She was best-known as the Jamaican mystic “Miss Cleo”, the face and voice of the Psychic Friends Network television ads. She was seen in late-night commercials in the late ’90s and early 2000s, promising answers to questions from callers or providing counsel.
She appeared in these infomercials that made her a cult icon wearing a colorful turban in a candlelit room, and looking all concerned as she listened to her callers.
Which person should I be with? What should I be doing? were some of the questions her callers wanted answers to. “The cards never lie,” she would say, often ending the commercials with “call me now for your free Tarot card reading.”
And people did call, trying to learn about their future. But Miss Cleo wasn’t a psychic, nor was she Jamaican. It turned out that her real name was Youree Dell Harris, born in Los Angeles. Before she was Miss Cleo, she was a playwright and actress. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she was working in Seattle in the mid-’90s as “Ree Perris”. She played a Jamaican character named Cleo in one of the plays she wrote and produced. She would choose that character for her “psychic business”.
But during her days as a playwright, she failed to pay her cast and crew for some of the plays she produced, and that caused her to leave town “with a trail of debts and broken promises”, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer added. She then appeared on TV screens as Miss Cleo, promising a free session with a psychic who can answer all your questions. But the calls ended up not being free.
The Washington Post said that while the commercials claimed the first three minutes would not cost a penny, callers basically spent those minutes on hold. Then, for $4.99 a minute, Miss Cleo, or one of the many other “psychics”, would listen to their clients and pretend to know their future.
“In all, the Federal Trade Commission said nearly 6 million called in, racking up about $1 billion in charges. The calls cost an average of $60 a pop. Callers who didn’t pay up were often inundated with collection letters, calls and emails,” The Washington Post wrote.
The Federal Trade Commission then filed a complaint against The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, the two companies she was working with, for telling viewers they would get a “free” reading and then charging them when they call. The two companies were ordered to forgive $500 million in customer fees. The companies also agreed to pay a $5 million fine, according to the Federal Trade Commission in 2002.
Harris was never charged with anything. And after the Federal Trade Commission ruling, she remained out of the public eye. In 2006, she came out as a lesbian in an interview with The Advocate and spoke about how people still give her “mad love”.
“They’ll say: ‘Do you see anything? Where do we find you? When are you coming back? We miss you.’ I get a lot of love,” she said.
Harris voiced a character in the “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” video game and appeared in a 2014 documentary “Hotline,” in which she spoke about her work as a “psychic”.
Before her death in 2016, Harris did hate the fact that people accused her of fraud when she never served prison time for it. “I never went to jail,” she told Vice in 2014. “I didn’t own the company.”
She said she had a “bad contract” while the two companies she worked for spent a lot of time trying to make her into something that she completely was not.
“I come from a family of Obeah — which is another word for voodoo,” she told Vice. The hotline marketers thought “voodoo” sounded scary. “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!’ … 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.’ “
A documentary about Harris, who later served as a “spiritual counselor” for her South Florida community before her death, is in the works. Senain Kheshgi, who is directing the documentary, said in a statement this week that Harris may have been “an accomplice or perhaps a victim in the Psychic Reader’s Network fraud”, but that “she also had talent and personality, which for women doesn’t always translate into access or wealth.”