If you grew up in the 1990s in the U.S. then you’re very familiar with Miss Cleo, the TV psychic who’d urge the heartbroken, the confused, the downtrodden to “Call me now!” to find some relief. While many people watched Miss Cleo’s late night infomercials and giggled at her over-the-top accent and garb, others forked over their hard-earned cash to the Psychic Readers Network (PRN) to chat with Miss Cleo, and a host of others, in search of answers.
In the early noughties, Miss Cleo’s infomercial reign came to an end. In 2002, the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) hit the Psychic Readers Network with complaint alleging they made over $1 billion through unsavory practices. As the face of the PRN Miss Cleo was public enemy number one, but soon she was dropped the federal suit and owners Steven Feder and Peter Stoltz were ordered to “forgive” over $500 million in consumer charges and pay $5 million to the FTC.
Overnight, Miss Cleo fell off the map as accusations spread that she was neither physic or Jamaican, and definitely a fraud. Recently, Miss Cleo appeared in a documentary about her former line of work called Hotline, and this week she sat down with Vice for a very interesting and insightful interview.
According to Miss Cleo, born Youree Dell Harris, she never considered herself a physic, but rather a “mambo.”
I come from a family of spooky people,” she told Vice. “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.”
In spite of her exaggerated accent—which PRN told her to ham up for TV—Miss Cleo’s roots do indeed begin in Jamaica.
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.
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.
Despite her popularity, Miss Cleo asserts that she never got rich from her infomercials.
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.
Although many people believed she was a fraud, Miss Cleo still has a robust client base, which includes people from around the world.
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.