This week, America’s best known psychic, spiritual guide, and hotline caller Youree Dell Harris, better known as Miss Cleo — though Harris preferred Ms. — died from cancer. In her late-’90s heyday, Miss Cleo was the spokesperson for the Psychic Readers Network and the star of the world’s best infomercials, in which Cleo would read her caller’s past and guide them to a better future. “Don’t walk blindly through life. Call me now!” proclaimed the ads — and audiences did, to the tune of a cool billion dollars, thanks to some karmically and financially fraudulent reshuffling by the Psychic Readers Network. When the FBI intervened, Harris was discredited along with her company, but in her fall from the top of the as-seen-on-TV industry there are echoes from unexpected corners of black cultural life: TLC, bankrupt despite a multiplatinum album, all thanks to a bad contract; Lauryn Hill, ridiculed at the BET Awards for her tax troubles; Shaun King, producing evidence of his blackness to avoid having his racial makeup used to undermine his bona fides as an activist and journalist.
According to a birth certificate that was released by the state of Florida as part of a lawsuit related to her time with the Psychic Readers Network, Youree Dell Harris was born in Los Angeles, and both of her parents were American. This birth certificate was used as a means to discredit Harris, who spoke with a Jamaican patois in her role as a spokesperson for the fraudulent network. All charges against her were eventually dropped on the condition that she would not countersue the state of Florida, but her reputation as a fraud would continue to haunt her for the remainder of her working life. Her character was attacked alongside her finances in a scathing 2002 article from Seattle Post-Intelligencer that detailed her time in Washington state, including statements from former actors in a play she wrote who supported the claim that she was from L.A. and had no connections to Jamaica. Those actors added that Harris told them she had bone cancer as a means to justify not paying them.
After the onslaught of accusations in 2002, Harris removed herself from the press basically in its entirety. She granted interviews to The Advocate in 2006 and 2007, publicly identifying herself as a lesbian, but she mostly remained a private citizen until 2014 when she made the press circuit with Hotline, a documentary about hotline calling. It was 12 years after being outed by the media as a fraud that Harris began to tell her own story. She still spoke with a Jamaican accent, she still read tarot cards as her profession, but she now called herself a shaman and an Obeah, in the tradition of Caribbean vodou spiritualism.
In Hotline, Harris details the conditions of her work with the Psychic Readers Network. Before the infomercials, she worked her way up the rotation of callers, and she was paid slightly above the scale of her fellow psychics, at 24 cents a minute, due to her popularity. She explains how the Psychic Readers Network pushed her to hide her educational background, wrote her a fake backstory, used her image to sell knockoff products, and promised callers a reading by Miss Cleo only to replace her with amateurs reading from a script. She sums up her experience succinctly: “I realized I was more brand than a real person.”
Harris’s first paycheck for a TV infomercial was under $1,750, but she elaborated in her first interview with The Advocate that by the time her deal with the Psychic Readers Network ended, she had earned $450,000 for her two years of work. A six-figure paycheck is a lottery-level sum for any psychic, but it was a pittance compared to the tens of millions the Psychic Readers Network was making off of her image every week. In Harris’s words, she had a bad deal — and when the Psychic Readers Network was indicted by the FBI for the undisclosed charges they pushed on their customers, Harris was treated as a perpetrator — regardless of her inability to control what the network did with her image.
Though she shied away from the media following the accusations, in a podcast she ran from 2012 to 2014, “Conversations with Cleo,” Harris described her much disputed childhood. She recalled attending Ramona Convent Secondary School, a mostly white all-girls school, and having a sister of the school staff ask her, “Do you speak black colloquial slang or the Queen’s English?” She reasons that her mother sent her to boarding school because of her own internalized racism, and because she feared that her children would be limited in life if they weren’t able to conform to the norms of white, middle-class America. “If you spoke patois in front of my mother, she would slap you," Harris said. “Because she knew that if you spoke with an accent in this country, it was going to keep you back.”
But if the all-girls school exposed her to racism and shame that she would only reckon with later in life, Harris also credited her time in boarding school as what made it possible for her to find the safety to explore her sexuality, and to begin the process of living as an out lesbian. In her life, Harris had children with men, but in her own words, she was “gay as a two-dollar bill.” Like many in her generation, she lost contact with friends and family at various points throughout her life due to her decision to live openly. She also moved from Washington to Florida to escape domestic violence within a relationship she had with a woman, and she abstained from dating at the request of her daughter for many years as part of the fallout from that relationship.
As queer culture has become increasingly absorbed into the norms of mainstream straight culture, it can be easy to forget it wasn’t so long ago that queerness demanded reinvention not merely as a choice, but as a survival tactic. Coming out could mean that once you left the closet, the door would disappear behind you. Maintaining relationships with the people who mattered to you most could mean living with secrets, greater risk if your relationships fell apart, operating under a false name, or compartmentalizing who you were based on who you were with in the moment. The past might be too painful to recall, the future might be too insecure to bet on with your whole self. Whether you were George Michael, Jodie Foster, or one of the anonymous club frequenters they hooked up with, living through personas, privacy, and performance provided a way to manage the pressure of normalcy — and the public demand for authenticity was a way of justifying the coinciding demand for conformity.
Queer culture has changed in the last 30 years, but for every white writer who ridicules Miss Cleo as a phony, I wonder how many have had to code-switch in job interviews, how many have been denied loans or housing based on the quality of their English, how many can track college attendance in their family by the thickness of their relatives’ accents. Even if the birth certificate provided by the ever trustworthy state of Florida is accurate and Harris’s parents were from California as she was, many immigrant communities have a flexible relationship to home. You might be born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York, born in L.A. but raised in Jamaica, or you might never step foot outside of the United States but still only speak English as a second language. For many, identity is something you accumulate through life, not something that is handed to you at birth. A birth certificate is not a badge.
There’s no denying that, even when defending herself years later, Harris played loose with facts. She claimed in an interview with Vice to have trained for 30 years under a Haitian shaman before taking on the profession herself — a long apprenticeship for a woman of just 51. She performed and wrote under many different names in her professional life, including Miss Cleo, but also Ree Perris in her days as a playwright, along with Corvette Mama, Eleanor St. Julian, and Desiree Canterlaw, among others that are listed on her Wikipedia page. Then again, Harris was far from the first person to obscure her identity while dispensing advice. No one is closing the Franklin Institute over uproar about Silence Dogood.
Implicit in accusations of Harris’s fraud is the suggestion that shamanism is a scam, a cheap ploy to steal cash from vulnerable people. But psychic hotline callers aren’t paying for absolute answers pulled from the dark — no one looking for answers consults the cards without a sense of where their life is already heading, and most do so with a healthy dose of skepticism. Instead, the call is a chance to be seen and understood by another person without past association or future recollection. Western society dismisses vodou while defending the right to keep Jesus in courthouses, but there have been shamans longer than there have been therapists or even churches — “psychic reader” is just one way to describe a spiritual practice that has been ongoing for millennia. If shamanism is fraud, what should courts call confession?
In Hotline, Harris describes her connection with callers before becoming emotional, vocalizing her realization that her reputation might never bounce back from the allegations leveled against her. For a moment she can’t speak from crying, before composing herself. Then, with a level voice and a look of concession, she shrugs. “People are going to believe what they want to believe.”