| WILD FRIDAY
Miss Cleo Unmasked
Edited by Antinous
By Richard Daverman
If you watch any amount of late-night TV, you've seen
her: Miss Cleo. For those of us with a remote attached
to our hand like a sixth digit, she seems to be
everywhere on that dial-that-no-longer-exists. Her
lilting West Indian accent works its way into your
subconscious, its authority and certainty at once
compelling and repellent.
She is large, she is loud, she is imperious. She has the
power to divine the secrets of your heart--secrets you
haven't told anyone. She is the anima of your
subconscious, telling you the truths you hide from even
You don't mess with Miss Cleo. A full-time,
honest-to-goodness psychic, she is exotic, tapped into
the folk traditions of the Caribbean that we--urban,
industrialized, air-conditioned--have lost touch with.
But in her all-knowing, commanding authority, she also
recalls the worst of those impossibly old grade-school
teachers we had when we were kids--always
hectoring, always telling us when we were wrong. For
sure, she has those eyes in the back of her head, but
Miss Cleo also has eyes that see into the future.
What if--just maybe--she does know something? It
would be nice to find out the truth about the future, to
stop guessing, to be on the inside track. Just for once,
it would be nice not to be wrong. So, deep down in the
recesses of your mind, you think about calling her
(although this is, of course, not something you would
admit to anyone). What would happen if you did?
Would you get to talk to Miss Cleo or someone equally
Nope. You'd get me: White. Middle-class. Believer in
the scientific method. Not intuitive. No connection to
the soil. Only tenuously connected to my own
subconscious, much less the collective one. No voodoo
dolls on my mantel or dashikis in my closet.
How did this happen? How did I become a teenage
mutant ninja psychic? Simple. I answered an ad in the
employment section of that august oracle of Nashville's
New South hopes, dreams, and reality: The
Tennessean. It wasn't an ad for a psychic, because I
wouldn't have answered it. Instead, it was a call for
counselors on the telephone, no experience needed.
No experience--I've got plenty of that. Unable in this
booming economy to find a career-oriented job that
suits my talents and/or temperament, a job with
benefits and a future, I've been looking in the
"General" section of the classified employment ads for
something to tide me over--something that would keep
me housed and fed, without exposing my humiliating
predicament to the world at large, as a job at the
Golden Arches would do. Above all, it should be
something that doesn't require me to wear a uniform
with my name ovaled over my left breast.
So a low-level gig on the telephone seemed like a
great way out of my dilemma. And since it was a
"counseling" job, so much the better. After all, I like to
help people, I can talk to people; I've had some
experience at the psychological margins of life, that
place where you talk about the important things
(depression, addiction, suicide) that underlie the fluff of
middle-class life (traffic, restaurants, acne, sex).
But I never expected to be a psychic.
The pay was good: $12 an hour, about $2 to $4 more
than you'd expect from these pick-up jobs. I'd get to
work from home, so I could, theoretically, do something
else at the same time. Plus, it didn't require experience
(I may have mentioned that before), and even more
important, they were hiring.
So I did as I was told and drove up to meet my
recruiter on a Wednesday midday at the food court in
Rivergate Mall. Housewives with artificially
"brightened," well-curled hair were conversing
amicably with one another, all taking a breather from
their hunter-gatherer forays amid the brightly colored,
hard-edged plastic surfaces.
My recruiter fit right into this middle-American scene.
Nothing distinguished her from the many other women
around her: curly-haired, cherub-cheeked, still a few
years away from trading her youthful innocence for
middle-aged resignation. Fortunately, I didn't have to
guess who she was, because she had given me explicit
instructions on her seating location. If there was a
difference between her and all these other people in
the mall, it was her briefcase and papers, which made
her look more businesslike. After introductions, she
apologized for not having a sign, but the mall had
asked her to take it down, she breezily explained,
because it looked like she was soliciting.
All efficiency, she matter-of-factly handed me a sheaf of
papers. There was no discussion of whether or not I
was suited for the job. I didn't have to qualify or prove
my ability in any way. She never asked if I had psychic
abilities, or even if I believed in a psychic's ability to
foretell the future. I would do it, if I was so inclined,
and I could continue if I followed a few simple
The papers listed the rules of the business (no
call-waiting on your phone, no explicit discussion of
sex, no putting someone on hold), and then my new
boss drew up the guidelines of a typical call.
Athe heart of each conversation are the 22 cards of
the tarot deck; each of the cards is assigned an
arbitrary number. A "psychic" puts a caller at ease, as
much as possible, then asks for seven numbers
between zero and 21, each one corresponding to a
In the packet of information, one page described the
cards and their possible meanings. Those meanings
are generic, monumentally unspecific, and usually
hopeful. For example, the number 3 card is "The
Empress" and carries the following explanation: "A
young fertile female. Can also represent material gifts.
Maybe a mother having a baby or fertility in your
financial situation. Gifts and money in progress. A good
money card, or a female influence." A lot of ground
covered here, a wealth of possibilities.
Money and sex are two fairly consistent threads
throughout the interpretations of the deck, with a
sub-theme of addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex, tobacco)
providing a negative area of discussion. But
most--about 80 percent--of the cards are optimistic;
wealth and happiness are the most common upshot.
Typically, each description ends with a leading
question, something designed to elicit callers to speak
about themselves, and card No. 3 is no different: "Do
you know which one (female or money) it is?" Hey, you
may be psychic, but a few clues don't hurt. If the caller
responds, you can usually tie in the remaining cards to
the situation he or she discloses. The whole
conversation then seems coherent, meaningful...and
you are rendered clairvoyant.
The goal here is to keep the caller on the line for an
average of 19 minutes. This isn't particularly easy
because the first three minutes are free, so many
callers hope to get a lot of information without paying.
There are a fair number of hang-up clicks as the first
three minutes draw to a close. That brings down the
average length of your calls. To counter the
three-minute giveaway, I was told to ask each caller
for his or her name, address, and e-mail address, so
that "we can send you a free, personalized tarot card
in the mail." I assume some advertising must go along
with that gift. I was also required to give out the
company's 900 number, together with my personal
five-digit ID number, so that the customer could call
back "in case we get disconnected." All of that, of
course, takes up most of the free three minutes.
Most of my training meeting was supposed to be
devoted to figuring the average length of calls. My
trainer had found that most of the psychics had trouble
with this concept--after all, we aren't supposed to be
numbers people. The training session was scheduled
to take an hour--we also had to fill out forms and
discuss the calls themselves--but mine took less
because I caught on quickly to the average-call-length
concept. After all, I support the scientific method.
In a typical call, my trainer told me to consult my watch
after I had discussed the first set of seven cards. If we
had already spent 10 minutes on the line, I could take
another list of seven numbers to predict the future. If I
was going too fast, I had to draw out the call by
interjecting seven numbers as a commentary on the
I asked her what was the best time to be on the
phone. She said, "Between midnight and 5 a.m.,
because that's when people are the loneliest." I was
told to end each call on a positive note, to remind
people that "life is what you make of it," that "attitude
is everything," or some other bromide. If it seemed
appropriate, I could recommend that taking a walk or
helping clean up the neighborhood was a way of
taking action to get out of depression. In other words,
I was there to suggest simple, basic things, providing a
listening ear for people who didn't have one. To that
end, I was given three pages of possible
summaries--the description of the entire tarot deck
took only one page--that would send people out on an
"Remember," I was told, "they're just looking for
something to hang on to, some little bit of hope. If you
give that to them, they can turn their lives around.
Attitude changes everything. Change their attitudes,
and you've changed their lives."
To her credit, my recruiter-trainer appeared sincere
about this, positioning the job as a kind of low-rent
psychological service, a kind of fast-food alternative to
the analyst community. (We did, after all, inaugurate
this at a suburban mall food court.) We offered a
positive spin on people's lives, bucking them up a little
when they needed it. We were people who could be
called upon at any hour to serve up a small dollop of
Most of my calls--I didn't take that many; I don't like
pretending that I am something I'm not--went pretty
much as expected. The callers seemed satisfied with
the vague promises of good fortune that I gave them.
One of the cards always drew a response: the
Strength card. It implied a determined individual,
perhaps with a bit of stubbornness. Every time it came
up, the callers identified with the stubbornness. I was
always careful to emphasize the relationship between
determination and stubbornness, so that it would
seem like a largely positive trait unless taken to
For the most part, people were fairly reluctant to
volunteer information unless a card related directly to
their lives. Occasionally, callers would interrupt my
banalities with a specific, very pointed question:
Should I play the lottery today? Am I pregnant? Is my
boyfriend cheating on me? Is my girlfriend's baby mine?
These always brought me up short, reminding me that
people took this foolishness seriously. For the most
part, I didn't answer those questions, saying that the
cards didn't seem to be addressing the question, or
that, frankly, I just couldn't tell. Where Miss Cleo
sounded authoritative, I was evasive.
For this nonsense, the caller paid a whopping $4.99 a
minute. So a call of 19 minutes (minus three free ones)
costs a substantial $80. I was told to remind callers at
the end of the conversation, "This call is for
entertainment purposes only," but how could I remind
someone I'd just talked to for one-third of an hour that
they'd been had, and good?
Moreover (how should I put this? I am dangerously
close to falling off the precipice of political correctness),
the grammar, questions, and concerns--in short, the
overall mien--of the callers didn't create the picture of
mental giants figuring out their future fortunes. By and
large, they seemed to be mostly working-class people,
the usual victims of highly promoted scams. This didn't
help my growing sense of guilt over providing nothing
for a very large sum of money.
One caller told me that she had received several calls
and e-mails, all telling her that "Miss Cleo really wants
to speak with you" or "Miss Cleo has a message for
you." But when she called, she never spoke to Miss
Cleo, only the maestro's minions, people like me.
During the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat offered
the timeless advice that if we want to know the truth,
we should "follow the money." But in this case, the trail
doesn't lead to any smoking guns or ultimate truths,
only more layers of bureaucracy.
Starting at the bottom of the chain, psychics, when
they are ready to take calls, dial an 800 number, give
their ID number and password, and then press the "1"
key to log on. This tells the computer that they are
available, and they will receive calls. Sometimes, in the
evenings and nights, the calls come frequently. Other
times, notably during the day, I could go a couple of
hours without getting anything. You are paid only for
the time you spend actually talking, not for the time
you are logged on to the central computer.
The next level up is my boss--the recruiter. She was
getting a $3 per hour override on the time I spent
talking. Both of us were employed by a company called
Wekare Corporation. At first, the name seemed
ironically funny. But when I got my first check, I found
that they had deducted $5 just for issuing the check.
At that point, I realized that they do
Wekare is just one of many businesses that take calls
for Miss Cleo. When a call comes into the central 800
number, it is transferred to the 900-number system (so
that charges accrue per minute). Then the central
computer searches through the list of psychics logged
on to the system. The call is given to the one who has
the longest average call record. These people may not
be psychic, but they aren't dumb either.
Interestingly, in that opening packet of papers, I
signed a non-compete agreement, promising not to
establish a business on the same level as Wekare. But
after 12 months as a journeyman psychic, I could
advance to become a trainer, much like my contact,
and hire people to do the work and earn a $3 per hour
Where is Miss Cleo in all of this? Several bureaucratic
layers away from me and even from my contact.
Frankly, I wasn't able to figure out if she was an
actress employed by the organization or if she is
involved in the upper reaches of the business in some
more substantive way. If she takes calls, she doesn't
My most interesting conversation was the very first call
I took. The woman started off in a hurry, anxious about
the three-minute limit. But once I started with the
programmed routine, she began to talk freely about
her situation: a boyfriend who had threatened to kill
her because she was (he thought) unfaithful to him.
But he was, in her description, plainly fooling around
himself, although my client wouldn't admit it. Nor would
she hear of going to a women's shelter or any other of
my reasonable, middle-class blandishments. Then she
moved on to wanting to kill one of her former
co-workers for some fairly insignificant offense.
My efforts to calm her down, to encourage her to take
some reasonable course of action, to remind her that
hurting others would ultimately harm her worse, met
with a wall--probably drug-induced--of opposition. It
became clear, as we went along, that she was
blustering. She might feel anger toward her boyfriend,
but she mostly needed to blow off steam. Like a
gangsta rapper, she had to threaten to be heard, but
the words were symbols, not to be taken literally. That
call was much more interesting than any of the others.
After 53 minutes ($250), I cut her off. I wasn't getting
anywhere, and I felt guilty about the money she was
spending. The tarot cards had long since been
forgotten. It was the easiest conversation in the world
to keep going. Because she was so full of anger, I had
to interrupt to say anything at all.
Did I perform a service? Probably, though I kept
thinking how her $250 could have bought her more
time with a professional, someone who could really
help her. But that conversation couldn't have
happened right then. Not in the middle of the night,
and not right at the very second when she needed to
talk. So I had given her something. But it wasn't much.
And it certainly wasn't the very convincing, very
compelling, very authoritative Miss Cleo.
My whole life, I've never liked being where I wasn't
invited. Once, when I was a kid, my sister and I
sneaked into the next-door neighbor's basement--we
didn't have anything to do, and they had the neatest
toys around. I remember saying something like,
"Nobody will mind; we do it all the time." But soon
enough Mrs. Kimball called downstairs in her chilling
voice, "Who's down there?" It cast a pall, even though
she didn't boot us out. We left as soon as we could
without admitting our shame.
That one incident pretty much sums up every
experience I ever had working as a salesman or
telemarketer, jobs I held before I hooked up with Miss
Cleo. I was always inserting myself--usually through
the telephone--into places I wasn't invited or wanted.
And that's how I felt as a psychic. True, the clients had
called me, but they thought they were calling someone
else. And they suspected as much--I'd often hear a
click on the other end of the line while I was in
mid-sentence. They were being taken, most of the
money got squeezed out in the middle, and I was,
once again, doing something I didn't feel particularly
good about. So I quit.