A Litany For Miss Cleo

Everything I know about the television psychic are things I heard

I heard her name wasn’t even “Miss Cleo,” though the last generation of casual television viewers remember her by that title.

I heard it wasn’t Cleomili Harris, Rae Dell Harris, Desiree Canterlaw, or Janet Snyder — the finest of her aliases because those names are comically lifeless compared to the teeth-sucking character who sometimes owned them. I heard that the legal name of the kitschiest idol to materialize out of the lawless place that was ’90s public television was Youree Dell Harris, and that she was from Los Angeles. When the news of Miss Cleo’s government life was revealed 14 years ago, a satisfied spokesman from the Federal Trade Commission said of the charges brought against the Psychic Readers Network (PRN), which hosted her show: “You don’t need a crystal ball to know that the FTC will continue to stop unfair and deceptive trade practices.” The smugness was meant, in part, to ridicule the impressionable people who’d ever spent good money seeking Miss Cleo’s generic counsel on a late night, as if they had been worrying about legitimacy and not emotional paranoia when they called her, as if Miss Cleo was ever selling authenticity and not an indulgence.

I also heard Miss Cleo wasn’t Jamaican, that the patois was an affectation. That revelation, whether or not it was substantively true, did scandalize me, because the singsong “call mi now!” sign-off she used in her infomercials, which aired from 1997 to 2002 after the PRN was investigated for scamming callers out of $500 million dollars, was convincing enough. I heard the sternness in her voice and was even more persuaded by the expressiveness of her face — part of Harris’s commercial style was judgmental, maternal flogging. Definitively, this was a sophistication on the other black woman mystic of the ’90s, Whoopi Goldberg’s excitable Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. We were delighted when, after consulting mass-produced tarot, she calmly and rudely admonished some sick caller about a no-good man, then called her a softening “darling” or “honey” or “chile.” She peddled a stereotype of Tyler Perrian proportions. And sometimes stereotypes feel like the real thing.

I heard Miss Cleo was an actress. I heard that, as Harris living in Seattle, she wrote a play in the early ’90s that had a Jamaican protagonist named Miss Cleo, possibly repurposed for the PRN commercials. Before Reddit AMAs, before texting, premium-rate telephone numbers on television programming devised intimacy between viewers and hosts. Dialing 900 to reach a hotline with a warm body on the other end made you feel heard. It also made you pay.

I heard Miss Cleo on The Jenny Jones show. A lowbrow ideology of individual loathing and self-improvement governed media geared toward women in the ’90s; the afternoon block on most major networks was stacked with female-hosted talk shows, from Ricki Lake to Oprah to Sally to Jenny Jones, all promoting addictive, harmless pseudoscience. I heard Miss Cleo, dressed in a turban and an earthy, island-adjacent muumuu, question guests. Once she knew their birth date, she squeezed her eyes shut and pumped out amorphous advice — “Young lady on the right? Your career is important but it’s not as important as relationship and family is to you” — that became almost unbearably specific to the believer, whose eyes would light up.

I heard Miss Cleo’s voice, years after she’d been “exposed” and her infomercial was canceled, in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. She played Auntie Poulet, an older Haitian kingpin with a front restaurant in Miami. The character was different from Miss Cleo, concerned with her own life problems instead of what was plaguing others’, and she voiced it, accent-wise, proficiently.

I heard Miss Cleo didn’t make much money at all as the most recognizable psychic at PRN. I heard, from her, that like her pleading clients, she’d been hustled into a bad contract. Still, she managed to maintain some international psychic clients, in addition to cleansing services like house blessings, up until her death in Palm Springs, Florida, at 53 (or 55, I heard).

I heard Miss Cleo admit that she wasn’t Jamaican ethnically, sure, but that she felt a kinship to the accent, and isn’t that what we all do sometimes, affect a more idealized version of ourselves? I heard that she wasn’t a psychic per se. I heard her say she just called herself a psychic because that was the term basic American people recognized, but that she really did think that she was a spiritual person. I heard her claim that she was actually practiced in Obeah, a decades-long student of a Haitian priestess. Growing up, I heard a lot about vodou from my superstitious Haitian mother. I heard my mother describe mysticism as a sensible irrationality, a campy and necessary deception. Via internet-age white astrologers like Susan Miller, witchiness has been naïvely mainstreamed, divorced from the political and social circumstances in which black and brown populations invented it. What made vodou a religion was that it was a scam and therefore the most honest business on earth — that fraudulence can be real, that people need to swindle and be swindled sometimes. Everybody needs money and everybody needs hope. In that way, “Miss Cleo” was uncannily authentic.

I heard Miss Cleo came out as a lesbian in 2006, and I thought about how accepting and laudatory the Obeah community is of gay people. They say the most beloved and feared indigenous spirits are lesbians. I thought the Obeah mythology must have given Miss Cleo confidence.