The toilet in Miss Cleo's half bathroom has been flushing on its own lately. Whenever she walks by the room, it just flushes itself, she says. Consider it an episode of paranormal activity if you wish, but for Miss Cleo, it's nothing out of the ordinary. She says she's been ensconced in the spirit world for as long as she can remember, and as a self-professed voodoo woman, she's proud to have ghosts in her home.
"I'm sure the people reading this are going to say, 'See, I told you the bitch is crazy!' — but that's fine," she says with an understanding laugh. "I wear both of those monikers well."
Over the past five years, Miss Cleo, born Yourée Dell Harris, according to her birth certificate, has grown used to mockery. The former TV psychic has been the butt of a million jokes from her days as spokesperson for the South Florida-based Psychic Readers Network, when she was known as much for her questionable Jamaican lilt as the three words she suspects will wind up on her tombstone: "Call me now!"
Talking to her about her past in what she says is her first interview with the mainstream press in five years, you'd expect Miss Cleo to be uncomfortable or defensive, but she comes off as just as interested in discussing her spiritual beliefs as in poking fun at herself. Asked if she's grown tired of the jokes, she quickly interjects, "I love Dave Chappelle's parody — I love it, I love it! If you can't have a sense of humor in life, then you're an idiot."
She could be angry for having been laughed off TV and indicted by Florida's attorney general for deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices (she was quietly exonerated of all charges), but instead, she's taken the pain and humiliation of the past five years and channeled it into spoken-word material. Last week, she released an album of it, Convicted for My Beliefs, through her own Wahgwaan Entertainment company.
The album's eight tracks find Miss Cleo in a far different mood than America might anticipate. She's left the tarot cards and psychic-speak behind in favor of straight-to-the-gut protest poetry, as fierce and passionate as anything released by June Jordan or Nikki Giovanni. The disc is dedicated to Gil Scott Heron; she credits him as her inspiration for speaking out and canonizes him on the track "Respect... Gil Scott Heron."
At times, the disc lacks polish and literary charm, but she compensates for that with the kind of biting commentary one might expect in a time of war. The subject matter is modern, encompassing the Don Imus scandal and the NYPD shooting of Sean Bell, but the cadences and palpable fearlessness are more reminiscent of the Last Poets than of today's slam-to-entertain, HBO-type poetry. There's no music, just 44 minutes of Miss Cleo a cappella.
"Sometimes, music can take away from the lyrics on an album," she says. "People are tapping their feet to the beat and not listening to the message." She wanted their full attention.
After carefully listening to Convicted, you can't help but wonder why more local artists and writers aren't out on the front lines — with Miss Cleo, of all people — speaking truth to power.
"I'm not sure when complacency became the standard, but I will not leave this Earth like that," she says. "I'm tired of being complacent."
In the past, she continues, "I spent a lot of time with friends, and we regarded ourselves as activists of old. We would sit and talk and talk about what's wrong with the world, but was anyone doing a damned thing? No, we weren't. We were sitting in the backyard eating barbecue and drinking some Haitian rum. So I decided to do something different."
Putting together a spoken-word CD is new territory for her, but she's been writing for decades. She published the book Keepin' It Real: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Living in 2001, a title that begs for sarcasm, but she also wrote plays in the mid-1990s, when she lived in Seattle with her second ex-wife, she says.
Publishing under the name Ree Perris, she wrote material for the stage such as For Women Only and addressed racism, misogyny, and issues of particular interest to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. Her own sexuality surfaces on Convicted in "Who I Can Love," where she rails against anti-LGBT laws. That poem "is very important to me," she says.
"Homosexuality is something the black community struggles to accept," she says, adding that gay black writers are often ridiculed. Yet she believes that if people had known she was a lesbian during her TV-psychic troubles, it might have helped her. Instead, she says, she was the victim of a media conspiracy.
"I found it interesting that the media failed to report that Miss Cleo is a dyke," she says sternly. "Personally, I think they felt it would have garnered support for me, so they didn't want that fact known."
Convicted also contains "Confessions of a VooDoo Woman."
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"I'm an obeah woman; I practice voodoo," she says, her Jamaican accent growing stronger. "I perform weddings, energy cleansings, house cleanings — I'm on call 24 hours a day."
OK. Is she also a psychic?
"I am not a psychic," she says. "I am a mambo. A Haitian high priestess — that's what I was trained to do. Being a psychic, that was not my idea. That was a package that was put together. And it wasn't me."
With that statement, it's as though a collective sigh was released. The weight comes off her back. It's the same sigh listeners might hear between the lines on Convicted. It sounds as though Miss Cleo is finally being herself.