‘Call Me Miss Cleo’: HBO Max documentary chronicles ‘rise, fall and reinvention’ of ’90s TV psychic [Watch trailer]

On December 15, HBO Max released “‘Call Me Miss Cleo,” an eye-opening documentary chronicling the rise, fall, and reinvention of revered and reviled ’90s TV psychic Miss Cleo. Featuring interviews with celebrities and those closest to the self-proclaimed voodoo priestess, the film explores the many layers behind a complicated and charismatic figure. 

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Jennifer Brea and Celia Aniskovich co-direct the film about the controversial figure. Known for her larger-than-life persona and memorable accent, Miss Cleo, born Youree Dell Harris, garnered a nationwide cult following on the Psychic Readers Network, a popular telephone hotline that later came under fire for its alleged deceptive practices. She died of cancer at the age of 53 in 2016. Below is a roundup of some early reviews.

Nick Schager of The Daily Beast writes, “Eventually, every piece of pop culture minutia will receive an additional 15 minutes of fame via an in-depth documentary, and on Dec. 15 that spotlight shines on Miss Cleo, the late psychic whose TV infomercials were a ubiquitous presence between 1997 and 2003.” He continues, “Despite avoiding specifics when it comes to Miss Cleo’s origins, ‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ takes seriously the notion that she was a very damaged person—the better, it turns out, to justify both its defense of her as an innocent victim, and its celebration of her as a legitimately talented psychic. It’s up for debate which of those threads is more preposterous, but they dominate the documentary.” In the end, “The only time ‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ operates with a clear head is during a brief analysis of why people so readily believed Miss Cleo compared to other psychics (the answer: she tapped into comforting mammy and island-voodoo stereotypes).”

Carita Rizzo of Metacritic singles out the five biggest revelations from the documentary but seems very impressed by the work as a whole. From the appropriation of an accent and culture to the scandal that ended her 15 minutes of fame, no stone is left unturned. “Harris’ friends, speaking in her defense, say they don’t care if Cleo was a character she created, if it made her feel worthy, valid and seen. According to friends, whether or not Harris was psychic, her gifts were real to her and she had a hard time handling those gifts, sometimes transforming into other people when she crumbled under the pressure. Was the creation of these characters multiple personality disorder or separating a part of yourself from the truth to be able to cope with your life? Whatever the reason, her friends believe it was a survival mechanism.” The reviewer concludes “While her life seems to have ended on a higher personal note, since the early aughts, the Miss Cleo legacy has either been plagued by misrepresentation or entirely forgotten. As Raven-Symoné points out in the doc, there was no ‘hashtag sisterhood’ at the time, giving Harris no realistic way of standing up to the corporation that took advantage of her. Nothing changes the past, but maybe the documentary serves to vindicate Harris and restore her reputation — even if it all feels a tad too late.”

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Murjani Rawls of Draft Kings Nation states, “The HBO Max documentary, directed by Celia Aniskovich and Jennifer Brea, attempts to humanize the woman behind the persona, make sense of her scant upbringing, and somewhat sympathize with her in the Psychic Readers Network fallout (the company declared bankruptcy in 1998 after litigation). Much about Miss Cleo’s personal history is muddled in the stories she’s told to various people. However, ‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ seems to be trying to absolve Harris from any wrongdoing when she was knowingly a part of the machine.” 

Sean Patrick of Geeks was not impressed. “This is a rare documentary where the filmmakers and the subjects appear equally delusional about the subject they are discussing.” Her persona is just the tip of the iceberg though. “In the strongest portion of ‘Call Me Miss Cleo,’ the documentary brings forward the people who answered calls to the Psychic Readers Network who express regret over their role in bilking desperate people looking for Miss Cleo’s sage, Jamaican Shaman, view of their future.” Those seeking the psychic advice of Miss Cleo were taken advantage of as a result. “Legal documentation exists that legally defines Miss Cleo as little more than a mascot for the 800 number, a pitch woman and actress hired to perpetuate a brand. And yet, Miss Cleo never stopped living as Miss Cleo, Jamaican accented psychic.” Those attempting to rehab her image are plentiful in the documentary as they try their very best to do so. “Miss Cleo’s closest friends maintain to this day, several years after Cleo herself passed away at the relatively young age of 54, that she was an actual psychic.” The documentary is “both well researched and completely lacking in objectivity. It’s both a story that is strangely fascinating and a piece of bizarre propaganda that exists to make excuses for a woman who was either deranged or a con artist or both. By trying to make Miss Cleo’s story appear wholesome and happy, filled with loving and supportive friends, we lose the fact of how insane this story is, and that really should be the perspective here.”

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