By Terry Spencer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The actress who became famous playing the Jamaican psychic Miss Cleo, claiming to know callers’ futures in ubiquitous TV infomercials and commercials 15 years ago, has died of cancer.
Youree Dell Harris, 53, died Tuesday in Palm Beach, her lawyer, William J. Cone Jr., said.
The Los Angeles-born Harris was a struggling actress when the Psychic Readers Network hired her in the late 1990s to play Miss Cleo. She adopted her family’s Jamaican heritage for the role, persuading viewers to call for allegedly free psychic readings.
In one commercial, she is seen poring over tarot cards before telling a caller that the father of her baby is the “one who is very unpleasant and had another girlfriend while he was sleeping with you…but you knew that.” The commercials ended with the tagline, “Call me now!”
The federal government said those “free” calls cost consumers about $1 billion. The Federal Trade Commission said the psychic service promised a free reading, but consumers calling a toll-free number were directed to a 900 number charging $4.99 per minute. The agency said nearly 6 million people made such calls and were charged an average of about $60 apiece.
The Psychic Readers Network’s parent company forgave $500 million in customer charges in a 2002 settlement.
After the settlement, Harris mostly faded from view for over a decade. She voiced a character in the “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” video game and was an advocate for gay rights after coming out as a lesbian.
Harris returned to the public eye in 2014 when she appeared in the documentary “Hotline,” which looked at the world of telephone psychics, phone sex workers and suicide prevention specialists.
Tony Shaff, the film’s producer, said he found her to be “warm and welcoming and bigger than life.”
“She was smart as a whip and very intuitive,” Shaff said. “There was so much negativity surrounding psychic hotlines that she wanted to tell her personal story.” He said she understood that some consumers felt they were swindled, “but she was being paid to do a job.”
He said Harris claimed to have paranormal abilities, but didn’t like to be called a psychic or tarot reader because she felt her powers were much broader than that.
Harris briefly reprised the Miss Cleo character last year in a series of online advertisements for General Mills, which was bringing back its French Toast Crunch cereal. The ads stopped after the Psychic Readers Network sued, saying it owned the character.