A few days ago when I told a good friend of mine that Miss Cleo died, his response prompted uncomfortable laughter from me. “I didn’t know she was just a Black from LA. I feel so bamboozled.” He, like me, is also “a Black,” and like him, I remember growing up watching Miss Cleo – nee Youree Harris – and assuming that based on her ubiquitous commercials for the Psychic Network that ran in the 1990s, she was a Jamaican woman. In the role of the sage Caribbean-born clairvoyant, Harris spoke with a very forceful accent to deliver her pitch as the all-knowing fortune teller. The accent was so unforgettable, especially when she delivered her most famous tagline, “Call Me Now.” Of course, with age, and in this instance, a lawsuit, it was quite clear whom she truly was.
After a Florida newspaper revealed that she was born in Los Angeles, she claimed, “I am who I say I am.” She went on to note: “I’m more a shaman, an elder in a community who has visions and gives direction to people in their village. My clients and my students are my village. I take care of this community. If you sit down at my table, you have to take away a lesson and not just learn what is going to happen tomorrow. I also perform weddings — both gay and straight marriages — and house cleansing and blessings.”
In February of 2002, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Cleo and her employer, Psychic Readers Network, alleging that they made over $1 billion by employing various deceptive practices, including misrepresenting the nature of the “free” readings offered. Cleo was ultimately dropped from the suit, but the company’s owners went on to settle the suit for $500 million.
Since then, little was seen or heard of Cleo minus an appearance here and there along with the revelation that she was a lesbian. In 2006, she told The Advocate, “All of that really got to be just craziness. It left me scratching my head more times than not. I got into some bad contracts, and it spiraled.”
In 2014, she told Vice about the burdens of her cult fame. On whether or not she was still being recognized, she explained: “Unfortunately, yes. I live in a little town, and everybody there knows who I am. But I’m just another neighbor. But there are places where I go and people are like, ‘Yo! Miss Cleo!’ and I try to run. I’ve had people come up to me—there’s a big controversy about ‘Miss Cleo is not Jamaican,’ right?”
Cleo did seem to still be offering her “psychic” counseling to people across the globe.
And now, a rep has confirmed to TMZ that she died on Tuesday morning. She was reportedly diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to her liver and lungs. A rep for her claimed she remained a “pillar of strength” during her illness and died surrounded by family and friends.
Not to be callous, but with time the legacy that Miss Cleo has left behind has become one of a woman who was a phony psychic, a liar, a scammer, and a fraud. Like Joanne Prada’s auntie except her antics generated a real federal investigation. Still, I felt an eerie sense of sadness when I found out about her passing. I understand that there is a generation of people who only met Cleo after the curtain was pulled back on her act. Fine, I get it, but they really must understand where most of our connection with her comes from.
Cleo was a part of my childhood as much as Jodeci, SWV’s THOT bops, and Stacey Dash (before she lost her damn mind). Cleo’s commercials were absurd, but hilarious, which was very much on brand for the 1990s. Cleo was like Ricki Lake (okay, Rolanda Watts) with a tarot card she probably didn’t know what to do with. I don’t know if she ever really had any psychic capabilities, but I do know she was merely an actress who wanted a break and she got one, for better or for worse.
I hate cancer, because it strips folks of their lives far earlier than they deserve. In this case, Cleo was only 53 years old when she passed. F**k cancer, but to Cleo, or better yet, to Youree Harris, thank you for the memories.
And by the way, your psychic commercials were always better than the ones from La Toya Jackson and Dionne Warwick.