In the spirit of April Fools’ Day, let’s look at a slightly more foolish criminal: the infamous fake psychic and con artist Miss Cleo.
For those of you too young to remember the pre-internet days, let me recap a peculiar trend that peaked in the 1990s: phone psychics. A company — in this case, Psychic Readers Network — would run ads and infomercials on late-night TV. In these ads, various “psychics” would be shown telling their “clients” all kinds of specific, personal things, thereby proving how real they were.
One of the most popular of these “psychics” was a woman named Miss Cleo. Between 1997 and 2002, as the face of PRN, she doled out no-nonsense observations and advice in a thick Jamaican accent while playing a kind of solitary slap-jack with Tarot cards. At the end of each commercial, she would direct viewers to “Call me now!” for a free reading, with the 1–800 number helpfully onscreen. You can check out her schtick on Jezebel’s “The Best of Miss Cleo” montage.
While she was their spokeswoman, PRN raked in about $1 billion. Miss Cleo became a household name. She even lent her name to a crudely illustrated Tarot deck and published a book called, believe it or not, Keeping It Real. And you can still buy them both on Amazon.
But all that fame and fortune would soon come to an end.
That “free” reading viewers were promised was really only for a few minutes — which was mostly spent answering the hotline’s questions or on hold. When callers finally got through, they were often connected to other “psychics,” not Miss Cleo. The readers would then keep callers on the line long after their free minutes were up, at a rate of $4.99 a minute, without telling them how much they were being charged.
Afterwards, callers would receive robocalls and e-mails, supposedly from Miss Cleo, claiming she had a dream about them and telling them they needed to call her right away for a “special Tarot reading” — again, at $4.99 a minute.
Then callers would get the bill. The average call was about $60, but some ran into the hundreds of dollars. Enough people complained that in 2001, several states sued PRN for deceptive advertising and fraud.
Then, in 2002, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in. They revealed that the “psychics” answering the phone lines were no such thing; PRN had run ads in various newspapers looking for “phone actors.” There was no screening whatsoever. The actors were given scripts designed to keep callers on the line as long as possible, and actors who had longer calls were prioritized in the system to receive more calls. Novelist Bennett Madison wrote about being a phone psychic for PRN, if you want the inside scoop.
But none were as fraudulent as Miss Cleo. Nothing about her story was true — not even her name. Her real name was Youree Dell Harris; “Miss Cleo” was the name of a character she had created in her supposedly autobiographical play For Women Only. She wasn’t Jamaican, either; she was born and raised in Los Angeles. And far from being a Voodoo shaman, she was actually an actor, playwright, and con artist.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, while living there, Harris had used several aliases for her criminal behavior: Ree Perris, Youree Cleomili, Youree Perris, Rae Dell Harris, Cleomili Perris Youree, Cleomili Harris. Going by the name Ree Perris, she had claimed to have been a theater arts major at the University of Southern California, but USC has no record of her under that name or any of her other aliases.
Based on this deception, she was hired by the Langston Hughes non-profit Advisory Council and provided with a budget to pay a cast and crew to stage her plays. They staged at least two, but never got paid for their work. Harris claimed to have had bone cancer and skipped town with the money, leaving “a trail of debts and broken promises.” The Langston Hughes non-profit decided not to try and recover the money because they said it would cost more than the amount they had been stiffed.
To be fair, Harris was only the spokesperson for PRN, and it was they who ended up agreeing to cancel $500 million in customer bills, stop all collection efforts, and pay a $5 million fine levied by the FTC. Harris said that she was actually paid quite poorly by PRN — only $1,750 for her first commercial — considering how much business she drummed up for them.
After she lost her job with PRN, she tried reinventing the character of Miss Cleo, this time as a Voodoo shaman or priestess, charging money to do readings, rituals, and spells. She did land an acting gig in 2006, voicing the character Auntie Poulet in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In 2014, she reprised her role as Miss Cleo in a campy parody commercial for French Toast Crunch cereal — along with a Magic 8-Ball style app that lets you “ask Miss Cleo any question.”
PRN would later sue the makers of Grand Theft Auto and General Mills cereal company for copyright infringement, claiming they owned the character of Miss Cleo. It seems like a bit of poetic justice that the woman who conned so many using the Miss Cleo persona, would herself be robbed of that very persona.
Sadly, Harris passed away in 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida, after a long struggle with colon cancer.
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