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.

The One Where Jennifer Aniston's 'Rachel' Haircut on Friends Became a Phenomenon

NBC Television/Getty Images
NBC Television/Getty Images

The legacy of NBC's Friends isn't one of ratings records or piles of awards—it's about the way the show managed to impact popular culture by showing life at its most mundane. This is a series that turned sipping coffee into an art form, still prompts philosophical debates over the morality of being "on a break," and made it impossible not to shout pivot! when moving furniture. But Friends reached its cultural zenith when it managed to transform a simple hairstyle into a global talking point, as untold millions of women in the ‘90s flocked to salons all wanting one thing: “The Rachel.”

“The Rachel” hairstyle, which was the creation of stylist Chris McMillan, was first worn by Jennifer Aniston’s Friends character Rachel Green in the April 1995 episode “The One With the Evil Orthodontist." It has its roots as a shag cut, layered and highlighted to TV perfection. It may have been a bit too Hollywood-looking for a twenty-something working for tips, but it fit in the world of Friends, where spacious Manhattan apartments could easily be afforded by waitresses and struggling actors.

The Birth of "The Rachel"


Aniston in 1996, during the height of the style.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

The style itself wasn’t designed to grab headlines; McMillan simply gave Aniston this new look to be “a bit different,” as he later told The Telegraph. In hindsight, the ingredients for a style trend were all there: The cut was seen on the show’s breakout star as the series hit its ratings peak; an average of more than 25 million viewers tuned in each week during Friends's first three seasons. You can’t have that many eyeballs on you without fans wanting to get closer to you, and the easiest way to do that is to copy your style.

During the show’s second and third seasons in the mid-1990s, stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines about salons from Los Angeles to New York City and (literally) everywhere in-between being inundated with requests for Aniston's haircut. Some women would come in with their copy of TV Guide in hand for reference; others would record an episode of the show and play it at the salon to ensure accuracy. For these stylists, a good hair day for Rachel on a Thursday night meant big business over the weekend.

"That show has made us a bunch of money," Lisa Pressley, an Alabama hairstylist, said back in 1996. Pressley was giving around four "Rachels" per week to women ages 13 to 30, and she was touching up even more than that. Another hairdresser estimated that, during that time, 40 percent of her business from female clients came from the "Rachel." During the early days of the trend, McMillan even had people flying to his Los Angeles salon to get the hairdo from the man himself—a service that he charged a modest $60 for at the time.

A Finicky 'Do

What many clients learned, though, was that unless you had a trained stylist at your side, “The Rachel” required some real maintenance.

"People don't realize the style is set by her hairdresser," stylist Trevor Tobin told The Kansas City Star in 1995. “She doesn't just wake up, blow it dry, and it just turns out like that."

That was a warning Aniston knew all too well. In recent years, she has expressed her frustration at not being able to do the style on her own; to get it just right, she needed McMillan on hand to go through painstaking styling before shoots. In addition to being impossible to maintain, in a 2011 Allure interview, Aniston called it the “ugliest haircut I've ever seen." In 2015, the actress told Glamour that she found the look itself “cringey."

Though Aniston had grown to loathe the look, it was soon the 1990s' go-to style for other stars like Meg Ryan and Tyra Banks and later adopted by actresses and musicians like Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Alba. Debra Messing had an ill-fated run-in with it when she was told to mimic the style for her role on Will & Grace. They soon realized that trying it without McMillan was a fool’s errand.

“[It] was a whole debacle when we tried to do it on the show,” Messing recalled. “They literally tried for three hours to straighten my hair like [Aniston's]. It was so full and poofy that it looked like a mushroom.”

A Style That Sticks Around

A picture of Jennifer Aniston from 1999.
Aniston sporting her post-"Rachel" hair during the show's sixth season.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

Aniston’s personal preference for longer hair soon made its way on-screen, replacing the shorter, choppier “Rachel” by season 4. The once-iconic look was officially ditched, the last remnants of which were washed away in a flowing sea of ever-growing locks doused in blonde, pin-straight highlights. And once a haircut’s namesake turns their back on the style, it’s likely only a matter of time before the rest of the world moves on, too, right?

Wrong. “The Rachel” endured.

Unlike Farrah Fawcett’s showstopping feathered hair from the ‘70s, celebrities, news anchors, and the average salon-goer were still wearing the hairstyle well into the 2000s. Even now, fashion websites will run the occasional “Is ‘The Rachel’ Making a Comeback?” article, complete with the latest Hollywood star to sport the familiar shag.

It’s a testament to McMillan’s skill, Aniston’s charm, and Friends’s cultural sway over audiences that people are still discussing, and donning, the hairstyle some 25 years later. And in a lot of ways, the haircut's success mimicked the show's: it spawned plenty of imitators, but no one could outdo the original.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

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