'Call Me Miss Cleo': 5 Biggest Revelations About the Psychic Sensation That Rocked the '90s

The documentary digs much deeper than '90s nostalgia.
by Carita Rizzo — 

Archival photo in 'Call Me Miss Cleo'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for Call Me Miss Cleo, streaming now on HBO Max. Read at your own risk!

For anyone old enough to watch TV in the middle of the night in the late 1990s, it is near impossible to have missed Miss Cleo's prompt to "Call me now!" The on-air psychic, who claimed to be a voodoo priestess with abilities to communicate with those who have crossed over, became a household name soon after she made her debut in 1997. 

While not alone in the psychic space, Miss Cleo stood out from the rest because of her entertaining way of dishing out the truth in her Jamaican accent. Before long she became a cultural icon and was parodied by Dave Chappelle, MADtv's Debra Wilson and Raven-Symoné, who compares her infomercials to episodes of Maury, the daytime talk show where cheating spouses were often confronted and surprise paternities revealed. 

Miss Cleo's tarot readings prompted millions to dial into the Psychic Readers Network for the next six years. But in the early 2000s, PRN was charged by the Federal Trade Commission with deceptive advertising and billing practices. Much like she had been the face of the network, Miss Cleo became the face of the fraud. And although never indicted, her persona has become virtually synonymous with the practices of the network.   

Two decades later, a new documentary from Jennifer Brea and Celia Aniskovich delves into the real story behind the TV psychic, who passed away in 2016 from colorectal cancer, with the help of those who knew the real Cleo. 

Here are the biggest revelations from Call Me Miss Cleo

Tricky beginnings

In the mid-'90s, Youree Harris — the woman the world would soon know as Miss Cleo — was presenting herself as playwright Ree Perris. Under her pseudonym, Harris started a production company in Seattle and started producing plays at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. At the time, she did not have a Jamaican accent, according to those who knew her. She did, however, create a character named Miss Cleo, a Jamaican shaman psychic, for a play — a character that she intended to portray herself. She is remembered by her fellow cast mates as a nice, eccentric lady who was supposed to pay the people she hired for her plays from money she had received, but did not — first claiming she had cancer and later disappearing, never to be heard from again.   

Creating Miss Cleo

For anyone with knowledge of Jamaican culture, it may have been obvious that Harris was appropriating the accent from the moment she appeared on TV. But why? In a Hotline documentary, filmed in 2012, Harris herself details how the Psychic Readers Network wanted her to play up her ethnicity and be more animated. "They wanted me to act like I had arrived straight from the bush," she says. "That wasn't the case. I was educated." Andrea Nevins, a scholar of the Caribbean diaspora, further explains the Cleo phenomenon, saying, "She tapped into what people believed were the kind of characteristics you needed to have to be a psychic. Caribbean and African diaspora, in general, has a long history of being framed as a place that is bizarre or unusual, and all of those characteristics connect to the fantastic. There were things about her race, even her size and her gender that helped make it believable that she was associated with the fantastic." According to Nevins, Harris also tapped into the Mammy figure. "There was a level of comfort that the owners of the psychic networks needed customers to have, and the Mammy figure has historically, though problematically, been a figure that provides nurturing." All this, of course, is speculation as Harris maintained her Jamaican persona until her passing. 

Piecing together the past

Harris' past was never as simple an equation as creating a character for the sake of making money. The documentary gathers friends of Harris', who all knew her as Jamaican. She had different variations of her origin story, whether it was being brought to America from Jamaica, or given away to a Jamaican couple who would give children from Jamaica a better life. A lawsuit revealed that Harris was born in Los Angeles to American parents. Harris' friends, speaking in her defence, say they don't care if Cleo was a character she created, if it made her feel worthy, valid and seen. According to friends, whether or not Harris was psychic, her gifts were real to her and she had a hard time handling those gifts, sometimes transforming into other people when she crumbled under the pressure. Was the creation of these characters multiple personality disorder or separating a part of yourself from the truth to be able to cope with your life? Whatever the reason, her friends believe it was a survival mechanism. 

The culmination of Miss Cleo

Anyone that picked up the phone to call Miss Cleo during her PRN days got someone else on the line. Of course, these "psychics" had no clairvoyant skills nor training in interpreting tarot cards or anything else for that matter. The documentary introduces several of these employees, whose main job was to gather information from their clients to be able to serve them with advertising and bills. But the truth, as brought up by one of the workers, was that few people who called in cared if they were psychic, they just needed someone to talk to.   

Eventually, the Psychic Readers Network were sued by the government for fraudulent claims and billing millions for calls that never took place. When Harris was investigated for her involvement, it quickly became evident hers was a terrible contract. Harris was on salary with no benefits and no right to her own image, which was plastered all over their merchandise that was making the owners of the network millions. Harris was dropped from the lawsuit, and the two men in charge of the company were indicted on charges of fraud. But the damage to Harris' career as Miss Cleo was done. 

Coming out

After the scandal, Harris turned into a near recluse, but she was eventually drawn out of her home by her Palm Beach friends, many who were part of the LGBTQIA+ community. In helping the family member of one friend come out as gay when he was 16, the two were said to have helped each other accept their sexuality. Cleo came out as lesbian in 2006, and the documentary introduces two of her former partners. In what appears to be a more joyous time in her life, Harris even entertained the idea of doing a reality dating show where they would find her a girlfriend.  

While her life seems to have ended on a higher personal note, since the early aughts, the Miss Cleo legacy has either been plagued by misrepresentation or entirely forgotten. As Raven-Symoné points out in the doc, there was no "hashtag sisterhood" at the time, giving Harris no realistic way of standing up to the corporation that took advantage of her. Nothing changes the past, but maybe the documentary serves to vindicate Harris and restore her reputation — even if it all feels a tad too late.