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‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ documentary straddles the line between a sympathetic hand and soft critique

The HBO Max documentary details the popular late 1990’s psychic scam, but won’t go as far to say it definitively

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

We are so far removed from the abundance of infomercials in a streaming world that it might be a foreign concept that people were calling into 1-900 numbers seeking guidance – but they did. Around midnight, psychics would implore viewers who were up to call in (the first three minutes were free) and get readings to clarify things that may be troubling them.

One of the most famous of all of them was Miss Cleo. The impersonations of her Jamaican accent are forever engrained in pop culture. Call me now! – she proclaimed after Miss Cleo spoke to surprised viewers in those commercials – telling them to leave their horrible relationships and whatnot.

How she spoke to people, felt convincing, as if you were talking to a long-time friend on a Thursday night. However, therein lies the issue with the facade itself. Even if the Miss Cleo persona was somehow made to cloak past traumas, it is right to use it to help others, even if it’s false. It’s a concept that Call Me Miss Cleo tries to untangle, but not define in clear terms.

The HBO Max documentary, directed by Celia Aniskovich and Jennifer Brea, attempts to humanize the woman behind the persona, make sense of her scant upbringing, and somewhat sympathize with her in the Psychic Readers Network fallout (the company declared bankruptcy in 1998 after litigation). Much about Miss Cleo’s personal history is muddled in the stories she’s told to various people. Within some of the documentary, Cleo (real name Youree Dell Harris) speaks about it in her own words with clips of 2014’s Hotline. Otherwise, her story is told through friends she confided in and actresses Raven-Symoné and Debra Wilson.

What is known is Harris was once a playwright in Seattle, Washington, at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center and was said to have left town mired in a “trail of debts and broken promises.” This led Harris to work for the PRN, and the “Miss Cleo” character was born. It was a perfect marriage of her charisma and savvy with the marketing machine of the network. However, some real, tangible damage was being done to callers. The documentary also explains how the “meals were made,” so to speak. You weren’t calling to get a tarot reading from Miss Cleo herself – it was from various people with no training reading from a script. This means people were paying up to $100 a call to get answers about this from people without clear insight.

Yes, life’s issues often have us turn to methods and forces we may not understand. It’s trying to find order in the sometimes chaotic events that can shake us to our core. However, Call Me Miss Cleo seems to be trying to absolve Harris from any wrongdoing when she was knowingly a part of the machine. This is even as many ex-employees tell stories of regret about their time working for the Readers Network. Sure, Aniskovic and Brea make good points about how the exploitation of Caribbean culture and the “warm Black woman” figure was used as a template to many the company millions of dollars and left Harris with mostly nothing. That’s another meaningful conversation that I’m glad Call Me Miss Cleo tackles.

As for Harris’s history, her friends have varying stories – almost as if the person she was is of legend. To one, Harris was born in Jamaica and was given away to a family in Los Angeles. In another instance, she went to USC, and then there was a story of possible abuse by a family friend when she was very young. Nothing is pinned down, thus making the reasoning for creating this larger-than-life personality to “help others” a little flimsy.

Before Harris tragically passed away from cancer in 2016, it seemed as though she was finally living with some authenticity. She came out and did some LBGTQ+ advocacy in the twilight of her life. Therefore, the documentary ends on a note where it tries to stretch the definition of truth. Undoubtedly, many people felt they received some positive encouragement due to the aura of what Harris created. There were also the same amount of people who thought they were receiving spiritual guidance from a character she created during her time in Seattle. If the love was real, so was the pain.