Yesterday morning, Miss Cleo, popular TV psychic and ubiquitous ‘90s pop culture icon born Youree Dell Harris, passed away after battling colon cancer. She was 53 years old.
Her death inspired many to take a short stroll down memory lane (you can check out some of the tweets) but unlike the untimely passing of a lot of celebrities, Miss Cleo’s death was immediately eulogized with jokes. Some were perfectly harmless retellings of slumber party phone calls and that infamous $4.99/minute price tag, others were much more tasteless (the “she didn’t see that one coming!” jokes of the world truly deserve eradication). At the very least, it was apparent that Cleo, her forced Jamaican accent, and otherworldly guidance resonated with people even decades after her heyday. That’s not something to take lightly—there are a lot of folks who never successfully left the era, Miss Cleo and her supernatural powers transcended it.
Aside from staying up late and watching her infomercials with religious fervor (don’t say you didn’t, we were all curious once), Miss Cleo leaves us with a subtle, definitely radical legacy that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. For many, Miss Cleo and her infomercials acted as a sort of foundation in learning about all things supernatural—her psychic ability, her use of Tarot cards. She made these facets of spiritual living seem not scary. She normalized them. She did this by selling information and knowledge in the same space you could buy compilation CDs and household items. She did this by bringing her powers into the living room, a room defined by its comfort and familiarity.
Miss Cleo’s pay-per-call service started in 1997 and ended around 2003. It’s interesting to consider that cult classic The Craft was released the year prior to Cleo’s inception, a flick that served to demonize witchcraft and sorcery while inspiring iconic fashion and female empowerment, even if it doesn’t totally end well for everyone. Perhaps this moment of proximity is happenstance, but it serves to illustrate a growing interest in all things supernatural. If The Craft was terrifying in its fiction, Miss Cleo was consoling in her reality…or the image of. At the very least, she allowed a generation of people to be unafraid of psychics and the like, whether or not they subscribed to those particular beliefs.
In one especially notable commercial near the end of her career, Miss Cleo starts the clip with a monologue: “People have been talked about and jabbed at throughout the ages for having different beliefs. Apparently I am no exception. Although it is a constant challenge, I will continue. I will not allow them to stop me. I will teach as a shaman and help those who seek the knowledge. It’s just that simple. I know what I do and what I believe in.” It was Cleo understanding her power—that she, in some odd and unusual way, could teach tolerance and introduce new notions to people who normally wouldn’t have access to them.
Most of Miss Cleo’s clients that went to air, or, at least, the installments that have found themselves immortalized on YouTube, asked deeply personal questions of the psychic: “I filed for divorce but I still love him. We’ve been together 9 years.” “I was wondering who the father of my baby is.” “Is he cheating?” While this is the same kind of stuff you’d find on Jerry Springer or Maury, by choosing to ask Cleo, these callers were putting their faith into her—almost forcing her to act like a de facto therapist. Of course her actions as a TV icon in no way supplant professional mental health providers, but she did inspire hundreds if not thousands of people to vocalize and make visible their vulnerabilities. They held Miss Cleo to a status of authority and care, and she reciprocated with her own truth.
That is not to say Miss Cleo wasn’t met with controversy. Besides people just not believing in what she did, there were complaints that she charged for calls advertised as free, that she had actors read from scripts when asked to give real advice. Cleo was never indicted for anything, but the reputation lived on.
Like with any problematic fave, it’s best to take the good with the bad. Miss Cleo, whether you thought she was psychic or not, taught folks to be okay with different beliefs and concepts of spirituality, even if they felt completely foreign. She helped people ask for help when perhaps they wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing so. That’s the beauty of Cleo. Who will we call now?