RIP Miss Cleo, Beloved Con Artist

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2016 has taken from us another great artist: Miss Cleo. If you don’t know who Miss Cleo is, you’re probably too young to remember phone psychics. You see, in the 90s you could use your telephone, which was plugged into a wall in your home, to call a 1-900 number and pay exorbitant amounts of money to talk to an actor pretending to be a psychic who would tell you who your baby’s daddy is.

Miss Cleo became one of the most well known of these psychics thanks to her over-the-top fake Jamaican accent and her ubiquitous infomercials on late night TV.

This week, she died at the age of 53 from metastatic colon cancer, and 30-something Twitter is mourning. Cancer is an asshole, and it’s awful that anyone should die so young. Also, Miss Cleo was a lifelong scam artist who bilked thousands of people out of money, many of whom were probably the parents of kids who were watching late night TV and grabbed the phone for fun.

The Psychic Readers Network, as the larger company that promoted her was known, was sued in many different states for deceptive advertising and fraud. In 2002, the FTC finally cracked down on the company for those issues plus deceptive billing and collections, and it went under.

That wasn’t Miss Cleo’s first foray into fraud, though. The Seattle PI reported in 2002 that she had at least seven other identities she used, and under one of those she staged a production of a play she wrote using funds from a non-profit. The play failed and she took off without paying any of the staff in full.

I don’t believe in divine retribution or irony, but many of Miss Cleo’s former customers probably do, so I’ll just mention that amusingly, she gave some of the staff the excuse that she couldn’t pay them because she had bone cancer. Of course, those who are still fans could just point to that as proof of her ultimate psychic prowess: sure, she didn’t have cancer at that time, but maybe she was able to see into the future and just got bones mixed up with colons.

If you’re wondering what the harm may have been in charging people a few dollars per minute to talk to an actor pretending to be psychic, check out some phone psychic confessions that have been published online. One writes about a woman calling to ask if she should murder her unborn grandson because he was the devil, and another woman calling because her child wandered off in a park and she wanted to know where she was.

People who believe psychics are real are liable to put a tremendous amount of trust in what they say, and that trust can easily be abused. So I’m not glad Miss Cleo is dead, but I am glad that she hasn’t been on TV for the past 15 years.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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