Typecast: Mavis Beacon, The Typing Teacher Who Never Was, Is Turning 30

Encore
Encore

When Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams went to the software convention Comdex in early 1988, he was greeted by industry colleagues offering their congratulations. He had somehow been able to secure famed typing instructor Mavis Beacon to endorse his company’s typing tutorial, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

“We’ve been trying to get her for years,” one said. “How did you do it?”

Abrams shrugged. It had been easy to get Mavis because Mavis didn’t exist. Abrams and his partners had invented her.

“She was not a real person, and we never said she was,” Abrams tells Mental Floss. “A kind of cult developed around this fictitious character.”

In Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, people struggling to adapt to the growing number of personal computers in circulation were led through a series of exercises and lessons intended to improve their typing speed. Other programs had existed prior to Mavis Beacon, but none had bothered to give their sterile software an identity. With Mavis, Software Toolworks developed a digital Betty Crocker—a cheerful, patient, good-humored persona that stood out on retail shelves. By 1998, 6 million copies had been sold.

The company was amused to receive calls requesting interviews or personal appearances by Mavis, a sure sign she was resonating. But before the typing icon became one of the PC industry’s biggest success stories, Abrams discovered that not all retailers would warm to the idea of a woman of color—even a fictional one—endorsing software.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks was the name programmer Walt Bilofsky decided to give to his modest software enterprise in 1980. Selling programs that offered type-to-text features uncommon in those days, Bilofsky built up a business around a small circle of personal computer hobbyists in need of productivity programs. Presentation and marketing was not a priority.

“We sold programs in Ziploc bags,” Bilofsky tells Mental Floss.

By the mid-1980s, working together with his cousin Joe Abrams, Bilofsky was ready to move into more commercial pursuits. Another company, Software Country, solicited his help in putting together a home gaming bundle. When Bilofsky wrote a game called Chessmaster 2000 for Software Country’s Les Crane, the two companies merged, and Crane (who died in 2008) became a partner.

It proved to be a perfect coupling. Bilofsky and his small stable of programmers knew software, while Crane—a former talk show host—knew marketing. For Chessmaster 2000, Crane went to considerable effort and expense to imagine a “chess wizard” who would personify the game for players. They wouldn’t be playing a faceless algorithm, but a wizened old pro who appeared on the game's box. With the photo shoot alone costing $10,000, it was a far cry from the plastic bags of Bilofsky’s past.

“Les’s marketing was huge,” Bilofsky says. “I was aghast he spent that much. But he was right.” Chessmaster 2000 was a huge hit for the company. Their next major effort, a typing tutorial, would eclipse it.

According to Abrams, the company was a “wave rider, not a wave maker.” Chess programs were popular, and Abrams saw opportunity to anthropomorphize it with a mascot of sorts. The same proved true for typing programs, which were numerous but often paid little attention to user interface.

“We wanted to pick something where we could make that interaction different than anything that had come before,” Abrams says. “The difference was immersion.” If someone missed a word while “driving,” a bug might splatter on the windshield. If the user wanted to take a break, the software wouldn’t fight them.

“This was before Windows, when pop-up menus were not the norm,” Bilofsky says. “The user could drive the program. You didn’t need to have the manual open in order to use it.”

Perfecting the software was only half the battle. At the time, the computer industry was getting more invested in personalizing their marketing. Celebrities like Bill Bixby and Isaac Asimov endorsed hardware from IBM and Tandy, respectively, but few human faces appeared on software boxes. Abrams thought some kind of industry typing standard might exist that could be licensed, but came up short.

“The other typing programs at the time, like Typing Tutor or MasterType, had very vanilla names and packaging,” he says. “They didn’t grab you. What we wanted was something to make people go, ‘Woah.’ We wanted people to pick the box up, turn it over, and read it.”

One day, Abrams and Crane went to Saks Fifth Avenue near their offices in Beverly Hills so Crane could buy his fiancée a present. At the perfume counter, they were assisted by a saleswoman who seemed to pique Crane’s interest. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is the person we should have.’ I thought he was crazy.”

The employee, Renee L’Esperance, was Haitian with limited English and 6-inch long fingernails. Abrams observed this incongruous feature as being contrary to what a typing master might opt for, but Crane was insistent. “He said it didn’t matter.”


Software Toolworks

The two went back the next day and offered L’Esperance $500 and a new suit in exchange for doing a photo shoot for the company. The photography took less than a day near the Century City towers, with Abrams’s 5-year-old son walking hand-in-hand with the faux typing teacher. Crane chose a fictitious name, Mavis Beacon, after singer Mavis Staples and the beacon of light she represented to clumsy typists everywhere.

The software had its face. Abrams, however, had no idea not everyone would welcome it. “We really didn’t understand the implications of putting a black woman on the cover of an educational product,” he says.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987. As with Chessmaster 2000, interest in a product that humanized a computer program was high. But when the company began circulating materials featuring L’Esperance, Abrams was shocked to see advance orders plummet by 50 percent.

“When they saw the package, orders got cut,” he says. “Even though this was 1987, people were afraid to carry an educational product with a black woman on it. They said people just wouldn’t buy it.” In New York, a major mail order and retail giant refused to carry it, citing a glut of typing product.

Opinions changed after The New York Times ran a glowing review of Mavis Beacon in its November 17, 1987 edition. “I got into the office and the phones were lit up asking where to get it,” Abrams says. “I decided to tell them to go to that retailer. By 11 a.m., a buyer for the company asked where he could get 150 copies immediately.”

From that point on, Mavis Beacon became an unstoppable force in software. Although the company never created a fake biography for Mavis or implied that she was a real person, a kind of mass delusion overtook both the media and the buying public. Teachers would call asking for her; Software Toolworks was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. L’Esperance, who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after the photo shoot, was the most famously anonymous woman in software.

“I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a customer told The Seattle Times in 1995. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

Mavis Beacon would continue to be updated over the years, both in and out of the package: L'Esperance got regular Photoshop updates to upgrade her clothing or hairstyle. In 1994, The Software Toolworks was sold to the Pearson group for $460 million. “They were really interested in the educational side of the business,” Abrams says. “Mavis Beacon was our bestselling product, so you could make the theoretical statement it was a driving force behind the purchase.”

Abrams went on to invest in Intermix, the company behind the pioneering social network hub Myspace. While that’s an impressive milestone, he’s most often asked about the famed typing teacher he helped bring into the burgeoning home computer industry.

“To this day, people will say to me, ‘Why did Mavis disappear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, she never really appeared.’”

Good Fortune: The Story of Miss Cleo's $1 Billion Psychic Empire

The woman sat behind a table, tarot cards in front of her, a turban wrapped tightly around her head. In Jamaican-accented patois, she invited viewers to benefit from her gift of second sight. “Call me now,” Miss Cleo said, and she would reveal all.

Mostly, respondents wanted to know if a lover was cheating on them, though there was no limit to Miss Cleo's divinity. No question was too profound. She could speak with as much wisdom about concerns over financial choices as she could sibling rivalries. Her only challenge was time: Miss Cleo could connect with only a fraction of the people looking for her spiritual guidance, leaving callers in the hands of other (potentially psychically-unqualified) operators.

Still, Miss Cleo became synonymous with psychic phenomena, a way to consult with a medium without getting off your living room couch. From 1997 to 2002, she was a virtually inescapable presence on television—the embodiment of a carnival stereotype that annoyed native Jamaicans, who bristled at her exaggerated accent. It was nonetheless effective: Roughly 6 million calls came in to Miss Cleo over a three-year period, with $1 billion in telephone charges assessed.

Not long after, the companies behind Miss Cleo would be forced to give half of that back amidst charges that they had misled consumers. Despite being a cog in the machine, Miss Cleo herself was vilified. Of the $24 million her hotline raked in monthly, she claimed to have earned just 24 cents a minute, or approximately $15 an hour.

Most people didn’t know she was born in Los Angeles, not in Jamaica; that her real name was Youree Dell Harris; and that her late-night infomercial promising psychic assistance was little more than performance art.

 

Harris may have been raised in California, but Miss Cleo was born in Seattle. While living in Washington in the 1990s, Harris tried her hand at playwrighting, authoring a play titled For Women Only under the name Ree Perris, which she performed at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. In it, Harris wrote and portrayed a Jamaican woman named Cleo, a clear predecessor to the character that would later pop up in television ads.

After producing three plays, Harris left Seattle amid allegations that she had taken grant money from the Langston Hughes Advisory Council, leaving some of the cast and crew unpaid. (Harris later said she left Seattle due to wanting to distance herself from a bad relationship. She told colleagues she had bone cancer and was leaving the area but that they would be paid at a later date.) She ended up in Florida, where she responded to an ad seeking telephone operators. Harris taped a commercial in character as Cleo—the hotline added the “Miss”—for $1750 and then agreed to monitor a phone line for a set wage. Operators made between 14 and 24 cents a minute, she later said, and she was on the higher end.

Psychic premonitions can be difficult to validate, though Harris never claimed to be a medium. In her own words, she was from a “family of spooky people” and was well-versed in voodoo thanks to study under a Haitian teacher. The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, a set of sister companies that used workers sourced by a third party for their hotlines, recoiled at the word voodoo and declared her a psychic instead.

If Harris was the genuine article, many of her peers were not. As subcontractors who were not employed by the Psychic Readers Network or Access directly, some responded to ads for “phone actors” and claimed they were given a script from which to work. (Access later denied that operators used a script.) The objective, former "psychics" alleged, was to keep callers on the line for at least 15 minutes. Some customers, who were paying $4.99 a minute for their psychic readings, received phone bills of $300 or more.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began responding to complaints in 2002, it was not because Harris was portraying a character or because she may have not been demonstrably psychic. It was because the Psychic Readers Network and Access were accused of deceptive advertising. Miss Cleo would urge viewers to call a toll-free 800 number, where operators would then refer them to a paid 900 line to reach a psychic. Miss Cleo also pledged that the first three minutes were free. That was true, though those first three minutes were largely spent on hold.

When people began to dispute their phone charges, Psychic Readers Network and Access were alleged to have referred accounts to collection agencies. Even if a telephone carrier like AT&T canceled the charges, customers would still find themselves subject to harassment over unpaid debt.

Individual states like Missouri and Florida sued or fined the companies, but it was the FTC that created the largest storm cloud. Of the $1 billion earned through the hotline, $500 million remained uncollected from stubborn or delinquent consumers. In a complaint and subsequent settlement, the FTC ordered those debts canceled and imposed a $5 million fine on the companies. Psychic Readers Network and Access did not admit to any wrongdoing.

As for Miss Cleo: Harris was only briefly named in the Florida lawsuit before she was dropped from it; the FTC acknowledged that spokespersons couldn’t be held liable for violations. But the association was enough, and newspaper reporters couldn’t resist the low-hanging fruit. Most headlines were a variation of, “Bet Miss Cleo didn’t see this one coming.”

 

Outed as a faux-Jamaican and with her Seattle past further damaging her reputation, Harris faded from the airwaves. Her fame, however, was persistent. She recorded a voice for a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game for a character that strongly resembled her onscreen psychic. Private psychic sessions were also in demand, with Harris charging anywhere from $75 to $250 per person. Her Haitian-inspired powers of deduction, she said, were genuine.

Eventually, enough time passed for Miss Cleo to become a source of nostalgia. In 2014, General Mills hired her to endorse French Toast Crunch, a popular cereal from the 1990s that was returning to shelves. Following both the Grand Theft Auto and General Mills deals, Psychic Readers Network cried foul, initiating litigation claiming that the Miss Cleo character was their intellectual property and that Harris's use was a trademark and copyright violation. General Mills immediately pulled the ads. (The argument against Rockstar Games, which produced Grand Theft Auto, was late in coming: Psychic Readers Network brought the case in 2017, 15 years after the game’s original release. The lawsuit is ongoing.)

Unfortunately, Harris’s continued use of the image would shortly become irrelevant. She died in 2016 at age 53 following a bout with cancer. Obituaries identified her as “Miss Cleo” and related her longtime frustration at being associated with the FTC lawsuit. “According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice in 2014. Instead, she was where she had always been: Behind a table, listening, and revealing all.

When 'Courage' Caused Controversy for Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In early 1981, Dan Rather was profiled by a number of media outlets as he prepared to take over as news anchor of CBS Evening News that March. The venerable news program had been headlined by Walter Cronkite for the previous 19 years, with Cronkite typically signing off each broadcast by telling viewers, “And that’s the way it is.”

Speaking to journalists, Rather didn’t give any indication if or when he might adopt his own signature closing statement, a tradition in news exemplified by Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (“Good night and good luck”), and Charles Osgood (“See you on the radio”), among others. But in one October 1981 interview, Rather did mention that one of his favorite words was courage.

“[Ernest] Hemingway thought that courage was grace under pressure,” Rather told The Boston Globe. “When it comes to courage, I have not been put to the test.”

Just five years later, Rather would find himself the focus of a situation that, while not necessarily requiring courageousness, tested his resolve in the face of public ridicule. It started when he concluded a summer newscast with a pithy send-off that was part self-help advice, part personal message, and somewhat confusing.

“And that’s the CBS Evening News for this summer-ending Labor Day,” he said. “Dan Rather reporting from New York.”

Rather paused, then added, “Courage. Good night.”

That an innocuous, two-syllable word like courage could cause such a stir is attributable in part to the landscape of the news media of the 1980s. In addition to newspapers, Americans got their information primarily from the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fox, which launched in 1986, didn’t offer primetime news programming; CNN, which debuted in 1980 and pioneered the 24-hour news cycle, didn’t hit its hard news stride until the 1990s (it was regularly referred to as the Chicken Noodle Network during its first decade on the air). As a result, the networks placed great emphasis on the approach and style of their news programming.

Contrasted against his counterparts—Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC—Rather was considered a stern presence on television. The Rather “stare,” as one television critic put it, defied viewers to question the veracity of each report. Management urged Rather to lighten his tone, first by getting him to wear V-neck sweaters, then by interjecting misplaced quips into his reports. (“Ready, set, Gorbachev!” Rather declared before one segment on the then-Soviet Union leader.)

Still, an emphasis on human interest stories and audience loyalty kept the CBS Evening News on top of the ratings during the first few years of Rather’s tenure. The broadcast finished first among the three news programs for 200 straight weeks.

Then, in the summer of 1986, it fell behind. In the mercurial world of news, there was no one specific reason. Brokaw, whose program took the lead, was well-liked; but Rather bristled at suggestions of adopting a lighter tone and was adamant about returning to harder news.

When he came back from an August vacation in time for the Labor Day broadcast on September 1, 1986, he had decided to take a new approach to concluding the broadcast. “Courage” was added before Rather told viewers to have a good night. To some, it was peculiar. To media observers, it was a sharp departure from the kind of objectivity expected of journalists. Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs? Others used it as fodder for comic takes in editorials.

Attempts to parse his use of the word went unaided by Rather himself, who cautioned people not to read into it. “Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning.” It was just a salutation he had used with friends for years and one that also happened to be one of his father’s favorite words. Rather used it to sign off on some of his radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

“If feels right to me and I think the audience will be comfortable with it,” he said.

CBS executives tried to talk him out of it. “I’m the only one who likes it,” Rather said of the internal response. Howard Stringer, a CBS Evening News producer who had just been named president of the CBS news division, said it was Rather’s “right” to close the broadcast however he liked, but stopped short of endorsing the habit.

Rather did it on Tuesday of that week, and again on Wednesday, but with a twist: Following a Bill Moyers report on the Texas-Mexico border, Rather said coraje, the Spanish word for courage. When that was met with derision, he labeled it an “ill-advised lark.”

Ultimately, Rather's sign off experiment was short-lived. It ended that Friday, with the anchor again wishing “courage” on his viewers. The following Monday, it was back to business as usual, with reports claiming that executives were finally able to convince the broadcaster to abandon his closing statement. September ended with the CBS Evening News again trailing the NBC Nightly News by one-half a ratings point.

Rather had the last word—of sorts—when he ended his tenure as the CBS Evening News anchor in March 2005. For his final broadcast, he looked into the camera and made one final statement. “And to each of you, courage,” he said.

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