The Brief, Lucrative History Of Psychic Sham Miss Cleo
There are two types of people in this world: those who believe in psychics, and those who are fortunate enough to not have a cantaloupe-sized tumor on the part of their brain that makes one throw away any semblance of reason or common knowledge in order to let a scam artist in a shack convince them that an Uno reversal card with a centaur boning a goddess drawn overtop of it means they only have two years to live.
The psychic test, to me, seems pretty easy to pass. It would only take one of these bastards to go out there and actually do something verifiable with their knowledge for us to be like, well, damn, I guess it does work. But, in the centuries of this particular grift taking place, not once, not ONCE, has a tangible, real deal psychic shown up and blown the lid off the thing. I'm talking just one who could be plopped into any police department across the country to blow open a bunch of cold cases, go work at a hospital and detect rare diseases before they happen, or even just sit outside of a Buffalo Wild Wings and hand out divorce papers nice and early, so the couples don't go wasting an extra three or four years trying to force it to work.
There are, however, countless instances where psychics turned out to be frauds on a very public level. Exposing for the millionth time why nobody, truly nobody, should ever give them a dime. And perhaps, nobody did this with more flair for truly leaning into the scam than Miss Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network.
I'm going to tell you something that may shock you. I mean, truly, you need to prepare for this because it may shatter your entire worldview, crumble the foundations of the very truths you've built your life upon. Miss Cleo was not actually Jamaican. Hell, her name isn't even Miss Cleo. Miss Cleo was born Youree Dell Harris in Los Angeles, California. John Candy in Cool Runnings had more Jamaican in him than Miss Cleo.
Raised in a well-off family, Harris, or, forget it, Cleo, eventually got into the arts, playwriting, and acting. Skills that are presumably exactly what you want to start your character with in the videogame of life if you rolled as a sociopathic scam artist. These little details can take you from being your average strip mall psychic to a worldwide phenomenon. It's the Rocky training montage of deceit. You can't just walk up and tell someone that a bunch of cards told you that their husband is cheating on them, you need to get your ass out to a shack in Siberia, bang out a zillion reps of social security scam phone calls, and emerge back into the world ready to hastily flash a torn Bulbasaur card at someone's face and tell them that you're sorry, but this showed you that the love of their life is actually boning your mother, and theirs.
Cleo didn't wait until she got into the psychic world to start scamming the people around her. With her production company faltering, Cleo had racked up a bunch of debt and broken promises and did what anybody would do in that situation: began writing personal letters to the people she owed money detailing a fake bone cancer that would make it impossible to pay them back. Truly evil shit. There are some people that like to piss in karma's face. And then, there are those that like to go to an asparagus eating contest AND THEN piss in karma's face. Cleo seems to be the latter. So, Cleo did what any good lunatic would do in this situation; she packed up her bags, got out of town, and began working for a network of psychic scammers.
This Card Shows Nothing. Absolutely Nothing. It's Just A Damn Card
What do you feel when you read the words Psychic Readers Network? Are you instantly comforted? Certain that this sounds like a collection of well-intentioned experts, just sitting around waiting to take your call and give you sound, scientific, helpful advice that will get your life back on track? If so, I am absolutely interested in the drugs that you are taking, or did take, to put your brain into this state, so please, give me the scoop.
If you see the name, Psychic Readers Network, and a small tingle shoots down your spine like you just heard a bump in the house in the middle of the night? Then, congrats, you don't have the evolutionary DNA of a caveman who wanted to pet every saber-toothed tiger he saw. If you're Miss Cleo and you see those words, your eyes grow wide with possibility. It was within this network, a telephone psychic operation that began in the early 90s, where Miss Cleo finally found a home. Before Cleo, it was a pretty straightforward service. They would run infomercials late at night, promising the availability of the world's best psychics for a low, low price. What they didn't know over at Psychic Readers Network is that they were sitting on an absolute goldmine within their call center.
At first, Cleo started as a regular employee. She'd field calls and dish out bogus advice like the rest of the team. It's hard, too, not to picture the scene over at Psychic Readers Network. There is something beautiful about a scam on this level. The factory-grade duping going on is, at the very least, to be admired on some levels. Somewhere along the way, however, someone decided to pluck Cleo from the roster and put her on TV. Armed with her best JamaicaneveryactualJamaicandeepsigh accent, they put Cleo in vibrant robes, burned a shitload of incense behind her, and let her go to work.
Fielding calls late-night calls from misguided souls, drunks, and people probably just looking for something to do at that time of night before the internet became the distraction machine that it is today; Cleo became a hit for her direct reading style. Using whatever minimal Jamaican slang she stole from some other non-Jamaican doing a secondhand impression, Cleo caught on like wildfire. Her signature phrase, "Call me now!" became a legitimate cultural sensation, and the Psychic Readers Network likely were not prepared for the level of popularity their latest, shiniest sham was bringing in for them.
The network shifted their focus to be about all things Cleo, and you'd essentially never see a single infomercial for anyone else besides her. It was positioned as a direct hotline to Cleo herself, meant to make the viewer believe as though they'd be getting a tarot card reading from Cleo if they just picked up the phone. This goes to show you how desperate and potentially inebriated the average callers might be for a service like this. It's goddamn two in the morning; do you really believe Cleo is just sleeping with a landline beside her bed, ready to pop up like the dude from Don't Wake Daddy the second you call? She goes and picks up a Jose Canseco rookie card and tells you that your dog has cancer, and that'll be three hundred dollars?
The Cleo craze even reached the literary world, with the book, Keepin' it Real: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Living being released to pounce even harder on the opportunity. Cleo became THE psychic of the time. If you closed your eyes and pictured a fortune teller, Cleo would pop up and yell at you about how you're letting your baby daddy run all over you and use you for the booty calls, despite you being a childless virgin who is completely asexual. Cleo was at the top of Scammer Mountain, and like so many who reach that summit, seemingly ignored the frozen bodies of the scammers that came before her on the way up.
I’m Seeing A Ludicrous Bill In Your Future
The funny thing is, when a psychic becomes TOO good or TOO popular, it's probably where they're at their most vulnerable. The second you have people banging down the door to see one, you're going to have more eyeballs on them than their usual audience. The usual audience, of course, is the unemployed shut-ins that trudge through the pizza boxes and guinea pig turd ball pit in their living room for their only weekly trip out of the house to find out all of the cosmic reasons (besides their own doing) for why the universe is holding them back.
By the early 2000s, the Miss Cleo advertising had worked gangbusters, and the Psychic Readers Network was bringing in money hand over fist on the back of her character. With dubious charging schemes, they promised callers a few free minutes, which would then be chewed up on hold before extravagant charges were made to their account by the minute. It was pretty simple: you'd call in, get thrown on hold, eventually get patched through to someone who was most definitely not actually Miss Cleo, they'd keep you on the line and draw out your reading and set it up so you'd have to call back for more and start up a relationship. Then, you'd get a bill for a zillion dollars all to find out that you had a miscarriage and your next baby would have a healthy, easy birth, despite the fact that you're a 77-year-old grandpa living in a house with peeling lead paint.
Eventually, the FCC came knocking, and a lawsuit was filed against the Psychic Readers Network that alleged the company used unsavory, illegal tactics on their way to generating close to one billion dollars. Yes. One billion. With a "b," as in "by God, our country is overrun with absolute idiots." The case detailed the scammy setup from above and how it used disingenuous marketing tactics to pry money from the hands of its callers.
The Psychic Readers Network wasn't even satisfied with duping its customers; it also pulled a slick one on Miss Cleo herself. They ensured that despite the creation of her character and using her likeness to grow into this fraudulent empire, she barely saw any money for it over on her end. When the lawsuit eventually settled, the network was ordered to pay about 500 million of its callers' debt back, which, by my math, shows that it absolutely still paid off to have a fake Jamaican woman scream into people's living rooms in the middle of the night and potentially ruin their lives with unfounded, bogus guidance and advice.
The Crystal Ball Fades
After the FCC lawsuit effectively destroyed the Psychic Readers Network and absolutely buried the credibility and career of Miss Cleo, she mostly faded into obscurity. Her greatest hits following her brief, scorching run on top of Scammer Mountain included her work in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, where she essentially portrayed herself. Well, actually, portrayed the fake version of herself that she portrayed on TV as the real version of herself.
Years later, a lawsuit would be filed against Rockstar Games by the Psychic Readers Network for stealing their shit that they stole first. She'd go on to continue her work as a psychic in a private capacity and eventually died of cancer in 2016.
I would love to say that Miss Cleo, and the organization that helped create her, are a great warning sign of why it's not cool to scam people. Of how we need to be more ready to look really hard at psychics and what we're throwing our money, and even worse, our emotional wellbeing into. But, shit, I can't even really say that with a totally straight face. Much like the profession itself is purpose-built to do, somewhere, someone walked away with a lot of money because a bunch of sad, lonely, misguided people just needed someone to listen to them. If there is one thing that history has shown us, it's that this audience will always be around, and there will always be someone willing to put on a local theater troupe accent, some bright robes, and burn a bunch of incense in order to squeeze every last drop out of them.
Top Image: Psychic Readers Network