“Call me now.”
Those words, spoken in a Jamaican (or, at least, purportedly Jamaican) accent, immediately conjure a vivid mental image for anyone who watched late-night TV in the latter half of the 1990s. They picture Miss Cleo, delivering her catchphrase in a headwrap with a smile, as a 1-800 number scrolls across a television screen – dangling psychic advice at the touch of a button.
Miss Cleo may have stood as a beacon of hope for the lonely and desperate as they worried into the wee morning hours, but there were many others watching who viewed her in a whole different light. Actors in Seattle recognized the playwright who’d left them unpaid. Alumnae of a California all-girls boarding school were surprised to see their former classmate.
And every Jamaican who heard her accent knew that it was fake.
The iconic television face of the Psychic Readers Network was off the air by 2003, swept up in a lawsuit against the company that exposed her real name as Youree Dell Harris and birthplace as Los Angeles. She wasn’t personally named in the suit by the end of proceedings, but Miss Cleo, as an entity, essentially vanished. She resurfaced in the 2014 documentary Hotline, about the relationships between callers and operators. She died two years later at the age of 53.
Now, a new documentary explores the real woman behind the telephone psychic persona in Call Me Miss Cleo, premiering 15 December on HBO Max.
“It always blows me away – even as we were hiring hiring staff for the project and editors and researchers – it’s just amazing to see how many people remember Miss Cleo,” producer Joanna Zwickel tells The Independent. “I think there’s a reason we’re still telling this story today. She was just iconic. And she was one of those vivacious, hilarious, insightful personalities that’s hard to forget.”
The purpose of the film, she says, “has always been to really give a full 360 degree portrait into this woman and what happened to her in a way that has really never been” told.
Even many of Miss Cleo’s close friends still don’t have a full picture of her life.
“The little we do know about her backstory can really only be understood by piecing together the different things she told each of us over the years,” friend Jamie Zekofsky says in the film.
What is known, as fact, is this: Miss Cleo was born in 1962 in Los Angeles to American parents. She attended private high school in Southern California, where yearbook photos list “Mom” and “D.T” among her nicknames, under her photo and above a religious quote she presumably picked out.
According to friends, she told one story in which her mother brought her over from Jamaica to California, where a wealthy Caribbean couple agreed to raise and educate her with other adopted children. (The birth certificate for Youree Dell Harris, however, lists her parents as from Texas and California.)
“I remember her talking about how much taller she was than her classmates, and how awkward she felt in school,” Patti Lucia, who owned a coffee shop the TV psychic frequented, says in Call Me Miss Cleo. “Enrolling her in that private school was to put her in an environment that was more religious, more traditional, to kind of keep her in line spiritually sexually.”
Ms Lucia says “it didn’t work.”
Dave Aronberg, the former Florida assistant attorney general whose office brought a lawsuit against the Psychic Readers Network, argues that “the more obvious explanation is that she was born in Los Angeles, she created this Miss Cleo character, which had a Jamaican accent, and she lived the gimmick for much of her life.”
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he says in the documentary. “But all I know is I had the birth certificate. And to explain that there are ten kids in all this whole elaborate story, and that’s why she has this Jamaican accent ... maybe I’m just a little skeptical based on the investigation. But this is the mythology of Miss Cleo.”
Most friends interviewed in the film believe she suffered great pain in her past, which may have informed the creation of her larger-than-life persona. She told Ms Lucia she had a challenging childhood and first considered suicide at the age of seven; she told a former romantic partner that she’d suffered abuse at the hands of a frequent visitor to the family home.
There are no relatives interviewed in Call Me Miss Cleo.
When she came out as gay in The Advocate in 2006, the profile mentions that she’d married a man at 19 and had a child before divorcing at 21. The piece also states she gave birth to a second child in her 20s, though neither is mentioned in the documentary.
The film begins a more comprehensive trace of her life in the mid-1990s, when Miss Cleo, then going by Ree Perris and speaking with an American accent, was a playwright and performer working with the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center. She staged a few productions but left town without paying people, according to several interviewees in the film, telling some she had cancer.
Before Ree Perris vanished, she debuted the name that would one day make her famous, for better or worse.
“Miss Cleo is a character that was born out of a play that Youree was working on here at Langston Hughes called For Women Only,” says Jazmyn Scott, the center’s cultural curator and former director of programs & partnerships, in the documentary. “And so that idea of this Jamaican shaman psychic was really birthed out of a character that she was working on when she spent time here in Seattle.”
Ms Scott added that “Ree” planned to play the role herself. Then she disappeared and no one at Langston Hughes heard from her again - until they recognised her voice on the ubiquitous late-night TV psychic ads.
She’d started at the network behind the scenes, working there for about a year before the host left and producers were auditioning new ones. It wasn’t long before they hired “Ree” for the gig.
Then Miss Cleo became a cultural phenomenon with her headdress, patois and flowing, brightly-coloured garments, dishing out advice and taking calls with no holds barred.
“It was the best Insta live you could’ve had in 1997,” actress Raven-Symone says in the documentary. “It was so good. So good.”
Miss Cleo spurred a rake of parodies; comedian Debra Wilson, who potrayed a spoof character inspired by her, also participates in the film.
Most of the friends interviewed believe that, whatever they might be labelled, Miss Cleo possessed intuitive gifts.
“She started telling me about my uncle that had passed away,” Tim Connelly, a colleague and friend of Miss Cleo’s, says in the documentary. “I never mentioned my uncle. She was so specific about his death and things that he was accused of. This is not even a story that I knew; I had to call my mother when this was all over.”
She offered prescient insight to another friend regarding a childhood pal who had passed away; she warned her godson’s fraternity brother that something was going to happen to the left side of his body.
“Like two weeks later, he had a stroke and was paralyzed on the left side of his body,” her godson says. “She saw it happening.”
The veracity of any of Miss Cleo’s abilities was not what got the business into trouble. Instead, Access Resource Services, Inc. and Psychic Readers Network came under fire for fraudulent advertising and charging practices, eventually forgiving $500 million in outstanding charges and paying $5 million in fines to the FTC. In the process, FTC auditor Gerald Ford realised just how little money the TV psychic was making from her famed image.
“I asked if I could interview her, and she invited me over to her house in Fort Lauderdale,” he says in Call Me Miss Cleo. “She showed me her contract, which he complained about. She said, ‘I signed a really bad contract, because they’re using my name, I’m bringing in all this business, but I’m getting a salary, basically, and no benefits. I’m an independent contractor’.”
The legal brouhaha also prompted Miss Cleo’s departure from the company. She lived out the rest of her life in South Florida, where she dedicated herself to gay rights advocacy and enjoyed Ms Lucia’s LGBTQ-friendly coffee shop. That’s where she met Lou Ann LaBohn, a Wisconsin woman who’d recently come out at 61.
“I was most certainly ready for her,” says Ms LaBohn, who says she didn’t put “two-and-two together” when she was introduced to Miss Cleo, under that name - not immediately making the connection to the TV psychic.
Ms LaBohn says in the film that Miss Cleo “was a deeply feeling person - felt pain, emotional pain, like everybody else.”
“I loved all of those things about her. But the gift that she had was a gift and a burden. It was difficult,” she says.
The pair’s relationship eventually became more like that of roommates, she says, and Miss Cleo moved out. Ms Lucia described Ms LaBohn as the likely love of her friend’s life.
Going by The Seer Formerly Known As Miss Cleo, the TV psychic began creating online content regarding spirituality; her Instagram account brimmed with advertisements for these as well as photos of trips, animals and food, along with posted quotes about spirituality.
Her last post was on 13 June 2016, a photo of words on a piece of notebook paper that read: “Takin’ a Break from Social Media. I choose to focus on MY SPIRITUAL & PHYSICAL HEALTH. PEACE.”
“Don’t forget to celebrate life now,” she wrote in the caption. “Every moment is precious. I appreciate everyone’s support and love.”
Miss Cleo died the following month after a cancer battle, her lawyer announced, adding that she’d been surrounded by family and friends.
“People really do remember her, and they have really positive feelings about the infomercials, and I think there’s a lot of curiosity about who this real woman was behind that story,” Call Me Miss Cleo producer Ms Zwickel tells The Independent.
She says: “I think we tried to pose all of those big questions throughout her life in a way where you could hear a variety of opinions. You could hear from those closest to her; you could hear from those who were litigating the the hotline scandal. I think the hope is that the audience will kind of form their own opinions of her and of what really happened.”
One thing’s for sure: The sound of Miss Cleo’s voice will immediately transport viewers of a certain age back to the late 1990s. It’s nearly impossible to watch without a wave of nostalgia if you were an avid watcher of late-night TV at the time.
“It’s taking you back to that era of corded phones, back when we had all those, and 1-900 numbers and infomercials, none of which you really see today,” Ms Zwickel says. “There’s also a lot of fun nostalgia around some of the celebrity interviews and even Cleo parodies that we pulled in ... seeing some fo those familiar faces also brings back a lot of nostalgia.”
Miss Cleo’s face will also strike a chord, as will her story - which is, ultimately, quite sad. Her friends clearly miss her dearly, and they’re eager to share the real woman they knew.
Even with that, they barely scratch the surface. Miss Cleo may have made a name for herself as a “seer,” purporting to access deep insights. Though, when it comes to her own life, she remains nearly inscrutable.
Yet the persona she created lives on.