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Who Was Miss Cleo In HBO Max's 'Call Me Miss Cleo' And What Happened To Her?
Miss Cleo, whose birth name was Youree Harris, was the ubiquitous spokeswoman for the Psychic Readers Network 1-900 number. Everything else you think you know probably wasn't true, according to the new HBO Max documentary "Call Me Miss Cleo."
Miss Cleo was a lot of things to a lot of people — the ubiquitous spokeswoman for a $5-per-minute psychic hotline, an erstwhile local theatre producer, a courageous LGBTQ rights advocate.
But she wasn't the person behind the scammy Psychic Readers Network, which was sued by the states of Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), ultimately settling for millions of dollars in fines and refunds.
A new HBO Max documentary, "Call Me Miss Cleo," explores what it can of Miss Cleo's somewhat-mysterious origins, her involvement with and downfall via the infomercials for the Psychic Readers Network and her later life beyond the glare of television camera and reporters with a million "She should've seen it coming!" jokes.
Cleo was born Youree Dell Harris at the Los Angeles County General Hospital on August 12, 1962. She told her friends that she grew up an unwanted girl in a house full of boys. Classmates had said — and yearbooks obtained by the filmmakers confirmed — that she was educated at the Ramona Convent Secondary School, where she was one of a very small number of non-white students.
Cleo said in an interview in 2006 that she was married to a man at 19, had a daughter and was divorced by age 21. She had another daughter in her late 20s. Neither appears (or is mentioned) in the documentary.
In 1996, she showed up in Seattle as Ree Perris, and said she was a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) theatre arts program. (USC told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2002 that they had no record of any of her aliases having attended the school.) She wrote, produced and performed in three plays with the local Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in 1997 but ultimately absconded with the money earmarked to pay for performers and supplies after the third show, allegedly telling her colleagues that she had cancer and sickle cell anemia.
One of the characters she created and performed was a Jamaican woman named Cleo. Except in the performance, the people who knew her in Seattle said she never spoke with an accent or suggested she was from Jamaica.
Cleo said in her 2006 interview that she ended a long-term relationship in 1997 because her partner was abusive to her and her youngest daughter.
About a year later, she was in Florida, working "behind the camera" for the Psychic Readers Network, according to her long-time friend Tim Connelly, who was a set designer for PRN.
“We were both behind the camera for about a year before she became Miss Cleo,” he told "Call Me Miss Cleo." “We had a nice host and she was wonderful, but we were losing her and they just didn’t know what they were going to do."
"And they bring in this white woman who looks like she’s straight out of Boca, she’s telling stories and flipping cards and nothing made any sense," he added. "Cleo sees this commercial and she just goes nuts, just like, 'What are they doing?' talks to the producer and is saying, 'I was watching television and I see your latest commercial and it doesn’t make any sense.'”
According to Connelly, the producers hired Cleo to "set the deck" for what was then a scripted "show" infomercials with writer and actors. "It looks staged, sounds staged, the worst acting you’ve ever seen," he said of that year. "So they hired Cleo to host the show.”
Cleo had a somewhat different story, which she told to producers of the 2012 documentary "Hotline."
"I came to work for the hotline — at the suggestion of my sister-in-law — for a source of income that would work with my schedule," she said. "When they approached me about being the spokesperson my first initial response was, 'I have a reputation to maintain. I really can’t, I don’t want to. I don’t think that you all take it seriously.'"
"Then I thought, well, it would be nice to do a commercial where people actually can get some feedback," she said. "And I said, 'Look, you can put a camera in front of me, I’m going to do what I do at home, I’m going to read my cards. You can’t tell me how to read my cards, you can’t tell me when to read my cards, you can’t tell me what formation to use. I'm going to read my cards. If it works for you all, fabulous; if it doesn’t, it’s alright.'"
However it happened, the infomercial Cleo — newly named "Miss Cleo" — went viral after it began airing on various broadcast networks late at night, making Miss Cleo a famous brand and, ultimately, the owners of PRN, Steven Feder and Peter Stotz.
She was paid $1,750 for the commercial as an independent contractor, she said in 2012.
Ultimately, she signed a contract that gave PRN the rights to her "Miss Cleo" image in perpetuity; they sued General Mills in 2015 for hiring Cleo to do parody, sued Benefit Cosmetics in 2016 for hiring Cleo to do parody and they sued Rockstar Games in 2017 for creating a Cleo-like parody with Cleo in "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" (which actually came out in 2002).
Cleo claimed in 2006 that being the exclusive spokeswoman for PRN netted her around $450,000 in the two years her commercial was running, which TMZ reported was the result of her receiving a small fee for every call the commercials drove.
What she did not get was a percentage of the overall profits of PRN — which were around $1 billion, according to the documentary.
How they earned those profits from $4.99/minute phone calls became the subject of legal battles in eight states and with the FTC, in which Miss Cleo was first named and then dismissed from because she also had no involvement in the operations of the company other than acting as their spokeswoman.
PRN hired men and women as gig workers to portray psychics on the phone calls, often knowing full well the people they hired did not claim to have any psychic abilities. They provided them with detailed scripts to follow to keep people on the line as long as possible — including by pretending to walk around the "office" looking for Miss Cleo if callers asked for her — and paid them 12-24 cents per minute. Part of the script involved getting callers' names and addresses to sell to direct mail companies (which paid well for such names and addresses).
In addition, though PRN advertised that callers had to be 18, in part because of previous issues with children racking up bills on their parents' phone lines — which phone companies were then obligated to reverse — PRN was issuing fraudulent billing statements to people, including some who had never called or had legally gotten the phone company charges reversed, illegally demanding at least $500 million in payments.
Ultimately, the states and the FTC settled with PRN's owners for $5 million in fines and $500 million in cancelled collections; other states settled for fines in the millions, CNN reported.
Miss Cleo, though exonerated of any wrongdoing in the case, went into seclusion for several years, her friend's told producers.
Ultimately, AnnDee Rucker, a friend the mother of Cleo's two godsons, Matt and Bryan Rucker, and other friends coaxed her back outside her Broward County home and into participating in small social events, then as a performer at a local LGBTQ-friendly cafe and, finally, as an advocate against a Florida law intended to make same sex marriage illegal in the state.
Matt Rucker's own process of coming out, and her love for him, ultimately prompted Cleo to come out as a lesbian as well, in that 2006 interview. She said she had been in love with a girl at her high school in the late 1970s, but the girl's father separated them upon learning of the relationship. She also stated that her abusive partner was a woman, and that the damage it did to her daughter prompted her to quit dating for nearly 10 years.
She ultimately ended up in two long-term relationships after The Advocate article, the last of which was with Lou Ann LaBohn, who was 61 when they met. (LeBohn appears extensively in the film.)
LeBohn and others disclosed to producers that Cleo had told them she had contemplated suicide beginning at the age of seven, and that a male family member had sexually assaulted her at the age of 11. She repeatedly told people in her life that the spirits literally spoke to her and expressed disappointment in her action. LeBohn and another friend also talked about "characters" Cleo would lapse into during times of stress, including a man named Max who would appear when Cleo needed to rest, and an older woman who spoke in riddles with a heavy accent.
LeBohn said that she and Cleo broke up after several years but stayed close friends.