If you were flipping channels around 1 a.m. in the late ’90s, you most certainly recall the infomercials starring “Miss Cleo,” your favorite Black psychic friend. “Call me now,” she bellowed the clever catchphrase in a heavy Jamaican accent as a 1-800 number for viewers to dial would linger on screen.
She was the epitome of cheap nighttime entertainment. She was usually seated at the center of the TV frame behind a stodgy table, inside a hideously decorated room, and donning Caribbean garb with incense burning in the background. As you might have already presumed from that description, it was a very specific vibe.
And in the ’90s, with not much else for insomniacs to watch in the wee hours of the morning, “Miss Cleo” was addictive television. She received calls from dedicated listeners who discussed their innermost concerns about relationships, careers or whatever else was on their minds.
To which she’d often respond along the lines of “that’s what me thought” in her patois before she dished out haughty advice to her fans’ delight.
“Miss Cleo” was entertaining and utterly ridiculous. Her act was also largely understood, among many Black audiences at least, to be absolute horseshit. Entertaining as all get out, as proven by the “Miss Cleo” spoofs within the Black community that popped up throughout that time, including “Mad TV” and “Dave Chappelle’s Show.” But preposterous just the same.
All of it; her faux Jamaican accent, the notion that she was clairvoyant, and the numerous callers who would shockingly hang on the line for a whopping $2.99 per minute.
Who was “Miss Cleo,” really? For many Black audiences, that was far less interesting than her largely white callers with evidently disposable incomes — you’d likely be hard-pressed to find a Black person who phoned in — who were convinced that she was an actual psychic.
Much of that was due to stereotypes that presume her being a Black Caribbean woman means she has some mystic ability.
Those were amplified during the ’90s when white audiences became interested in increasingly commercialized Blackness, such as hip-hop music, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the BET network and even “Girl 6,” the latter which points to the then-popularity of phone sex operators.
“We think of the ways in which television, movies, music — this alignment with the Black popular culture,” Adrien P. Sebro, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told HuffPost.
“I would even throw in people’s comfort level with ‘Miss Cleo’ because it was an idea of how someone can align with the wisdom of Black women,” he continued. “And not just Black women, but Black Caribbean women.”
Sebro added: “When she’s talking to people, she’s making them feel like [she’s] one of their homegirls. It really became a point that that’s their Black friend. I always saw it to a point that it’s like people wanted to be invested in a culture or a space where they can believe that they’re part of something.”
The more complicated roles that race, appropriation, identity and the scamming art of mysticism play in the story of the famous personality, who died in 2016, are what the new HBO Max documentary “Call Me Miss Cleo” aims to grapple with, but with mostly unsatisfying results.
It presents itself as a more honest and textured reflection of who “Miss Cleo” was, particularly in light of the Psychic Readers Network collapse after a 2001 lawsuit over fraudulent credit card transactions and particularly her questionable identity. (The legal case against “Miss Cleo,” considered the network’s most popular employee, was eventually dropped).
The film features marginally interesting interviews with those who claim to have known her best, other psychic readers, Black peers from back when she was known as the actress Youree Dell Harris from California and celebrity commentators. But it ultimately sparks a shallow conversation around both her and her celebrity.
“Call Me Miss Cleo” barely confronts the complexities around the fact that she actively participated in a racist system that also exploited her — plus, most notably, how she continued to use a Jamaican accent throughout the rest of her life. Instead, it exclusively presents her as a victim, with little space for nuance.
The documentary also refuses to contend with the fact that those that Harris personally aligned herself with, at least the ones interviewed in the documentary, are exclusively white and fail to acknowledge the way their whiteness afforded them a right to be obtuse about an obvious gimmick.
Instead, some interviewed in the film suggest that Harris had dissociative identity disorder that made her believe that “Miss Cleo” and being a shaman were her real identities and not just the character she created back in Seattle with a community theater group. Whether or not that’s true (there’s no way to determine that now), it’s not engaged in the way it deserves to be.
That is especially troubling since this same film also details how Harris told her fellow cast members in Seattle that she had bone cancer and could not pay them at the time because she needed the money for medical treatment. They never saw her again until she showed up on their TV screens.
Perhaps the only thing “Call Me Miss Cleo” does manage is to provoke the question of a scam. Can you call it one if the victims are willing participants, likely because they feel it benefits them somehow?
“You weren’t necessarily interested in the person,” Beretta Smith-Shomade, associate professor of film and media at Emory University, told HuffPost. “You’re interested in ‘Miss Cleo.’ And so, that’s what you got.”
And how much accountability should Harris, as a hired media personality, have had then? To her account detailed in the documentary, the Psychic Readers Network owners, unsurprisingly two white men in Florida who profited off her, also had something to do with affecting a heavier accent and leaning even more into a stereotype of an image she had already created.
“I feel bad for her because she got caught up in something that benefited her at the time,” Smith-Shomade said.
“But the whole impetus around criminalizing what she was doing — I can’t believe [that if] the preponderance of people who were losing their money were different people, it would have even been an issue,” she added. “Sometimes it’s about who’s getting got.”
True. That it was primarily white people, who got fooled plays a significant factor in the way that Harris, a Black woman they blindly trusted mainly on account of their cultural assumptions, was particularly targeted. It says a lot about their ignorance.
Smith-Shomade adds that how audiences engaged with the idea of “Miss Cleo” and other infomercials like the Psychic Readers during the ’90s is not unlike how viewers contend with what they see on reality television today. There’s active participation in a hoax that has vague or no proximity to the truth.
“Thinking about how people continue to process what they think about reality TV, even though they know these are people who actually exist and acting who they are,” Smith-Shomade said.
“But they have lights, and producers and PAs and 10 people standing around you in your house listening to your intimate conversation. You are performing. Defacto. And so, our understanding of what is going on, I think, always needs to be complicated by our desire to suspend belief.”
Smith-Shomade continued: “We want to believe it. We want to believe that [‘Miss Cleo’ is] doing whatever she’s supposed to be doing — telling us our future, our fortune, or whatever you have called her for. And then, to turn around and be mad about it… It’s like, wait, what?!”
Multiple truths in this story underscore how many things had to come together during this time in history to make a figure like “Miss Cleo” thrive for as long as she did. There’s the racism of it all, the exploitation and perpetuation, audiences’ growing inability to discern reality through televised images, as well as the increasing power of TV as a medium.
Infomercials, including previous psychic hotlines, had already been gaining popularity among viewers, many of whom felt alone and anxious during that time of night. This was long after former President Ronald Reagan had been a driving force in dismantling mental health care throughout the country, effectively perpetuating a stigma around it.
So, TV had taken on an uneasy role of providing people with a comfort that they might have been lacking in their own lives and during an hour when they felt most alone or vulnerable. The medium no longer had a specific time when content would turn into white noise or a blank screen. It was continuous and fit for frivolous entertainment like infomercials.
“And if you’re up, TV has this way of — I don’t want to say hypnotizing and transiting people into what’s going on,” Sebro said. “I think that’s part of its success, especially because it doesn’t require much for you as a viewer.”
Sebro continued, “You literally are pressing buttons, and everything’s coming at you — all this information. So, part of the psychology of TV [is that it] has always been a space where the most communication happens.”
And that creates a contrived sense of community and understanding among viewers.
“It really was this idea of how to make people into citizens of a particular area because [of] the way media’s controlled by certain power forces; the news we see, etc.,” he said. “So with that being the case, they also control how people think.”
Part of that is taking advantage of the decidedly unscheduled hours of original TV programming and filling it with infomercials that perhaps tapped into the psyche of a person who was still awake. As Sebro recalled, that concept began with physical products like lotions and jewelry sold on infomercials and morphed into something like Psychic Readers Network and “Miss Cleo.”
“Really, this is the selling of a product in a sense as well,” Sebro said. “You’re selling maybe mental health or therapy, selling someone who can tell you about your future when you’re contemplating at 1 a.m. about anything.”
The truth becomes deprioritized because, to Smith-Shomade’s earlier point, the lie began actively serving the audience.
This shouldn’t sound like an unfamiliar concept. We saw and continue to see relevant examples of this on reality TV today and back when the medium progressed to tawdry talk shows like “The Jerry Springer Show,” which also had a very lucrative interactive component. Especially for people who were stuck with their thoughts, that was everything.
“This is one way where you feel you have someone you can call into and have a conversation with,” Sebro said. “We see it obviously play out in different ways like a ‘Howard Stern Show’ or all these little calling shows where you feel like you’re seeing something on screen.”
He continued: “They thought it was a funny or cool thing to call in. Being a part of something, I think, was what it was as well.”
So, the definitive truth around “Miss Cleo,” and even Harris for that matter, remains an enigma that the HBO documentary does not bother to address. It was much broader and more complicated than what is contained in that film.
But, most crucially, it involves holding several aspects accountable for uncomfortable truths that, even today, are still avoided. We didn’t have the wherewithal to contend with these facts back in the ’90s. And even though we do now, we often still don’t.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story misidentified the network Harris worked for. It was the Psychic Readers Network, not the Psychic Friends Network.