In the course of her career Youree Dell Harris of Los Angeles, California has been known by some as “Ree Perris,” by others as “Youree Cleomili,” but it is as Miss Cleo, a Jamaican peddling pay-by-the-minute psychic advice that she will forever be remembered by a generation of American channel surfers. That’s because in the years 2000 and 2001 a person could hardly turn on a TV without seeing a grinning Miss Cleo urging people to “Call me now” or “Call for your free readin’.” Miss Cleo’s pop culture caché far surpassed that of Dionne Warwick and her Psychic Friends Network—the previous queens of infomercial soothsaying. Then, just as Miss Cleo’s fame approached its pinnacle, everything suddenly fell apart. State attorneys-general and the FTC put legal pressure on Miss Cleo’s employers for their fraudulent advertising claims—they didn’t, of course, go after “Miss Cleo” herself since that would have been about as pointless as indicting Mayor McCheese or slapping a restraining order on Count Chocula. The real blow, however, came when the Florida attorney general’s office publicly released a birth certificate revealing the real name and all-American pedigree of Miss Cleo. At that point the game was up and the phones went dead.
But in the days when she was still riding high, Cleo went to Orlando to tape an infomercial during an appearance on some lame radio program called “The Drew Show.” This infomercial provides a case study as to why the name “Miss Cleo” will for decades to come be synonymous with “phone-in psychic.”
Ya Mon, Her a Real Jamaican Psychic
Essential to the Miss Cleo mystique was her supposed Caribbean origin. The poor schlubs in Akron and Boise might know that premonitions are thin on the ground where they live, but they imagine in faraway and tropical locales that preternatural powers are as common as sand and piña coladas. So to evoke that exotic island feel, most of Miss Cleo’s infomercials featured her on a set surrounded by wicker furniture, candles, fake palm trees, and other mystical-seeming crap. And although real-life Jamaicans are more likely to wear flip-flops and old Vanilla Ice T-shirts they got from Goodwill, it’s hard to imagine Miss Cleo without her trademark headdress, colorful robe, and chunky jewelry. When the radio host does mention that she’s from Jamaica, Miss Cleo quickly clarifies that she is “from Trelawny. From a small place called Duncan Falls, which is about 20 minutes outside of Falmouth” and this PROVES that she is really Jamaican (or has access to a decent atlas).
But it was her “Jamaican” accent that was the most important tool Cleo used to persuade viewers that she wasn’t from around here. So now Infomercial Hell presents:
Don’t worry about following any of these rules consistently: Miss Cleo certainly didn’t.
So just how did “Miss Cleo” pick-up her accent? One clue might have come when a caller laughed and Miss Cleo commented, “Dat’s an Uncola laugh.” Huh? The reference is to an old series of soda commercials featuring Geoffrey Holder, a Caribbean actor with a trademark sonorous laugh. Why would Miss Cleo make such an arcane reference? I strongly suspect that it was from watching those 7UP commercials back in the 1980s that Youree Dell Harris first learned her “accent.”
The Art and Science of Miss Cleo’s Psychic Technique
Once she has gotten her “exotic” Caribbean credentials established, Miss Cleo can get to work. It would appear that Miss Cleo is a fortune-telling triple-threat: a psychic, astrologer, and tarot reader. The three methods somehow let her see into the future with some help from “the spirits,” whom she occasionally refers to. And just who are these “spirits?” Angels? Ghosts? Gods? Demons? The stench from a three day old cheese sandwich? Miss Cleo never tells us.
Nor do the callers ask. If these people really believed that the veil separating the visible, material world and the unseen spiritual realm had been pierced through Miss Cleo, one would think that they would be eager to know all about these “spirits” and how the psychic powers work; that they would use these amazing truths to build an entire metaphysical philosophy or even start a new religion. Instead the callers are mostly interested in finding out if their boyfriends are cheating on them.
In any case, listening to how Miss Cleo interacts with the callers reveals the technique behind her “readings:”
- Miss Cleo will say that “someting” happened a few weeks or months ago, the number usually suggested by one of the tarot cards. (“About 10 months ago according to the 10 of cups there must have been some event.”) Or she will throw out a vague description of a person supposedly in the caller’s life. (“top-heavy woman,” “short, stocky man”)
- The caller will politely tell Cleo that the incident or person she mentioned doesn’t ring a bell. At which point Cleo will berate the caller, insisting that the caller knows exactly what she is talking about.
- The caller will rack his or her brain trying to think of an event or person that might fit the description. Eventually the caller will come up with some minor occurrence or distant acquaintance that faintly fits the description and will hesitantly ask Miss Cleo if she was referring to that.
- Miss Cleo will then crow that she was right all along and tell the caller never to question the greatness of her clairvoyant powers.
Otherwise, Miss Cleo’s counsel is largely indistinguishable from the self-indulgent, pop-psych drivel peddled by Oprah Winfrey. Get a load of these gems:
- “I wish I could convince you to make a decision that let’s you know that you are worthy.”
- “I need for you to start working on letting go.”
- “You will have somebody when you have come to heal your heart.”
Cleo certainly wouldn’t win any awards from traditional family values groups, as when she advises a woman who wants to hump “the man with the nice legs” to “Give yourself permission to leave the marriage if you are tired about it.” Like Oprah, Miss Cleo is harder on men than women, especially the caller whom she insults as a “mamma’s boy” before accusing him of killing a cactus.
Don’t think that you have to sell your soul to get such pearls of wisdom either: “Why pay $4.99 a minute fee psychic advice when we’ll give it to you fee less than $1 a minute? That’s right, less than $1 a minute.” That’s good to know, because a bargain-basement price should be the most important consideration for anyone seeking life guidance from creatures inhabiting another dimension.
"You Are So Spoiled"
A man named Mike calls and Miss Cleo's "reading" consists of insulting him as a spoiled mamma's boy and accusing him of murdering his house plants. Bet he's glad he wasn't paying 99-cents-a-minute for that!
Save Big on Psychic Readings
Miss Cleo promises you can save money and you "never have to call a 900 number again." No, you only have to turn over your credit card number to "Miss Cleo," which is so much better (for her employers).