Miss Cleo Comes Out
BY Greg Hernandez
September 25 2006 12:00 AM ET
She’s known for the catchphrase “The cards never lie,” and now Miss Cleo, the controversial former infomercial psychic, is finally telling some truths — about herself.
From the late 1990s through 2002, the woman whose real name is Youree Dell Cleomili Harris was a late-night staple who, in a thick Jamaican accent, urged viewers to dial a charge-by-the-minute 900 number to have their fortunes read.
What those viewers didn’t know, and what some members of her own family still don’t know, is that Miss Cleo is a lesbian. Four years after the infomercials were pulled from the air under a cloud of various lawsuits and federal and state investigations, Harris says she has been inspired to come out publicly by a teenage godson.
“He and I started talking when he was concerned about coming out. He was 16. When he made the decision I told him I’d be there to support him 100%, and he embraced [coming out] wholeheartedly,” Harris says. “It’s a different vibe than when I was his age, being raised Catholic in an all-girls boarding school. But he was afraid of nothing, and I thought, I can’t be a hypocrite. This boy is going to force me to put my money where my mouth is.”
On the late-night infomercials, Miss Cleo said she was a mystical shaman from Jamaica. Doubt was cast on that claim when a Florida newspaper reported that she had been born in Los Angeles. But Harris simply says, “I am who I say I am,” and insists she has Jamaican roots. She says she’s actually not a psychic but more of a spiritual counselor or spiritual adviser.
“I’m more a shaman, an elder in a community who has visions and gives direction to people in their village. My clients and my students are my village. I take care of this community. If you sit down at my table, you have to take away a lesson and not just learn what is going to happen tomorrow. I also perform weddings — both gay and straight marriages — and house cleansings and blessings.”
Wearing her trademark headdress, colorful robes, and chunky jewelry on the infomercials, Harris also helped hawk a Web-based psychic consultation service, a line of at-home tarot products, apparel, and even an online dating service. It was all part of a business empire constructed by wealthy South Florida businessman Steven Feder and his cousin Peter Stolz, and the key to their empire was Miss Cleo.
She is sure that coming out will be quite liberating, but she still has some trepidation. “The reason it’s scary is because in my personal experience, black cultures throughout the world have a more difficult time accepting homosexuality in their family. I have family members who will be shocked; they don’t know. I have some family members who are very close to me, and they do know. But I’ve been afraid of the wrath, of the exile. When I came out to a number of friends in the late ’80s I had a number of friends who turned their backs on me and walked away. That was really intense. I really believed they were my friends."
Her late parents, however, knew from early on. "Nobody really talked about it," she says. "It was like the pink elephant in the room. I never felt bad, but I knew society didn't accept me. This was the '70s. Things were changing, but they weren't all that changed. My first girlfriend was in high school. She had blond hair and blue eyes and was on the swim team. I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread. In the last months of our senior year we were found out by her father, and she was sent to a college out of state. I was heartbroken."
At 19 she was married to a man, with whom she bore a daughter, but the marriage ended before she turned 21. Since then Harris has had two long-term relationships with women, which she refers to as marriages, and she gave birth to a second daughter in her late 20s. In 1997 she left her second "wife," her last serious relationship, because she had become abusive toward Harris and her younger daughter.
"It was painful for me and my daughter, and I apologized profusely to this little girl with those brown eyes. From that point on, I didn't have any relationships until a few years ago when she gave me permission."
Now 44, Harris is single and looking. "Things aren't sagging too badly," she says. "I still look pretty decent, and I'm faced with the second half of my life. I've been out to two clubs in the area in the last three years. I got mad love. They said, 'Miss Cleo! We love you.' So how do I take back my power? I take it back by stepping up to the plate and saying, 'You know what? This is me. I don't want to hide. Fear only impedes you on your journey.'"
Since the end of her television days, Harris has returned to the private practice she had before entering the infomercial world and is living in Davie, Fla. She wonders how the locals will react.
"There is Miss Cleo, and now it's going to be, Miss Cleo is gay. I'm not sure how that is going to look, but as much bad stuff has been said about me up to now, what's another slur?"
After she became famous as Miss Cleo she became very concerned about her sexuality becoming public but was able to successfully remain in the closet despite a level of recognition that had people chasing her car down the street and following her into restrooms.
"People want to get to you for one reason: They think that you can help them. It was very chaotic. They'd tell me what was going on in their lives, wanting some direction, and that got intense. That's one of the reasons why I moved from Miami Beach out here to Davie, where there are ranches and horses. People would just knock on my door. I had to get a bodyguard; I had to get dogs. I'm a mom, gay or straight, and for a mom, it's all about protecting her cubs."
But no one could protect her from the battering her public image took when various lawsuits against the Mind and Spirit Psychic Network, the enterprise for which Miss Cleo served as a figurehead, were filed by customers who claimed they were being overcharged and that instead of getting to speak with Miss Cleo they would speak to "associates" of questionable qualifications who may have been reading from scripts. "I was livid," Harris says. "I didn't get to make those decisions. When we actually did the shows it was a 30minute infomercial show, and we'd have live [phone] lines. So we took live calls, and a lot of those calls I thought were very amazing. People had a lot to share. But I didn't have any power over what was used or how it was used. They have exclusivity to my name. I argued with them constantly."
Although Harris did not own the company and was merely a paid employee, she was the face of a well-tuned marketing machine.
"All of that really got to be just craziness," she says. "It left me scratching my head more times than not. I got into some bad contracts, and it spiraled.
"I don't work with them anymore. We parted ways — obviously not in the best of circumstances. It came to a final end in November 2002: Everything was dismissed against me. My family had to deal with the lies and the garbage and the misrepresentations. People really believed that I owned the company. I'm said to have gazillions of dollars. I wish people would tell me where it is."
Harris says she had stepped away from the company and was about to sign a contract with another company that included a national tour of inspirational workshops and a two-book deal. But on February 14, 2002, she was sued by the state of Florida, which halted her plans. The case was later dismissed on the condition that she agree not to sue the state.
"It was a civil case, but there are people out there who still believe that I'm in jail," she says. "They also believe that she is quite wealthy. "I probably made a little less than $450,000 for the two-year run of the thing. I got $1,500 for the first show and was making more by the time I was finishing with them. The company was making millions each month on my gift, my name, and my face. I was paid on a contract per show."
Regardless of how the television career of Miss Cleo ended, Harris says she still gets a great deal of affection from fans who remember her from the infomercials.
"If I'm standing in line somewhere and I'm talking, someone will whip their head around and look at me. People give me mad love, sweetheart. They'll say, 'Do you see anything? Where do we find you? When are you coming back? We miss you.' I get a lot of love."
UPDATE: We caught up with Miss Cleo one year later. Read that chat here.