New Miss Cleo Documentary: Sympathy for a Liar
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White Lotus season two is over and Succession season four hasn’t started yet so I was looking for something to watch on HBO, and lo, I saw that a new documentary has premiered that is extremely related to my interests: “Call Me Miss Cleo.”
“Experience the rise, fall, and reinvention of ’90s TV psychic Miss Cleo. Known for her larger-than-life persona and memorable accent, Miss Cleo, born Youree Dell Harris, garnered a nationwide cult following on the Psychic Readers Network, which later came under fire for its alleged deceptive practices. Call Me Miss Cleo ultimately reveals the truth behind the ever-enigmatic woman who took TV by storm only to abruptly disappear from public consciousness.”
I honestly could not hit “play” fast enough. I was excited to see exactly how critical this documentary would be, of Miss Cleo and also of “professional” “psychics” as a whole. As you know, I myself have been extremely critical of both: when Miss Cleo died in 2016 I wasn’t super respectful…okay, I straight up called her a con artist and pointed out the irony of her dying from cancer several decades after stealing a bunch of money from a nonprofit theater by pretending to have had cancer.
I was also interested in whether or not this documentary would change my mind about Cleo, and I’m happy to say that yes, in fact, it kind of did! Let’s get into it.
First of all, as a film I would give this documentary a “C”. Three stars out of five. Very meh. It’s disjointed, jumping back and forth between unrelated people, times, and stories, and the creators made the baffling choice of featuring interviews with two actors who not only did not know Miss Cleo personally, but clearly knew next to nothing about her life. Raven-Symoné, for instance, is obviously learning on camera details about Miss Cleo and then reacting to what she’s just been told and it’s like…why is this happening? She seems like a lovely person but I really do not care what Raven-Symoné thinks about literally just hearing that Miss Cleo was a lesbian and didn’t think she made enough money.
So if you’re not interested in psychics or con artists or Miss Cleo, this might not be the documentary for you. I AM interested in those things so I got some value out of it anyway. To answer the questions I had at the start, I found the documentary to be surprisingly critical of Miss Cleo. I was really expecting it to be more of a fluff piece but they actually hit on most of the things I was hoping to see, specifically the con she ran at the nonprofit theater in Seattle.
In interviews with the people who knew her, viewers do learn that before she became “Miss Cleo,” she actually went by a number of different names: Youree Cleomili, Youree Dell Harris, Youree Perris, Rae Dell Harris, Cleomili Perris Youree, Cleomili Harris, and Ree Perris, as she was known in the mid-90s when she started putting on plays at the Langston Hughes theater in Seattle. Those people attest that she didn’t have a Jamaican accent and told them she was born, raised, and educated in LA. In 1996 she did a play where she created the character of “Miss Cleo,” a Jamaican psychic. Then she claimed to have bone cancer and skipped town with the thousands of dollars she was given to pay the cast and crew of her production.
The next time they all saw her was on television, where her character was now shilling for “the Psychic Readers Network,” where people were encouraged to call a 1-800 number for their “free psychic reading,” which was only “free” for the first few minutes, after which they were charged an exorbitant amount of money per minute.
The documentary also did a good job of finding and interviewing former “psychic readers” who worked for that company. One of them was fantastic, being very open that he and his coworkers had no psychic powers and that he participated in a horrific scam designed to squeeze as much money as possible from desperate people, many of whom needed mental health services. One thing I learned here that I didn’t know was that in addition to just keeping these people on the phone for as long as possible, the employees were also asked to get the names and addresses of everyone who called in so that they could then be added to a master list of suckers to be bilked again in the future.
I hate to admit it but I did laugh at the story of what they would do if someone called asking to speak to Miss Cleo: even though they worked from home, they’d put the phone down and walk around their living rooms calling out “Miss Cleo?” for several minutes before coming back and telling them she JUST left for lunch. It’s so evil!
Finally, the movie covers the FTC lawsuit, which eventually shut down the Psychic Readers Network entirely by fining them for defrauding people out of millions of dollars. This is the part that I found most interesting because I actually did learn something, here: Cleo wasn’t actually in charge of the company, and she apparently had no say or control over their internal workings, so she was dropped from that FTC lawsuit. I didn’t realize that, and it DOES make me ever so slightly less angry at Cleo specifically.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for the criticism of psychics or Miss Cleo. The doc clearly wants us to feel like Cleo’s lack of control in the Psychic Readers Network should make us sympathize with her, but why? She was still the spokesperson who convinced all those people to call in. The documentary also pretty uncritically accepts Miss Cleo’s word that she was underpaid, but if that’s true, why did she play this character for years? And also, I cannot stress this enough: everything we know about this woman suggests she lies CONSTANTLY! She lied to her friends in Seattle about having bone cancer and also about attending the University of Southern California, she lied about being born in Jamaica and having an entire ass Jamaican accent, and she lied about having psychic powers. How do I know that? Because PSYCHIC POWERS DON’T EXIST.
While the interviews with the people she knew in Seattle are great, the documentary gives equal weight (actually more weight) to interviews with the people Cleo knew during and after her fame. And here’s the other part where I did get a little sympathy for her: after the Psychic Readers Network went under, she came out as a lesbian and got involved in LGBT activism around Florida. That’s great! And also complicated: the documentary features interviews with all these people she befriended during that time and honestly it felt a lot like listening to people who didn’t realize they had been scammed.
All of them wholeheartedly believed that Cleo truly had psychic powers, and further that she had multiple personalities that each had different ways of talking and different magical powers. One person almost becomes self-aware, saying that “sure, some people might think she just has mental health problems like multiple personality disorder” and it’s like, no, some people might think she was making it all up and you bought it.
Near the end of the documentary we meet the woman who was “the love of Cleo’s life” and I thought aha, a real relationship! Maybe after coming out, Cleo found herself and became honest with someone. Surely this woman will have some insights. But friends, no, this was just another poor dupe: she and Cleo dated for a bit, moved in together, and then one day out of nowhere Cleo ghosted her. Just moved out. Exactly how she left Seattle! How is this the love of her life??? How is this not just another person who Cleo was able to fool for awhile?
One of the former colleagues deftly points out that once she left Seattle, Miss Cleo apparently surrounded herself with white people. Seriously, there’s not a single black friend interviewed for this documentary, nor are there any in photos or videos. I loved that the documentary includes this, and the expertise of Andrea Shaw Nevins, a scholar of Caribbean and African Diaspora studies, who points out that every Jamaican person on the planet knew Miss Cleo wasn’t Jamaican but it’s very, very easy to fool white people. Sure enough, Cleo’s white friends completely believed that she had some kind of Jamaican heritage.
They also believed her stories of being abused as a child and teased at school, which is where things get a little complicated. Cleo lied about SO MUCH for SO LONG that we can’t just accept anything she says at face value, but obviously she may very well have been abused as a child. All we know about her childhood from the documentary is that she was sent to an all-girls boarding school. There are no interviews with her family, nor are any members of her family ever even mentioned aside from her story of an abusive uncle. Cleo’s ex-husband and two children are also never mentioned – she told the Advocate in 2006 that “At 19 she was married to a man, with whom she bore a daughter, but the marriage ended before she turned 21. Since then Harris has had two long-term relationships with women, which she refers to as marriages, and she gave birth to a second daughter in her late 20s. In 1997 she left her second “wife,” her last serious relationship, because she had become abusive toward Harris and her younger daughter.”
She also told them she had her first girlfriend in boarding school, and that her parents knew she was gay and had no problem with it, which doesn’t make it sound like she had that bad of a childhood, even for a black lesbian in the 70s.
That Advocate piece is very interesting in that she also says she made $450,000 over the two years she worked for Psychic Readers Network, which she thinks isn’t a lot of money. Like…girl what? It’s not the millions that the owners pulled in, sure, but that is a solid chunk of change, especially if you’re living in Florida in the 90s.
Add to that the fact that in 2002 she tried to sign with a DIFFERENT psychic company but Florida sued to stop her from committing more fraud.
All told, Call Me Miss Cleo had its charms but ultimately it failed to truly hold Miss Cleo accountable for what was ultimately a lifetime of lying and defrauding millions of people with apparently zero sympathy. The guy who worked as a phone psychic for a little while had more compassion for the people they ripped off than Miss Cleo. She knew what was happening and not only did she not care but when the company that made her rich went under for massive fraud, she immediately tried to scurry to another one.
If you really want to paint Miss Cleo as a more complicated figure than just a fraud, let’s hear from her actual kids who were never even mentioned, from any members of her real close family, and maybe from some psychiatrists who can tell us about what drives some people to lie about their entire existence. Maybe then I can find some real sympathy for someone who got rich off of sad, gullible people.
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