10:29 pm - 05/01/2014

Miss Cleo talks to VICE about getting ripped off by the Psychic Readers Network

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.

Were you into hotlines before you start appearing in those infomercials?
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.

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.


Do you believe in psychics?
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chuk_is_dazzled 2nd-May-2014 02:34 am (UTC)
i randomly get "call me now" stuck in my head lol

Do you believe in psychics? nope
goldengal1193 2nd-May-2014 02:34 am (UTC)
sunredskyblue 2nd-May-2014 02:59 am (UTC)
omg i remember when he used to come on BET years ago. my friend and i would call each other and cry of laughter. now i have to go watch his videos on youtube hahaha.
myroomiswhite88 2nd-May-2014 03:40 pm (UTC)
Erness is that you?
pacehim 2nd-May-2014 03:27 am (UTC)
corruptionoflol 2nd-May-2014 03:48 am (UTC)
OH MY GOD i saw this on tv years ago and didn't know it was on youtube

scriptedending 2nd-May-2014 02:35 am (UTC)
I remember these commercials vividly. It sucks that she was the face of the hotline and made very little money, but it's not surprising.

Los Angeles has more psychics than any other city I have ever seen - growing up in PA, I might have seen one house with a small sign outside, but here, they are -everywhere-. I have no interest, personally, but apparently a lot of people do!
fauxkaren 2nd-May-2014 02:38 am (UTC)
lol yep! There are psychics everywhere here. I've never been to any, but there are like 3 or 4 less than a mile away from me.
ferelden 2nd-May-2014 02:42 am (UTC)
NYC is probably a close second. I thought NYC had the most then I recently went to LA to visit family and did notice the sheer insanity that is the amount of psychics in LA.
arielcharming 2nd-May-2014 02:47 am (UTC)
I can only assume there are plenty of struggling actors/models/entertainers who keep those people in business hoping they'll get some insight into when they'll get their big break. :/

Edited at 2014-05-02 02:48 am (UTC)
skizzylizard 2nd-May-2014 03:01 am (UTC)
this city (NYC) is crawling with psychics. i'm always getting chased down by them, telling me they sense that i need their help.
blahblahcakes64 2nd-May-2014 03:04 am (UTC)
North Jersey has a psychic on every block--my mother-in-law has her own personal one she calls twice a year.
heart_of_butter 2nd-May-2014 03:29 am (UTC)
Oakland has a shit ton of psychics too for some reason. Every time I turn a corner there's a neon sign for palm reading or tarot.
headcaseheidi 2nd-May-2014 03:50 am (UTC)
i'm a PA transplant in LA, too! there were actually a lot in the pittsburgh area, at least, and a handful in the surrounding suburbs/country, but ia, there a shit ton in LA
oakenshield 2nd-May-2014 02:35 am (UTC)
I live by Cassadaga (the largest concentrated area of physics/spiritualist/etc) and my friend dragged us there for a reading in the living room of this really creepy old woman and she held my hand, prayed to angels and then told me that I had a man in an old fashion uniform watching over me, that I had made the right decision in changing my focus, that I was on the right path and everything would work out just fine.

Like two weeks earlier I had changed from photography major to history major and now I'm graduate student of history and it's all worked out great but wtf still creeping me out and I went into that reading like a brick wall and gave nothing but my hand.

Edited at 2014-05-02 02:36 am (UTC)
gnarlsbarkley 2nd-May-2014 02:39 am (UTC)
WHICH OOOOOONE i want to go to a good one there since i've been to most of them and idk idk idk haven't found one that *clicked* (i live near there too)
saintvlas22 2nd-May-2014 02:44 am (UTC)
Body language, and the fact that she's probably a pro at judging what to ask from simply your appearance. Also, she probably just got lucky in her guess(es). For every person she had like you that says 'she knew everything OMG!', she probably has an equal or greater number of people that left going 'bitch didn't know a thing'.
oakenshield 2nd-May-2014 02:46 am (UTC)
I didn't really believe her because she was super vague but I think it was her mannerism that were super creepy, and idk her whole home. Like The Conjuring house creepy.

Still believe science over her mojo, I'm just glad I hadn't paid her lol
theupperdrive 2nd-May-2014 02:49 am (UTC)
oh wow good for you
uwannalala 2nd-May-2014 02:53 am (UTC)
We'll hello neighbor . I'm in winter park, where do u live? Ucf graduate?
britty_stitches 2nd-May-2014 03:24 am (UTC)
I've always wanted to visit that town!
indignantindigo 2nd-May-2014 02:36 am (UTC)
I don't necessarily believe in Psychics but I feel like clairvoyance is real. But more in kind of a weird science way where some people are more sensitive to seeing patterns in the atmosphere and assessing an accurate outcome.
stranglerwcandy 2nd-May-2014 02:36 am (UTC)
Do you believe in psychics?

I did when I was 6 years old, and watched those early morning psychic informercials on tv.
xpirate_queenx 2nd-May-2014 02:37 am (UTC)
How about all the people she ripped off by taking their money/calls?
calinewarkwc69 2nd-May-2014 02:37 am (UTC)
I called her when I was like 9. Ran up a $40 phone bill and my dad had to call them and tell them to stop being tricked by children and give him his money back.
raised_eyebrows 2nd-May-2014 02:39 am (UTC)
What did she tell you about your future?
calinewarkwc69 2nd-May-2014 02:51 am (UTC)
I don't remember. I was 9. My thoughts on life were very limited
distant_lines 2nd-May-2014 02:50 am (UTC)
My friend and I did the same thing. I can't remember how much of a bill we ran up. Whoops!
xx_dustin_xx 2nd-May-2014 03:07 am (UTC)
i ran up at $400 phone bill calling sex lines when I was 9 hahah

i got my ass beat and wasnt allowed to touch the phone for a year
ferelden 2nd-May-2014 02:38 am (UTC)

lol @ psychics. science 5eva.

Edited at 2014-05-02 02:38 am (UTC)
zombieland 2nd-May-2014 02:52 am (UTC)
lmfao! and mte about science
ferelden 2nd-May-2014 02:56 am (UTC)
geophysics major. science is my liiiiife.

I can't with people who believe in psychics. I had a girl admit in a anthro class that after watching Long Island Medium that she was a believer. I was had to leave class before I started laughing.
honey_child 2nd-May-2014 03:10 am (UTC)

I used to work at this theatre. I just love when Winnipeg randomly pops up on ONTD.
geraldine_blank 2nd-May-2014 02:38 am (UTC)
I said Miss Cleo Miss Cleo Miss Cleo I said Miss Cleo
funk2funky 2nd-May-2014 02:39 am (UTC)
Miss Cleo commercials during Jerry Springer commercial breaks, The 90s!
emmy0001 2nd-May-2014 03:04 am (UTC)
Oh my god this is killing me
nanachic 2nd-May-2014 02:41 am (UTC)
I just posted about doing this! ah misspent youth
hauntao 2nd-May-2014 02:50 am (UTC)
I have used that soundboard so many timessssss so good
shameless_re 2nd-May-2014 02:55 am (UTC)
omg! I remember this! I'm dying tbh
nene718 2nd-May-2014 03:36 am (UTC)
actually cackling
myblackass 2nd-May-2014 02:40 am (UTC)
Caaaaalll Me Now!
nanachic "You're a libra aren't ya darlin?"2nd-May-2014 02:40 am (UTC)
When I was an undergrad, my friends and I would prank call people using the Miss Cleo soundboard on ebaums world. It was seriously the best damn time because she had the weirdest phrases /csb
xtinkerbellax Re: "You're a libra aren't ya darlin?"2nd-May-2014 02:47 am (UTC)
haha me and my friends were more fans of the Howard Stern one and used to do the same thing.
jonesingjay Re: "You're a libra aren't ya darlin?"2nd-May-2014 02:53 am (UTC)
The Bea Arthur sound bites are hilarious.
nanachic Re: "You're a libra aren't ya darlin?"2nd-May-2014 01:43 pm (UTC)
so are the Kindergarten Cop ones. "Who is your daddy and what does he do?"
fauxkaren 2nd-May-2014 02:40 am (UTC)
Icon of the 90s tbh!
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