Unravel the mystery of your favorite ’90s TV psychic and con artist

Finally, each piece of pop culture detail will receive an additional 15 minutes of fame via an in-depth documentary, and on December 15, the spotlight shines on Miss Cleothe late psychic whose TV infomercials were a ubiquitous presence between 1997 and 2003. Call me Miss Cleohowever, turns out to be a surprising non-fiction venture – for all the wrong reasons.

Directed by Celia Aniskovich and Jennifer Brea, Call me Miss Cleo revisits the rise-and-fall saga of Miss Cleo, whose career took off thanks to small screen spots for Psychic Readers Network (PRN), a call-in service that lets consumers talk to a fortune teller for free for the first three minutes, and at a cost of $4.99/minute thereafter. “Call me now!” she exclaimed at the end of each ad in her trademark Jamaican accent. For a time, countless Americans did, and in the process turned Miss Cleo into the face—and star—of a lightning-fast psychic hotline trend sweeping the nation. Talk show appearances, merchandise and parodies followed, many of which are entertainingly revisited by this documentary, which doesn’t skimp on the old Miss Cleo archive material.

In this context Call me Miss Cleo is, as standard as such affairs come, filled with a series of talking heads fondly reminiscing about their first exposure to the well-known psychic, whose shtick centered around her prodigious tarot card-reading skills. Raven-Symoné and Food TV Veteran Debra Wilson recalls impersonating Miss Cleo in her heyday, while a collection of friends and colleagues praise her warm spirit, her big heart and her magnetic charisma, all of which allowed her to achieve a modicum of celebrity. What is dealt with in far more vague terms, however, is Miss Cleo’s backstory, which no one seems to know anything about – including her real name, which cannot be definitively established (she used many aliases throughout her life), and even her accent, which allegedly not real.

That’s right – Miss Cleo wasn’t from Jamaica. One speaker claims that Miss Cleo was brought to America (presumably from the island?) by her mother and then given away (for unknown reasons) to Jamaican foster parents who had another eight to nine children in their home. However, this does not match the fact that her birth certificate states that she was born in Los Angeles. There is also considerable conversation about the “trauma” Miss Cleo endured as a child, during which time she attended an all-girls boarding school and, according to an ex, was possibly abused at the age of 11 by a “family friend”. Indefinite doesn’t begin to describe the details here; apparently, almost everyone who loved and cared about Miss Cleo knew little about her history, except for some nebulous need, which they claim was the guiding motivation behind the creation of the Miss Cleo “character”.

Despite avoiding details when it comes to Miss Cleo’s origins, Call me Miss Cleo takes seriously the notion that she was a deeply damaged person—the better, it turns out, to justify both its defense of her as an innocent victim and its celebration of her as a legitimately talented psychic. It’s up for debate which of these threads is more absurd, but they dominate the documentary. According to Aniskovich and Brea’s interviewees, Miss Cleo channeled her pain and suffering into a psychic career designed to help people in need, and thus her partnership with PRN was indeed born of noble goals. She was just an altruistic soul using her “expertise” for the betterment of society – despite several PRN colleagues admitting on camera that the whole operation was a total sham, reading from a stock script and trying to keep callers on the line as long as possible to maximize revenue.

“What she gave us is better than anything in the world that you could wish to accumulate: wisdom,” says a friend. “She gave you the truth,” declares another admirer. In a 2012 interview, Miss Cleo herself claims that she never misled people because what she said on TV was “real”. In some way, Call me Miss Cleo buys all this and promotes the idea that the psychic was authentic. Furthermore, it casts her as a victim of cruel and exploitative PRN bigwigs Steven Feder and Peter Stotz for using Miss Cleo to profit from the pain of their callers. Feder and Stotz’s own wrongdoing is indisputable, but it is ludicrous to claim – as the film does – that Miss Cleo bears no responsibility for aiding their heinous behavior by acting as the company’s spokesperson. She was front and center as the company’s chief charlatan, and the attempts to argue otherwise are so nonsensical they’d be insulting if they weren’t so patently ridiculous.

She was front and center as the company’s chief charlatan, and the attempts to argue otherwise are so nonsensical they’d be insulting if they weren’t so patently ridiculous.

Wilson discusses Miss Cleo with a self-seriousness wholly inappropriate for a con woman. Raven-Symoné mugs like a lunatic while suggesting that Miss Cleo was simply a strong black woman who was wronged by typically greedy white men. And the final third of the issue is dedicated to profiling Miss Cleo’s post-PRN days as a gay rights advocate and then as a proud lesbian woman. This focus allows the film to further highlight Miss Cleo’s positives as a means of hiding her negatives. In reality, however, no one involved seems to believe that Miss Cleo – who died in 2017 aged 53 after battling cancer – really did anything wrong because they see her as an honest-to-goodness psychic who communicated with they died and could see people’s futures.

Even those who know Miss Cleo was shady—namely, the artists she worked with and stole money from at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle, where she originally created the Miss Cleo character—are working overtime to say something nice about her because, well, that’s the overriding slant of this project. The only time Call me Miss Cleo operating with a clear head is below a brief analysis of why people believed Miss Cleo so easily compared to other psychics (the answer: she exploited comforting mammy and island voodoo stereotypes). Yet this approach proves just a brief respite from the otherwise sympathetic portrayal of Miss Cleo as an “enigma” who sustained a lot of “wounds” and was “completely sprained” yet still managed to be a beacon of hope, positivity and courage , who inspired everyone who knew her — and presumably those lucky enough to actually get through to her on the phone.

Don’t call me convinced.

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