Miss Cleo on Her Fake Accent and Getting Ripped Off by the Psychic Friends Network
If you looked at or were ever near a television in the late 90s or early 2000s, you’ll remember the buoyant and boisterous television psychic Miss Cleo.
Born Youree Dell Harris, Cleo was the ostensibly Jamaican frontwoman for the Psychic Readers Network who became a cultural touchstone thanks to her colorful outfits, which exuded Afrocentricity, her occasionally questionable patois, and her memorable “Call me now!” exhortation. Miss Cleo’s commercials were outlandish (Cleo: “He’s getting frustrated with this [relationship].” Caller: “He told me that.” Cleo: “Well, [that’s] because you have sex with your eyes closed. You’re scared to death, mama.” Caller: “You hit the nail on the head, perfectly”), but they were always powered by an overwhelming feeling of warmth and levity. Cleo became a ubiquitous mainstay of early millennial television.
Then, in February of 2002, the bottom fell out. The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network, alleging that they made over $1 billion by employing a host of shady tricks, including misrepresenting the nature of the “free” readings offered, failing to make required cost disclosures in ads, and threatening to report negative information to credit bureaus should a caller refuse to pay, among other misdeeds.
Much of the resulting media attention focused on Cleo, though she was little more than an employee and spokesperson for the company and was quickly dropped from the suit. (PRN’s owners, Steven Feder and Peter Stoltz, later settled the suit out of court, to the tune of $500 million.)
Save for her appearance in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and coming out of the closet tothe Advocate in 2006, Miss Cleo has stayed away from the spotlight in the past decade. After several years away, she’s re-emerged as a key component of an intriguing new documentary called Hotline, which examines the history of telephone hotlines, and what role they play (or don’t play) in our increasingly digital world.
I met up with everyone’s favorite hotline psychic in Toronto earlier this week to discuss her history with voodoo and mysticism, what actually happened with the Psychic Readers Network, and the tricky business of her controversial accent.
VICE: Were you into hotlines before you start appearing in those infomercials?
Miss Cleo: I was a very well-known psychic in the United States on a hotline for two years out in public, and about two to three years just on the hotline itself.
How did you get into the business?
I come from a family of spooky people. I don’t know how else to say it. I come from a family of Obeah—which is another word for voodoo. My teacher was Haitian, [a mambo] born in Port-au-Prince, and I studied under her for some 30 years and then became a mambo myself. So they refer to me as psychic—because the word voodoo scares just about everybody. So they told me, “No, no, no, we can’t use that word; we’re going to call you a psychic.” I said, “But I’m not a psychic!”
Then they would take me somewhere to do an interview, and as soon as I’d say, ‘I’m not a psychic, and I don’t own the company,” the handlers would say, “No, no, no. Tell her to shut up.”
Tell me about the mechanics of the operation. Did you work in a call center?
Well, most of us worked from our homes, not one big room. I was doing television, they had me touring everywhere, and I was always bothered by the fact that, you know, people took the “Call me now” quote very earnestly.
I was at Best Buy one day, and a gentleman said, “Miss Cleo, aren’t you supposed to be on the phone?” I said, “Honey, do you really think that I do that while I’m traveling and doing press?” I said, “You have a better chance of talking to me right here than you do if you called.” I still remember my extension number, though. My extension was 16153.
"Whenever I do psychic readings for someone, it’s always bad news," says Bill with a heavy sigh. Bill is a 60-something electrician and, like me and nine others, a student for the day at the College of Psychic Studies in Kensington, London. "But then I think, ‘Well, they’ve gotta hear it, ain’t they?’" he continues. “They’re meant to.”
Inside Cassadaga, the “Psychic Capital of the World”
On the surface, Cassadaga resembles a Florida Mayberry. Set back in the backwoods between Daytona and Orlando, the little “Psychic Capital of the World,” has long been a sanctuary for mediums, healers, psychics, and just plain freaks.
The Spiritualist Camp in Cassadaga was founded in the late 1800s by one George P. Colby. Colby, a New York native and medium had been instructed by his spirit guide—a Native American named Seneca—to go to Florida and start a spiritual center. He trekked into the Central Florida wilderness in 1875 and homesteaded the land, in accordance with Seneca’s prophecy. A charter to form the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association was granted in 1894, and Colby acquired 35 acres. This spirit guide apparently had quite the knowledge of property rights. Over the decades, the Spiritualist Camp has grown to 57 acres. Cassadaga started as a place for snowbirds to practice their Spiritualism—a secular-minded, turn-of-the-century mish-mash of science, philosophy and religion.
Fast forward to 2013 – things have changed.
Two distinct tendencies have emerged within the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp—the New Agers and the religious, non-profit organization charged with running the camp. Like the Jews and the Muslims in certain parts of the world, a single street separates them from each other.
The New Agers use tarot cards and stick to the Cassadaga Hotel. A stone’s throw away is the religious organization maintains the traditional belief system that Colby established in the 1800s. That’s not to say the Cassadaga Hotel and its hired psychics don’t stay true to Spiritualism as religion, but they’re a bit more relaxed about it. Its like Episcopalians and Catholics.
The Cassadaga Hotel—the only hotel in Cassadaga—is allegedly haunted. The perimeter porch with its rocking chairs and hunchbacked palm trees resemble a more Mediterranean incarnation of the Bates Motel. The hotel’s website states that the hotel has “friendly spirits”—I’m guessing this means Ghost Dad-like apparitions. The original hotel burned down on Christmas Day of 1926 and was rebuilt a year later. The inside of the hotel evokes the Roaring Twenties with its Tuscan-style furniture and speakeasy-style lobby. To the side of the lobby is Sinatra’s Ristorante, which features a piano player, full liquor bar, and Italian food. Saturday night is karaoke, but we’ll get to that later.
Channeling GG Allin with America’s Next Drag Superstar
Two weeks after Sharon Needles took home the coveted title of America’s Next Drag Superstar on Rupaul’s Drag Race, she sits on the floor of her room at the Out Hotel—a “straight-friendly urban resort” in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen—across from a psychic named Jesse Bravo, which is at least partially my doing. I had been enraptured by this glam-goth/witch-house/art-sleaze drag queen ever since seeing her on television, and had to meet her. But what would compel a performer known for vomiting blood and accessorizing with Ouija boards to hang with me? What could I propose that would be campy, creepy, and absurd enough to work? One word: séance. And here we are, a tattooed Sharon in a nude-colored lace dress, a rhinestone collar, and cotton candy-like platinum hair piled high sitting among flickering candles, tumbler of scotch in hand, while the psychic tells her he sees stars—entire constellations—all around her.
Sharon kneels down to whisper in my ear: “Ask the psychic if you are going to get raped.”
“No!” I say, “I don’t want to know!”
“What did she tell you to ask?” the psychic asks, smiling, “When you are going to die?”
I consider this. “Well… could you tell me that?”
“No!” Sharon yelps, “You psycho! Ask my question, not that one.”
A few hours earlier, I sat in the bathroom and got to talk to Sharon about her origins while she applied make-up—or rather, I talked to Aaron Coady, the man behind the woman. (I’ll refer to Aaron as “Sharon” when he’s in drag and as “Aaron” while he’s in mufti.) When he’s not in character, he has an open, easy demeanor, which is what you’d expect from someone who grew up in a small town and escaped to become, officially, a Drag Superstar. “I was too naive to be depressed,” he said of his childhood in Newton, Iowa. He was picked on, sure, but he learned to surrounded himself with things he loved: turning the back deck into a Broadway stage (“There was no after school dance or theater program in my town”), year-round Halloween dress-up, hanging out alone in cornfields, and, especially, plugging into television. “I was really into the bimbo archetype that filled late 80s-early 90s TV when I was growing up,” he said. “You know, women circling the want ads with nail polish, Rhonda Shear from USA Up All Night, Peggy Bundy.”
A YouTube video from Sharon’s early days depicts her as a blonde hooker in a red satin dress, walking the streets of Pittsburgh drinking a beer. “Maybe it sounds sexist, but I thought there was power in women acting stupid,” said Aaron, “That is why Sharon’s voice is so dumb. She’s beautiful, spooky, and stupid.”
Sharon asks the psychic if we can get the punk rock legend GG Allin on the line… or maybe televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker? (The latter is tattooed on Sharon’s upper arm.) The psychic closes his eyes. Tammy Faye is in some distant, massive city, but she knows Sharon and she has a message for her: She needs to watch her finances. She needs to watch who is around her. She needs to not let things pile up. “I love you, Tammy,” Sharon says. GG Allin also makes an appearance (surely the only time he’s shared a stage with Tammy Faye) and sends the image of a pressure cooker, telling Sharon she needs to “let the steam out.”
Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell, which was chosen as a best book of the year by The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and Publisher’s Weekly. It is set in a jewelry store in Fort Worth. Martin himself used to be a jeweler, so he knows all the dirty tricks. Due to the book, I learned a ring I wear is not platinum, but white gold — the information was right there stamped inside, but I didn’t know how to look for it, and had been told all my life it was platinum. It’s an heirloom. I am off topic. Martin is very good at writing about sex and drugs. Those are two topics it is pretty easy to mess up. He is also exceptionally good—really, this is very unusual—at writing about what I guess I will call the spiritual life, but those words are wrong. Those words sound kind of safe, and what I’m talking about isn’t safe at all. It is lawless. I really can’t even come close to getting a handle on it, but he does—so you ought to just go and have a look, if you didn’t yet. Here’s the tarot card reading.
VICE: Hi Clancy, it’s Amie. I can do a general reading or a reading about your love life, or a reading about your work.
Clancy Martin: I think it would be more interesting to do a reading about my love life, because my love life is in real disarray at the moment.
OK, do you want to tell me why? If you tell me why, then the cards are kind of logical, so the reading will make more sense.
Yeah, I’ll tell you why my love life is in disarray. I am separated, but not yet divorced from my second wife. I am dating someone right now. I’m in a monogamous relationship, but I’m not sure how steady it is on its feet.