Miss Cleo was not born Miss Cleo. A personality like that is made. A rose by any other name, this one went by such monikers as LaShawnda Williams, Youree Perris, Maria Delcampo, Elenore St. Julian, Corvette Mama, Desiree Canterlaw, Janet Snyder, Christina Garcia and Cleomili Harris. She was a woman I always knew would make her way in the world, whether she had to claw someone into oblivion to do it or not.
Before she “became” Jamaican, she was just another aspiring actress in L.A.–albeit a theater actress, which I guess made her somewhat unique for that city. We formed a fast friendship after financing a play together there called La Cienega. When it failed, we decided to pack up and try our luck in Seattle. Leaving L.A. behind was easy. Miss Cleo (which it still feels incongruous to address her as now) never liked the city, said it was full of nothing but sticks and twigs who ate the same. Plus, she had an ex and a child to abandon. I, too, started to hate it. Being from Pasadena, which I guess one could call the Long Island of California, I was always pulled back in by familial obligations. Miss Cleo was the first non-white person who really wanted to befriend me. I couldn’t figure out why. But after she essentially robbed me and fled the Pacific Northwest, I finally knew the reason.
When we first arrived in Seattle, grunge had been co-opted by corporate interests and no longer had the same sort of authenticity pre-Nirvana worship. But Miss Cleo took to her new environment like a con artist to a pocket. She adopted the accentless manner of most passive aggressive denizens in that part of the world, started wearing Quinn Morgendorffer-esque ensembles and slowly began to pull apart from me when I stopped “helping” her pay her half of the rent. She didn’t stay in town for very long, lying to others as she had to me by promising she would pay back the debts she owed, but that her battle with “bone cancer” at the moment would prevent her from doing so right away–what with all the medical bills she had to concern herself with.
They say karma’s a bitch and maybe it is, because Miss Cleo certainly got hers on July 26th–I being just one of many people she fucked over astrally. Sitting in my parents’ living room back in Pasadena late one night in 1999 getting stoned, the image of her onscreen nearly bowled me over. She had put on a few pounds and swathed herself in colorful, shapeless clothing, but it was still her.
As I watched her deliver her absurdist dialogue to a psychic wanderer over the phone, I blanched at her concluding catchphrase, “Don’t go blindly through life, let me use the power of the tarot to show you the way.” How and when the fuck did she end up as the foremost prop of the Psychic Readers Network, I wondered to myself.
From that moment on, it seemed as though Miss Cleo was everywhere I turned, from late night comedy sketches to people in grocery stores imitating her accent. She had achieved the acting fame she had always wanted, though it was a somewhat skewed accomplishment, considering people believed she was who she said.
And so, while she basked in her national spotlight, I reverted back to a desk job in Glendale where I answered calls all day long too, albeit those of a customer service nature, alternately known as: I listened to people complain to me for things I had no control over. All the while, I was stewing, thinking of how much Miss Cleo must be making from her grand acting debut.
Finally, one night, after downing an entire bottle of red wine while watching her “show,” I mustered the courage to call her. I was met with one of her minions reading a script instead, ultimately getting charged $300 for the call. It was another addition to the financial albatross she had placed around my neck. I despised her and long wished for her slow, painful death. She was callous and cold-blooded, and deserved to be exposed for the fraud she was.
When it all came crashing down around her in 2001, I still wasn’t satisfied. But her disappearance into obscurity was mildly comforting. That is, until 2006, when I came across an interview with her in The Advocate coming out as a lesbian. I had only just moved to New York, and her reemergence into my new life was upsetting, to say the least. It was as though she was deliberately haunting me at every turn. I still question whether or not she was truly a lesbian, or if it was merely an attempt to gain new avenues of publicity.
You could never trust a word Miss Cleo said, but she believed so genuinely in her lies that she was able to convince everyone else of them too. That was her greatest talent, and one that served her well for most of her existence. Miss Cleo the Leo, never a sign to be trusted. But like a dead body without a cement block attached to it, the truth always floats to the surface. Yet, no one will ever know the complete truth about Youree Dell Harris, and they probably never will for certain, her web of deception so intricate it makes DNA look like straight lines of fettuccine.