What ‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ taught us in regards to the ’90s TV psychic

Late-night TV viewers of a sure age had been as soon as well-acquainted with a sure TV psychic by the identify of Miss Cleo, who made “call me now” her catchphrase.

The documentary “Call Me Miss Cleo,” which started streaming on HBO Max on Thursday, tries to decipher whether or not the lady was a gifted “voodoo priestess” who might converse with the opposite aspect or only a extremely gifted grasp of deceit.

The mythology of the exuberant Miss Cleo, who rose to fame within the late Nineteen Nineties because the animated spokeswoman for the ill-fated Psychic Readers Community, is on the coronary heart of the movie.

There are numerous powers at work within the Gunpodwer & Sky-produced doc — the reasonable and the idealistic, the performative and the pure. The solutions are there however they rely upon who’s being requested.

The filmmakers spoke with a number of individuals to attempt to unravel the thriller of Miss Cleo. There are associates who’ve skilled her readings and “gifts”; they’re typically those who let her off the hook. There are former shoppers and fellow telephone psychics who’ve sensed her otherworldly connections however who fell sufferer to a hotline scheme. Former colleagues she allegedly scammed who vilify her. Consultants and journalists attempting to make sense of her. Authorities figures who participated in her downfall, and former companions who cherished her.

And for laughs and a few surprisingly spot-on evaluation, actor Raven-Symoné and comic Debra Wilson — who famously parodied Miss Cleo on the Disney Channel sequence “That’s So Raven” and MADtv, respectively — drop in to investigate her impact and legacy.

The consensus: The so-called Miss Cleo, who was born Youree Dell Harris in Los Angeles and who appropriated a Jamaican accent and fronted a profitable empire, was a tragic determine who was taken benefit of and discarded simply as rapidly as she gained fame.

With these testimonials paired with a 2012 interview Harris gave for the 2014 documentary “Hotline,” “Call Me Miss Cleo” administrators Jennifer Brea and Celia Aniskovich attempt to reveal “the truth behind the ever-enigmatic woman who took TV by storm, only to abruptly disappear from public consciousness.”

Listed below are a few of these truths we realized:

The place ‘Miss Cleo’ got here from

The self-proclaimed voodoo priestess died in 2016 after battling colon most cancers, however it’s her voice that guides the documentary, which doesn’t maintain again on her over-the-top TV appearances for her pay-per-call service. However her adolescence and sketchy origins stay an enigma.

In accordance with former colleagues on the Langston Hughes Theatre in Seattle, Harris was a playwright and performer who glided by the identify Ree Perris within the late Nineteen Nineties. They mentioned Miss Cleo was a personality born out of a play referred to as “For Women Only” that Harris was engaged on on the time for the troupe. Harris, who so far as they knew didn’t have a Jamaican accent, was set to play the character.

Nonetheless, Harris instructed a special story in her “Hotline” interview: “I absolutely commune and chat with those on the other side — some call them dead, some call them spirits — but absolutely with the energy and vibrations with those that crossed over. … more broader than a medium, for me, it’s a broader belief system.”

Former Langston Hughes colleagues mentioned she was underneath contract on the theater and was paid a set quantity. And that it was as much as her to pay these she was concerned with within the manufacturing. Apparently, she by no means did and disappeared. So her former colleagues had been shocked when, years later, they noticed the character in commercials on late-night TV.

In lawsuits filed towards her and the Psychic Readers Community, it was revealed that Harris used various aliases, together with Miss Cleo, Cleomili Harris and Youree Perris. The attorneys who obtained her beginning certificates and deposed her mentioned she saved her background imprecise.

A few of these interviewed for the documentary mentioned she sometimes assumed different mystical identities too, which led them to imagine she might have been experiencing potential psychological sickness. Others talked about tales that she shared with them about an alleged sexual assault in her childhood.

How the Psychic Readers Community labored

Psychic hotlines had been the anchor of the 1-900 quantity trade. Harris mentioned her sister recommended she work for the nascent Psychic Readers Community, as it will be a supply of earnings that may work along with her schedule. Harris thought the commercials had been foolish however gave the hotline a shot within the late ‘90s.

“When they approached me about first being a spokesperson, my first initial response was, ‘I have a reputation to maintain,’” Harris mentioned within the 2012 interview, arguing that she didn’t suppose the community took the follow significantly. However she additionally acknowledged that it was a enterprise.

In accordance with the documentary, after she learn her tarot playing cards on digicam, the community allegedly acquired the best variety of calls it had in its historical past. From there, she catapulted to fame, doing dwell readings with callers who couldn’t imagine how correct she was.

A number of individuals who labored for the community, which was shut down within the early 2000s after a Federal Commerce Fee investigation, defined how it operated, admitting that they weren’t actually psychics and that they wanted work. They described working in an workplace, sporting headsets and being given a script to do “a reading.” And so they had been instructed, to the perfect of their skill, to maintain the caller on the telephone.

The primary three minutes of the decision had been free, and in that point, the psychic needed to accumulate the caller’s identify and handle to later be enter right into a system for mailers and different adverts. After that, it was $4.99 a minute to proceed the decision. Most individuals referred to as about cash issues or love, and a few referred to as particularly to speak with Miss Cleo, which concerned an elaborate ruse that finally saved callers on the telephone for a fair longer time period.

“Miss Cleo people didn’t know a damn thing,” mentioned Barbara Melit, a former PRN psychic who was the whistleblower who helped carry down the operation.

Hotlines “preyed on the souls that needed to be seen,” a number of former psychics mentioned.

“The objective was not to help someone quickly, it was to drag it out,” added Harris.

Why she was so convincing

Harris’ dynamic vitality and simple charisma actually made her entertaining. After which there was that notorious, parody-ready accent.

“She was quick on the draw. She would take these sort of ordinary questions and launch into sort of very funny, very unexpected sort of spiels about whatever the topic at hand was,” mentioned Bennett Madison, one other former PRN telephone psychic interviewed within the documentary. “I don’t really believe in, like, psychics or magic. But I do think that there are certain people who are good at being able to talk to someone and sort of understand who they are in an instinctive way and be able to give advice in a way that feels magical.”

“It was the best Insta[gram] Live you could’ve had in 1997. It was so good, so good,” Raven-Symoné mentioned. “When I saw Miss Cleo, I did believe.”

Though Harris was thought to be comical by the Jamaican neighborhood, her appropriation of a Jamaican accent was a part of the important thing to her success, as a result of it gave her an air of “exoticism.”

“People were willing to spend more money” to talk with somebody with an accent, mentioned Ramone Walker, a PRN customer support consultant who’s Jamaican.

Andrea Nevins, a scholar and writer of “The Caribbean Diaspora,” doubted Harris’ Jamaican heritage however gave credence to the psychic’s “renegotiated identity.”

“The idea that a Black body has these fantastical capabilities taps into sort of underlying understanding I think many of us have of Blackness as strangeness, really,” Nevins mentioned. “So there were things about her race, I would say even her size and her gender, that helped to make it believable that she was associated with the fantastic.”

1000’s complained in regards to the firms

These conversant in the ubiquity of the late-night infomercials are seemingly additionally conversant in their disclaimers, which handed them off as “for entertainment only,” a catch-all phrase that did little to guard PRN.

In 2002, the FTC filed fraud and unfair telemarketing expenses towards Miss Cleo’s two Florida backers, Entry Useful resource Providers Inc. and Psychic Readers Community Inc. The businesses had been accused of defrauding prospects after 1000’s of complaints had been made by callers, former workers, mother and father of underage youngsters and individuals who didn’t name the hotline however obtained assortment letters anyway.

Though the rising lawsuits predated Harris’ time on the community, they gained traction when legal professional Dave Aronberg, the previous Florida assistant legal professional common who began the inquiry into PRN, included Miss Cleo as a named occasion in a single investigation. He did so by acquiring a set letter that had allegedly been signed “Cleo”; nonetheless, Harris claimed that it was a forgery and that she didn’t discover out in regards to the alleged signature on copies of the letter till she was deposed.

“I signed a really bad contract and brought in business, I’m getting a salary and no benefits. I’m an independent contractor,” she mentioned. The attorneys being interviewed vouched for her as a result of they noticed how little she was paid after seeing her tax return.

“Her persona as Miss Cleo became an asset of the companies. They basically owned her image and her persona,” mentioned Gerald Wald, an FTC receiver who introduced the enforcement motion towards PRN.

Harris was later dropped from the lawsuit filed by Aronberg and have become estranged from the corporate. The FTC went after PRN’s rich co-owners, Steven L. Feder and Peter Stolz, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary. Feder and Stolz agreed to pay $5 million in 2002 to settle expenses that they’d misled prospects in search of an allegedly free glimpse into their future. The FTC additionally agreed to forgive an estimated $500 million in uncollected payments and ship again uncashed checks to prospects, who’d been charged a mean of $60 for the supposedly free calls.

Because the filmmakers level out, in settling with the FTC, Feder, Stolz and PRN “did not admit to violating any laws.” A community legal professional additionally offered them with the next assertion: “In any negotiations regarding compensation, Ms. Harris was represented by counsel and advisors that she independently retained. … Other than portraying Miss Cleo’s character, Ms. Harris had no involvement in the affairs of PRN…”

She was an activist after the scandal

Associates, godsons, lovers and a former roommate provided illumination on what Harris was like after the investigation.

“How they portrayed Cleo destroyed her,” mentioned her former make-up artist AnnDee Rucker. “They took her identity. They took her name. They sensationalized her. They villainized her. Of course, that had an effect on her. How could it not?”

She lived for a number of years as a recluse earlier than Rucker and different associates tracked her down and inspired her to begin becoming a member of them for Sunday barbecues. She was the “cornerstone” of these occasions, her godson Dylan Rucker mentioned.

Harris grew to become an activist in Florida, strolling in Delight marches and dealing towards antigay laws; the approaching out of one other godson, Matt Rucker, grew to become an impetus for her to return out as a lesbian in a 2006 Advocate article. Two of her former companions are additionally interviewed within the documentary.

“I sympathized with her over the years as well because I imagine that she moved through life with a certain level of heaviness that she couldn’t lift,” Wilson mentioned. “If I can balance my recollections of her with acknowledging that there are ways in which she caused people pain, but also ways in which she brought people joy, then I’m OK with that.”