Say It Ain't So, Cleo

updated 03/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Miss Cleo wants to talk. After years of rumors, a federal probe that shut down the wildly successful phone line she made famous and a lifetime supply of gaudy turbans—TV's queen of clairvoyants is ready to tell her side of the story. Almost. First, Cleo needed to know the reporter's birth date, a lawyer for the tarot-reading TV pitchwoman explained. It was nothing personal, he added, she asks everybody.

A few days later the mystic herself called back with the news from the other world. Through psychic analysis, Cleo had divined that our reporter had "lived four lives" and appeared to be "loyal and honest." Still, she had decided not to talk just now. "Mercury is in retrograde," she explained in her familiar Caribbean-like lilt. And besides, her ancestors had advised against it.

They might also have offered some more practical advice. Last June, Cleo, 40, whose real name is Youree Dell Harris, invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination when she was deposed in a Florida state civil suit against her and Access Resource Services, the parent company of the phone lines she pitched on TV from 2000 to 2002. In a separate federal case alleging false advertising and deceptive billing, the owners of ARS agreed to cancel a staggering $500 million in debt racked up by millions of consumers cheated by the hot line. According to the Federal Trade Commission, callers expecting a free tarot reading were routinely directed to a second number that billed their accounts, sometimes for hundreds of dollars per call. In some cases the company billed people who had never called at all, then aggressively tried to collect the alleged debt.

Miss Cleo—who claims her first mystical experience was when a deceased uncle visited her in her sleep at age 14—was personally charged with deceptive trade practices by the state of Florida. But she was dropped from the suit last November when ARS settled out of court. She insists she did nothing wrong. "All this was done without any input from me," she said of allegations during her brief conversation with PEOPLE. "The only thing I did was go to the studio and take live calls. Outside of that I had no control, my dear."

Except, perhaps, of her own image. Just who is Miss Cleo—and where did she get that accent? In interviews and legal depositions she has routinely refused to discuss certain details of her past. A bio once posted on the ARS Web site calls her "a Shango shaman" who was "born in the Trelawny section of Jamaica." Her birth certificate, however, shows that Youree (a Leo) was actually born in a Los Angeles hospital to David Harris, 37, a Texan, and Alisa Teresa Hopis, 36, of California, on Aug. 12, 1962. And 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. "That persona is so totally not her," says Elizabeth Salazar, 41, who was a year ahead of Harris at the preppy all-girl Ramona Convent Secondary School in Alhambra, Calif.

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, 44, 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.)

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, 27, who recalls Harris practicing her accent onstage and off, "and I thought, 'Boy, she's a weirdo.' "

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, Fla., 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 earlier this year. "It was done on purpose. They wanted it to look like I was in my garage."

Harris claims she was paid $1,750 for the three-day shoot—the first of many that would bring her into living rooms nationwide. While she insists her telephone readings were always fair and sincere, the FTC charged that ARS hired random people who read from scripts designed to keep callers on the line as long as possible (see box). "Some of the people who worked with me came from the Salvation Army," Barbara Melit, who worked for an ARS-affiliated bookstore, told the Florida attorney general in 2000. After an initial three-minute grace period that operators burned up by asking unnecessary questions, callers were routinely left on hold—sometimes while operators used the bathroom—with the clock ticking at $4.99 a minute. The psychics, who often cleared only 15 cents a minute, were threatened with losing their jobs if they let callers hang up after less than 20 minutes, Melit said.

One victim, Tallahassee lobbyist Sean Stafford, received a notice from a collection agency for two calls totaling $139 that he never made. "I'm not in need of psychic help," says Stafford, 32, whose phone was in fact disconnected at the time of the alleged calls. "I think people like Miss Cleo are preying on the poor and elderly." Department-store clerk Harvey Weinshenker, 62, of Jacksonville, Fla., was contacted by a bill collector in 2001 about two psychic hot-line charges totaling $558—a surprise, says Weinshenker, given that he hasn't had a phone since 1987. "I called them when I got the bill, and they insulted me," he says.

Harris says she was forced into seclusion after she was named in the suit filed by the State of Florida on Feb. 14 last year. Lampooned on late-night TV, she says she rarely ventured out of the house in Aventura, Fla., where she home-schools her teenage daughter. She claims to have spoken up many times to her employers about the way they were running the hot line. "We have been witness to a New Age witch hunt," says Harris's Fort Lauderdale attorney. (ARS settled the suits with no admission of wrongdoing; its owners did not respond to PEOPLE's calls.)

These days, Harris told Miami's Y-100 radio, she depends on private clients who pay up to $100 for psychic readings—and the support of taxi drivers, gas station attendants and ordinary people who recognize her wherever she goes. "You know what?" she says, her Jamaican accent singing. "They give me mad love."

Patrick Rogers
Siobhan Morrissey in Miami, Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles and Amy Bonawitz in New York City

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