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The Truth About Miss Cleo: How a Privileged Girl from L.A. Became a Psychic Sensation

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When news broke Tuesday that TV personality Miss Cleo – an actress best known as the face of the now-defunct Psychic Readers Network – had passed away from colon cancer, the Internet remembered a charismatic Jamaican woman with a signature catchphrase, “Call me now!”

The woman who actually died, 53-year-old Youree Dell Harris, was a Los Angeles-born civilian who stumbled into a psychic career – and expressed regret over taking money from innocent people who called into her network asking for spiritual guidance to the tune of several dollars a minute.

“If someone called me on the line and I knew that they didn’t have any money, I had no intention of keeping them on the line,” Harris said in the 2014 documentary Hotline. “That was more about me rather than them. It was more about my karma.”

Karma wasn’t necessarily good to her: the Psychic Readers Network was shut down by a federal probe in 2002, and Harris was named in the legal proceedings, though later dropped from the suit, as she was just the face of the Network, not a founder. It still hurt her image, though.

“I made 24 cents a minute, that was on the high end,” she shared in Hotline, adding to The Advocate in 2006, “I’m said to have gazillions of dollars. I wish people would tell me where it is.”

A 2003 PEOPLE interview with Harris told her story: she was born to David Harris, 37, a Texan, and Alisa Teresa Hopis, 36, of California, on Aug. 12, 1962. Former classmates at the Southern California school that Harris attended as a boarder in the 1970s recall an all-American, gregarious student who spent much of her time snapping photos for the yearbook.

“I speak perfect English,” she told Vice in 2014, adding that her family had Jamaican roots. “When you grow up in America and you’re Caribbean, your parents beat it into you that the only way to succeed is by dropping the patois. My mother was very deliberate about that, and so was my father.”

Harris enrolled at the University of Southern California in 1980 but left after taking only four classes. Actors who worked with her more than a decade later at a city-run theater in Seattle recall Harris – who by then had a daughter and went by the name Ree Perris – as a creative playwright and director but also somewhat elusive.

“She owed people money,” says Darcell Hubbard, who directed one of the three plays Harris produced at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in 1996 and 1997. Hubbard says some of the teenage theater ushers were given $200 checks that promptly bounced when Harris skipped town after telling some of her colleagues that she had sickle cell anemia and others that she suffered from bone cancer. (Harris and her lawyer declined to respond for PEOPLE’s 2003 profile.)

In 1996, for a collection of her monologues titled For Women Only, Harris played the role of a turban-wearing Jamaican who sold trinkets at a market. Little did her coworkers know they were witnessing the creation of a character she would ride to national fame.

“She always talked to me in that voice,” says composer Derrick Brown, who recalled Harris practicing her accent onstage and off, “and I thought, ‘Boy, she’s a weirdo.’ ”

Miss Cleo in 2009
Lilly Echeverria/Miami Herald/MCT/Getty

She was still using the accent when she moved to Florida in 1998 and began working as a tarot-reading psychic for a so-called “bookstore” – a telemarketing center to which calls are routed from different numbers around the country. While working a special event at a mall in Pompano, Flordia, she was approached by a production assistant from Access Resource Services and accepted an offer to appear in an ad in 2000.

“That first commercial, I looked like a hag,” she told Miami radio station Y-100 in 2003. “It was done on purpose. They wanted it to look like I was in my garage.”

In her 2014 talk with Vice, Harris said she did have fortune telling in her blood – though didn’t claim to be an expert. “I come from a family of spooky people,” she said. “I come from a family of Obeah – which is another word for voodoo. My teacher was Haitian, [a mambo] born in Port-au-Prince, and I studied under her for some 30 years and then became a mambo myself. So they refer to me as psychic – because the word voodoo scares just about everybody. So they told me, ‘No, no, no, we can’t use that word; we’re going to call you a psychic.’ I said, ‘But I’m not a psychic!’ ”

Harris came out to The Advocate in 2006. Though she’d once been married to a man and had two children (one with him, one later in life), “I’ve been gay since I was about 16,” she told the magazine.

Aside from Hotline and her interview with The Advocate, she flew under the radar for most of the 2000s, appearing in a 2015 April Fool’s Day ad for Benefit cosmetics. A 2012 piece on xoJane.com written by a woman who briefly worked for the Psychic Readers Network exposed the inner workings of the scam, though Harris never commented on the story.

For most of her final years, it turns out, she was still doing readings privately, charging clients up to $100 to chat by phone or in person, despite her admissions of her past.

“People are going to believe what they want to believe,” she said in Hotline. “I don’t know who I helped, but I’m certain that I helped some people.”