’re speaking with an accent now. Is the patois just back in your system?
Look, I’m old and I’m tired; my speech is loose. My kids are always like, “Mom, you get worse every day.” I have a niece who is an attorney for the state of Florida, and we’ll go out somewhere, and she’ll say, “Mama, they can’t understand you; speak English… Your English is, you know… hurting.”
But as you know, we do that [code switch]. We only chat like that with family. In other situations, I can put on what they call a “little valley girl accent.” If I have to pay a bill or make an arrangement, honey, I don’t do it in patois.
Update: An earlier verison of this article mistakenly referred to the Psychic Readers Network as the Psychic Friends Network in one instance. According to a rep from the Psychic Friends Network, "Ms. Cleo, has NEVER been associated in any way with the Psychic Friends Network."
To learn more about Hotline, click here. View the trailer here.