From the late ’90s to early 2000s, for the low, low price of “toll free,” you could pick up the phone and learn your future from a Jamaican psychic named Miss Cleo.
This was known to almost anyone who turned on a television set during those years, as Miss Cleo commercials were as ubiquitous as Mariah Carey songs, cargo shorts or bucket hats.
Of course, Miss Cleo wasn’t Jamaican, nor was she a psychic. Nor, it turned out, were most of those readings free.
Her real name was Youree Dell Harris, and she was a Los Angeles-born actress. Harris succumbed to cancer and died in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday at 53, leaving behind a pop culture phenomenon that doubled as a big business and a magnet for lawsuits.
The infomercials that made Miss Cleo a cult icon, the kind of figure that would be fondly remembered on nostalgia shows like VH1’s “I Love the ’90s,” generally featured Harris donning a colorful turban in a candlelit room, appearing concerned as she listened to callers detailing the most intimate details of their lives.
She would focus on the tarot cards, ask questions and sometimes offer advice.
“Okay, I was wondering who the father of my baby was,” a caller might say, to which she would reply in her thick, trademark accent, “Alright, let’s take a look. The Miss Cleo DNA test … Oh, it’s the one that’s very unpleasant, okay, and he’s also the one who had another girlfriend while he was sleeping with you … but you knew that.”
All of the commercials ended with some variation of “the cards don’t lie,” followed by “call me now for your free Tarot card reading.”
And it worked — calls flooded in from hordes of lost souls seeking a semblance of meaning, the kind that only a soothsayer can offer.
The rub, though, was that the calls tended not to be free.
While the commercials claimed the first three minutes wouldn’t cost a penny, callers generally spent those on hold. Then, for $4.99 a minute, Miss Cleo, or one of the many other “psychics” working out of their homes, according to a 2014 interview Harris gave Vice, would pretend to see the future.
In all, the Federal Trade Commission said nearly 6 million called in, racking up about $1 billion in charges. The calls cost an average of $60 a pop.
Callers who didn’t pay up were often inundated with collection letters, calls and emails, Slate reported.
In response, the FTC filed two complaints in Florida charging the two corporations for whom Miss Cleo served as the face and spokeswoman — Access Resource Services and Psychic Readers Network — with deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices.
“You don’t need a crystal ball to know that the FTC will continue to stop unfair and deceptive trade practices,” J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement announcing the 2002 complaint. “We want consumers to know that when companies make a promise in an ad, they need to deliver.”
Beales doubled down on the quip nine months later, when the corporations agreed to forgive $500 million in outstanding charges and pay $5 million more to the FTC.
“I’m no psychic, but I can foresee this: If you make deceptive claims, there is an FTC action in your future,” he said in another statement in November 2002.
Through all that, as Slate noted, no one ever complained about the fact that Miss Cleo wasn’t a psychic named Miss Cleo but rather an actress named Youree Dell Harris.
Harris was never charged with anything, even as 11 lawsuits racked up against the company that employed her.
Years later, she would claim that Access Resource Services had wanted to obscure her past as a playwright in Seattle and as the daughter of wealthy parents.
“The people I used to work for didn’t want people to know that I was an accomplished playwright,” she told Vice. “They didn’t want people to know anything. They wanted people to think I just came fresh from Jamaica.”
So, she used a character from one of her plays.
In Seattle in 1996, she debuted “For Women Only,” a play she had written under the pseudonym Ree Perris, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 2002. She also acted in the play, starring as a Jamaican woman named Cleo.
It was the perfect fit for the “fresh off the boat” character ARS allegedly required.
In the 2014 interview with Vice, Harris seemed to resent both her prominence and ARS.
“They spent a lot of time trying to make me into something that I completely was not,” she said of ARS.
She claimed the fame caused emotional pain without robust financial compensation — “Most people were making 14 cents a minute doing the calls. I was on the high side of the equation, making 24 cents a minute,” she told Vice.
Instead of compensation, she claimed to receive a reputation as a jailbird.
“According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice. “I never went to jail; I didn’t own the company. It’s taken 10 years for me to move through all of that … I still struggle with it.”
She mentioned that fame to the Advocate as well, the LGBT magazine in which she came out as a lesbian in 2006. After the lawsuits and the torrent of articles denouncing her, she said the thought of coming out filled her with trepidation. But, at the urging of her godson, she did so.
“There is Miss Cleo, and now it’s going to be, Miss Cleo is gay,” she told the magazine. “I’m not sure how that is going to look, but as much bad stuff has been said about me up to now, what’s another slur?”
After the FTC ruling, Harris remained out of the spotlight for the most part. She voiced a character in the “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” video game and appeared in a 2014 documentary “Hotline,” in which she spoke about her time as a telephone psychic.
But she allegedly didn’t stop giving readings. Buzzfeed reported in 2013 that she was still doing one-on-one readings in Florida for $75 to $250 a session, though she called herself a “voodoo priestess” instead of a psychic.