Miss Cleo’s real name was Youree Harris, was the Psychic Readers Network’s 1-900 number spokesperson. “Call Me Miss Cleo,” a new documentary on HBO Max, says that most of what you thought you knew wasn’t true.
Miss Cleo was many things to many people. She was the voice of a $5-per-minute psychic hotline, a former local theatre producer, and a brave advocate for LGBTQ rights.
But she wasn’t the person behind the scam Psychic Readers Network, which was sued by the states of Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The case was settled for millions of dollars in fines and refunds.
“Call Me Miss Cleo,” a new HBO Max documentary, tries to find out as much as it can about Miss Cleo’s mysterious beginnings, her involvement with and fall from grace because of the infomercials for the Psychic Readers Network, and her later life away from the TV cameras and reporters making a million “She should’ve seen it coming!” jokes.
On August 12, 1962, Cleo was born as Youree Dell Harris at the Los Angeles County General Hospital. She told her friends that she grew up in a house full of boys where no one wanted her. Classmates said that she went to Ramona Convent Secondary School, where she was one of a tiny number of non-white students. The filmmakers were able to confirm this by getting her yearbooks.
In an interview in 2006, Cleo said that she was married at 19, had a daughter, and divorced at 21. In her late 20s, she had another daughter. The documentary doesn’t show or talk about either of them.
In 1996, she went to Seattle as Ree Perris and said she had graduated from the theatre arts program at the University of Southern California (USC). The University of Southern California told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2002 that none of her aliases had attended the school. She wrote, produced, and acted in three plays with the local Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in 1997. After the third play, she allegedly told her coworkers that she had cancer and sickle cell anemia and took the money to pay for performers and supplies.
Cleo, a Jamaican woman, was one of the characters she made up and played. People in Seattle who knew her said she never had an accent or made it seem like she was from Jamaica except when she was on stage.
Cleo said in an interview in 2006 that she ended a long-term relationship in 1997 because her partner was abusive to her and her youngest daughter.
About a year later, she was living in Florida and working “behind the camera” for the Psychic Readers Network, according to her longtime friend Tim Connelly, a set designer for PRN.
“Before she became Miss Cleo, we both worked behind the camera for about a year,” he said on “Call Me Miss Cleo.” “We had a nice host, and she was great, but we were going to lose her, and no one knew what to do.”
“Then they bring in this white woman who looks like she came straight from Boca. She tells stories and flips cards, but nothing makes sense,” he said. “Cleo sees this commercial and goes crazy, like, “What are they doing?” She talks to the producer and says, “I was watching TV, and I saw your latest commercial, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
Connelly says that the producers hired Cleo to “set the deck” for a scripted “show” of infomercials with writers and actors. He spoke about that year, “It looks staged, it sounds staged, and it’s the worst acting you’ve ever seen.” So, they chose Cleo to be the show’s host.
Cleo’s story was a little different, and she told it to the people who made the 2012 documentary “Hotline.”
“My sister-in-law told me about the hotline, and I came to work there because I needed a flexible way to make money,” she said. “When they asked me to be the spokesperson, my first thought was, ‘I have a good name to keep up. I just can’t do it, and I don’t want to. I don’t think you guys are serious about it.'”
She said, “Then I thought, ‘Well, it would be nice to do an ad where people can give feedback.'” “And I said, ‘Look, you can put a camera in front of me, and I’ll do what I do at home: I’ll read my cards. You can’t tell me how to read my cards when to read my cards, or what formation to use. I’ll look at my cards. If it works for you, that’s great; if not, that’s fine, too.'”
No matter what happened, the infomercial Cleo, now called “Miss Cleo,” went viral after it started airing late at night on different networks. This made Miss Cleo a well-known brand and, in the end, made Steven Feder and Peter Stotz, the owners of PRN, rich.
She said that in 2012, she was paid $1,750 as a freelancer for the commercial.
Ultimately, she signed a contract that forever gave PRN the rights to her “Miss Cleo” image. They sued General Mills in 2015 for hiring Cleo to do a parody, sued Benefit Cosmetics in 2016 for hiring Cleo to do a parody, and sued Rockstar Games in 2017 for making a Cleo-like parody with Cleo in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (which came out in 2002).
In 2006, Cleo said that being the only spokesperson for PRN made her about $450,000 in the two years that her commercial ran. TMZ noted this was because she got a small fee for every call the commercials brought in.
She didn’t get a share of PRN’s overall profits, which, according to the documentary, were around $1 billion.
How they made money off of $4.99/minute phone calls was the subject of court cases in eight states and with the FTC. At first, Miss Cleo was named in one of the cases, but she was later dropped because she didn’t do anything for the company other than act as a spokesperson.
PRN hired men and women as gig workers to play psychics on the phone calls, even though they usually knew that the people they hired did not claim to have psychic powers. They gave them detailed scripts to follow to keep people on the line as long as possible, like pretending to look for Miss Cleo if callers asked for her, and paid them 12–24 cents per minute. Part of the script was to get people’s names and addresses to sell them to direct mail companies (which paid well for such names and addresses).
Also, PRN said that callers had to be 18 years old, partly because there had been problems in the past with children running up bills on their parent’s phone lines, which the phone companies had to reverse. However, PRN was sending fraudulent billing statements to people, including some who had never called or had legally gotten the phone company charges changed, demanding at least $500 million in payments.
CNN said that in the end, the states and the FTC settled with PRN’s owners for $5 million in fines and $500 million in collections that would not be made. Other states agreed to penalties in the millions.
Miss Cleo was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, but her friends told producers that she lived alone for a few years.
Also, look at-
- Why Did Marilyn Monroe’s Body Go Missing? What Happened To Her?
- Did Stevie Nicks Die? What Happened to Her?
Eventually, AnnDee Rucker, a friend and the mother of Cleo’s two godsons, Matt and Bryan Rucker, and other friends got her out of her Broward County home and into small social events, then as a performer at a local LGBTQ-friendly cafe and finally as an opponent of a Florida law that would have made same-sex marriage illegal in the state.
In that 2006 interview, Cleo came out as a lesbian because of Matt Rucker’s process of coming out and because she loved him. She said that when she was in high school in the late 1970s, she fell in love with a girl, but when the girl’s father found out, he broke them up. She also said that her abusive partner was a woman and that the damage it did to her daughter made her stop dating for almost 10 years.
After The Advocate article, she ended up in two long-term relationships, the last with Lou Ann LaBohn, who was 61 when they met. (LeBohn is seen a lot in the movie.)
LeBohn and others told the producers that Cleo had told them she had thought about killing herself as early as age seven and that a male family member had raped her when she was 11. She told everyone she knew that the spirits talked to her and told her they were sad about what she had done. LeBohn and another friend also talked about “characters” that Cleo would slip into when stressed. For example, a man named Max would show up when Cleo needed to rest, and an older woman with a thick accent would talk in riddles.
LeBohn said she and Cleo broke up after a few years but stayed close friends.
Cleo died in July 2016 from colon cancer. She had just turned 53. At the time of her death, she was said to be a grandmother. She insisted that she was Afro-Caribbean and not just trying to sound like someone else.