By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
You can't hide from Miss Cleo. The self-proclaimed television psychic's grinning, beturbaned head pops up everywhere, urging viewers to call her now for free foreknowledge of romance, jobs, family matters, and health, all delivered in a vaguely Caribbean accent. Mass e-mails breathlessly urge recipients to listen to her visions and dreams, which she promises will change their lives. Her Websites ominously warn, "Miss Cleo is waiting!"
Miss Cleo's nationwide marketing blitz has made her instantly recognizable. Despite her omnipresence, the tarot-card-dealing Miss Cleo is more than reticent about her own background, whereabouts, and activities. When ambushed December 2 outside a shopping mall by reporter Carmel Cafiero of WSVN-TV (Channel 7), Miss Cleo would say only that she's from a family of psychics and that her first name is Cleomili. Her official biography, posted on one of her Websites, asserts that she was born in Jamaica.
The pop-occult icon is indeed here in South Florida. Her real name is apparently either Youree Cleomili Harris or Youree Dell Harris, born August 12, 1962. Her social security number was issued in California in 1978. A public-records search turned up a list of her possible former addresses going back to 1984 that suggests she shuttled back and forth between Southern California and South Florida. Some national newspaper accounts have identified Miss Cleo as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, but SAG's Actor Locate service was unable to find any record that Harris, or anyone with a similar name, was ever a member.
Attempts to learn further particulars from the mysterious Miss Cleo herself came to naught. Harris remains holed up in a rented house set well back on three acres of land near the end of SW 126th Avenue in the southwestern Broward County community of Southwest Ranches. It's surrounded by a fence; two "Beware of Dog" signs hang on the gate.
A dreadlocked, middle-age man in a flowing maroon shirt, speaking from behind Harris's front gate and surrounded by three large dogs, confirmed that she lived there but said any interview would have to be scheduled by a call to Harris's personal assistant, at a phone number he didn't have. (Neither did directory information or any other source New Times could find.) "How did you get her address?" he wanted to know. Harris's house is listed as the business address for Waghwaan Entertainment, the company she started in July 2001.
The world knows Miss Cleo, however, as the shill for a company not her own; Harris is the public face of the unmystically named Access Resource Services (ARS). Estimates by consumer protection agencies of ARS's yearly take range up to $400 million a year, funneled into Fort Lauderdale from callers nationwide. Much of that sum is undoubtedly sent back out to the legion of subcontractors who actually field most of ARS's calls, but a healthy percentage stays here in the pockets of two Fort Lauderdale men, Steven Feder and Peter Stolz, who have run a dizzying array of similar companies for nearly a decade: Psychic Readers Network, Open Horizons.com, Bahia Encounters, Oshun 5 Communications, and 16 others.
But not all is harmonious in this inbred corporate family. A series of legal troubles has brought Feder, Stolz, and their enterprises national notice. Their careers in telemarketing are littered with lawsuits from both consumers and former business associates. Yet the pair has managed to emerge from these imbroglios relatively unscathed, all the while juggling company names and swapping pitchmen. But though Miss Cleo's schtick is only cosmetically different from previous Feder/Stolz fronts, it seems that this marketing ploy may have worked a little too well. In the past few months, Miss Cleo's claims of free psychic readings and the billing practices of ARS have drawn the wrath of state attorneys general and consumer protection agencies across the country. Not to mention consumers themselves.
Judgments against ARS so far, however, amount to only a tiny fraction of the company's overall take. And since attorneys general have acted to stop only specifically deceptive practices rather than challenging the whole scheme, Miss Cleo rolls on.
Meanwhile, complaints about myriad ARS practices continue to pile up. This written complaint from one St. Augustine woman to the Florida attorney general last year is typical: "I rue the day I even placed even a 5 minute call to these money grubbing extortionists," she wrote. "I am disabled on a very fixed budget and refuse to submit to their thievery."
Feder and Stolz could not be reached to respond; repeated calls to their homes and office went unanswered. Sean Moynihan, a New York attorney and frequent mouthpiece for ARS, calls the legal response to ARS's methods "extraordinarily irresponsible" and "despicable," charging that such complaints are almost always the fault of a lying customer trying to defraud an honest company, abetted by an unscrupulous attorney general pandering to popular prejudice.
"What happens here is, a lot of times you get people who want to make value judgments for other people," Moynihan sneers. "They want to decide what form of spirituality you can practice, what form of entertainment you can have."
Feder and Stolz are hardly the first to cash in on the public's fascination with the paranormal. Astrologers, spirit mediums, magicians, and other prognosticators have plied their (usually lucrative, if risky) trade in every culture from ancient Egypt and Babylon through medieval Europe. But the modern Western world's supernatural fancies began in 1848 with two American sisters, Margaretta and Kate Fox. They claimed to be able to summon the dead, who would communicate with them in code by a series of rapping sounds. Their demonstrations baffled scientists for years, winning the sisters fame and fortune; but shortly before she died in the late 19th century, Margaretta admitted to producing all the sounds by popping her double-jointed big toe.