Behind the Big Eyes: How Walter Keane Cheated His Wife Out of Fame and Fortune
Editor’s note: Adam Parfrey runs perhaps our favorite small press, Feral House Books. If you’re interested in pills, black metal, and apocalyptic death cults, they’re pretty much your one-stop shop. So when Adam sent us a snippet of his new book, Citizen Keane, we jumped at the opportunity to run an excerpt. The subject is Walter and Margaret Keane, 60s pop artists who caused a weird sensation painting kids with big eyes. They’re also the subject of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s new biopic, which will see wide release this Christmas.
1965 was a year of bug-eyed glory for the former real estate salesman turned pop artist Walter Stanley Keane, who bragged to reporters that he “romped through life with the evident enjoyment of a terrier rolling in a clover patch.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Keane art was seemingly everywhere—from the sales bins at Woolworths to the gilded mansions of Hollywood royalty. As his income surged comfortably into seven figures, Keane decided he would keep things simple. “All that really matters to me,” he explained to an admiring Lifemagazine reporter, “is painting, drinking (which, the way I look at it, includes eating), and loving.” It seemed like the party was just getting started.
Keane’s fortune was made from a style stunning in its simplicity. Weeping waifs. Tearful children. All bearing hypnotic, saucer-sized orbs. It was said that if you looked at them long enough, the distressed children seemed to stare at you, even if you moved about the room. “Let’s face it,” he boasted to Life magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” More discriminating art enthusiasts, critics, and academics didn’t quite agree, finding the paintings formulaic and sickening in their sentimentality. But the rest of America fell in love with Keane’s Big Eyes, and he became a household name.
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.
These Guys Made Up a Fake Case to Get On ‘Judge Judy’
Back in 2010, there was an amazing Judge Judy segment that featured four people in a dispute over some smashed TVs and a dead cat. You may have seen a clip of it called "Best Judge Judy ending EVER!!!!!"
The story was completely made up. Invented by four roommates in order to get a free trip to LA and some cash out of the Judge Judy producers.
The story they invented was, basically, that a guy called Jonathan had gotten wasted at the house of a girl named Kate and smashed two TVs that she owned. One of the TVs, she said, landed on her pet cat, Trips, killing it. You can see the full segment here.
I spoke to Jonathan, the defendant in the case, to hear his side off what happened:
VICE: What gave you guys the idea to contact the show?
Jonathan Coward: Well, my friend Kate, who was the plaintiff, had just moved up to New York from Baltimore, and she asked me what a quick way to make money was. I had some friends who went on Judge Joe Brown back in the late 90s. They were on there for some sort of roommate dispute. And they told me that the show pays the settlement.
Was that a genuine case?
Yeah. So I told her we could come up with some story for Judge Judy, and we would probably get the settlement and a free trip to LA, because we knew that’s where they shot. So we tried to think of a story that was absurd, something that would be good television. So I just threw out the idea of the cat thing, just off the top of my head. The whole point was that we need to have a story that’s entertaining, but also involves damaged property. I was aware that the cap for small claims was around four grand. Kate got real excited about it and emailed the show straight away. And they got back to her, and were interested in doing it.
How did they reach out to you?
They just called. I allowed Kate to give them my number. I was really dodgy and cagey about answering the phone, and I would like, talk to them for a second and hang up, and I told them I’d do it if they gave me an appearance fee and flew my friend Brian out for a character witness. I guess I was more concerned about making this more of a party for ourselves than anything else.
How much of the story that you guys told is true?
Absolutely none of it. Once they agreed to put us on the show, we realized that we needed to take roles and not have this be something that was completely see through. There were tensions at our house, so a slight amount of it was real.
I Accidentally Got a Scammer Tortured by Police in Tanzania
It was when they manhandled him onto the table, tethered him to a water pipe coming out of the ceiling, and pulled his pants down to his ankles that I experienced a change of heart. For weeks I’d been consumed with hatred for the man on that table. But it’s funny how your perspective changes when someone is about to be tortured, especially when you’re the one that put him there.
It had begun, like many tales of misadventure, in that most anarchic staging post for travel: the Tanzanian bus station. Ever been to one? This is how it goes: The long-distance buses tend to leave at dusk or before; schedules are mind-bogglingly irregular; a tourist tax on the price of a ticket is all but inevitable. Like transport hubs the world over, they’re a magnet for the wretched, the transient, and the dispossessed. And you endure it all for the privilege of cramming yourself into a bus driven by some prepubescent boy-racer in a country with a traffic-accident rate six times worse than that of the UK.
A Guy Who Looks Like Psy Is Scamming Rich European Kids for Free Drinks
Last year, a French-Korean guy named Denis Carre went to Barcelona Fashion Week and was mistaken for Psy almost everywhere he went. Yes, Denis was wearing the sunglasses from the “Gangnam Style” video, but that clip has been viewed more than 2 billion times—you’d have thought people would be able to differentiate the real Psy from a slightly tubby French-Korean man in a suit and black sunglasses. Could the cult of celebrity really make people this blind? And, perhaps, even a little bit racist? Or was it more that they just wanted to believe that they were looking at the most viewed face on YouTube?
Denis is a friend of mine, and I was accompanying him that year, taking photos of the whole thing. So I witnessed—among other surreal moments—club owners offering him bundles of cash to perform, and car dealership managers trying to hand him the keys to sports cars, just “because it would be cool to see him drive.”
A year later, we returned to one of this year’s Barcelona Fashion Week parties to find out if everyone would still be excited to see Denis in a suit.
According to the op-eds, our generation’s cultural attention span looks something like an endless loop of “smack-cam” Vines. So we figured people might have forgotten who Psy was, or why they ever gave a shit about him in the first place. To jog their memories, we had a bunch of stickers, T-shirts, and temporary tattoos made up that read: “DO ME GANGNAM STYLE.”
It turns out that this was probably a waste of money; people generally seem to remember global epidemics that dominate popular culture for an entire year.
How to Buy Jewelry Like a Jeweler, by Clancy Martin
For years I owned a chain of luxury jewelry stores in one of the wildest, most flamboyant, most duplicitous jewelry markets of them all: Dallas, Texas. I won’t tell you every kind of subterfuge I learned from when I first started in the business at age fifteen (the owners of that notorious store that taught me all I know eventually went to federal prison), but with Valentine’s Day coming up, I will tell you what sort of jewelry scams are popular throughout the world now. And just to make it easy, I’ve boiled them down to ten basic maxims. Follow these simple rules, and you will never go wrong in buying luxury jewelry. You’ll even seem like an expert. And that’s rule number one, which I’ll give you for free: If you seem like you’re in the know, if you come off as someone who’s in the business, most jewelers will be hesitant to try to dupe you. Never act like this is your first—or even fifteenth—time in a jewelry store. You cannot be intimidated by your salesperson. You must be confident and in complete control. Better still, tell the salesperson you don’t know much about jewelry at all—and then let slip, through the tricks I teach you below, subtle hints that convince him you’re an expert in disguise. Then the dealer will suspect you are trying to dupe him. And he will fear you.
1. All colored stones are treated.
There is simply no such thing as a “natural”-colored gemstone, particularly not in a jewelry store, and certainly not if it’s been set in a piece of finished jewelry. (Incidentally, “finished jewelry” is a term you should remember: It means a piece that has been completely assembled, rather than, say, a ring setting that is still waiting for its center stone.) So if someone is telling you a stone is natural, you can smile and say, “Oh, it hasn’t even been heated?” Now your salesperson must either admit that it’s been heated or lie to you or simply reveal his incompetence. In any event, you have established your superiority. There are natural pearls, but they are so rare that you should insist on a certificate guaranteeing their authenticity (more on such certificates below) and only buy from an established business that specializes in natural pearls. The most respected jewelry stores and auction houses in the world have been fooled into selling cultured pearls as natural and into selling treated colored stones as untreated.
The King of the Pickpockets
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He’s stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. If half his stories are true, he’s the best in Mexico, but that’s hard to say for certain. There’s no way to quantify achievements in petty theft, no Pickpocket Hall of Fame, but there was a time—if you believe him—when the Snail was so respected by the police that they let him go about his business undisturbed.
I found out about the Snail after I became interested in pickpockets—their stories, their ethics, their art of nonviolent robbery. I started asking people with ties to the criminal world whom I should talk to, and everyone from former beat cops to the pirated-DVD vendors on the street told me I needed to find the Snail, who they referred to as the “king of the pickpockets.”
I tracked him down and discovered he’s retired now, a dark-skinned man in his mid-50s running a soup kitchen on the El Paso border. He still receives gifts from old friends— cops and gangsters both—and a handful of glommers-on are always around to rub shoulders with greatness and pick up tips and tricks. One recent afternoon, I drove out to the kitchen to meet him.
I went to Shanghai with the idea that I might casually get laid. My loser low confidence—at bars, parties; any hook-up situation with which pensive celibates are obsessed—would finally be reprieved because I would be among “my people,” or so my racist preoccupation went. In the end I got scammed by two pretty ladies at a tea shop.
A True Rip-Off Artist
In 2009, I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City to “make it” as a photographer, a process that involved living in an apartment the size of a hallway with a view of a brick wall. I was broke, lonely, and desperate for work, when out of the blue I was contacted on Twitter by someone who went by the name C. S. Leigh.
Through the omniscient and infallible knowledge database that is Google, I learned that C. S. Leigh was a film director and a curator. An image search revealed photos of a balding, almost spherical man with black-rimmed glasses and a double chin. He told me he liked my stuff, and before long, I had agreed to take some photos for an art magazine he was putting out.
It seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I did a fashion shoot featuring models in clothes from threeASFOUR and Chado Ralph Rucci and portraits of world-renowned perfumer Frédéric Malle and artist Meredyth Sparks. There was talk of my going to Paris and London for the Frieze Art Fair and Fashion Week, or perhaps attending Coachella to photograph bands for his magazine. It was as if C. S. had opened a door to the exclusive world of art and fashion and quietly slipped me into the front seat.