'Miss Cleo,' TV psychic network pitchwoman, dies at 53

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  • Miss Cleo was born Youree Dell Harris
  • She died of cancer on Tuesday at age 53

(CNN)Youree Dell Harris, better known as "Miss Cleo" the pitchwoman for the Psychic Readers Network, died Tuesday of cancer, according to an attorney for her family.

Harris, 53, was surrounded by family and close friends when she died in Palm Beach, Florida, said attorney William J. Cone.
"She remained a pillar of strength throughout. She has touched so many lives, both within her family and in the community," Cone said in a statement. "She will be dearly missed by us all."
Harris became the face of the famous TV infomercials in the late 1990s. With her enthusiastic "Call me now!" catch phrase, Jamaican accent and head wraps, Harris was promoted as the psychic "Miss Cleo" who could read tarot cards and predict the future.
"She's become a household name simply by the sheer force of her psychic gifts, which she's honed since she was a little girl in the Caribbean," the company's site advertised at the time. "Born in the Trelawny section of Jamaica, Miss Cleo says she noticed at a very young age that she had unique talents."
Harris was actually born in Los Angeles, a fact that came to light after the Federal Trade Commission went after Access Resource Services, or ARS, the company behind the hotline.
The agency accused ARS and the Psychic Readers Network of making more than $1 billion while committing multiple consumer violations, including false advertising and overly aggressive collection efforts. Harris was not named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit.
In 2002 the companies agreed to pay a $5 million fine and forgive $500 million in customer charges to settle the matter. The companies didn't admit any illegalities.
Despite the money which rolled in, Harris told Vice in a 2014 interview that for her first 30-minute infomercial she only made "$1,750 for the 2½ days on set."
Born on August 13, 1962, Harris said she was raised by strict Caribbean parents who sent her to a high-end boarding school.
She told Vice that she was gifted in the supernatural, having come from a "family of Obeah -- which is another word for voodoo."
"My teacher was Haitian, [a mambo] born in Port-au-Prince, and I studied under her for some 30 years and then became a mambo myself," she told Vice. "So they refer to me as psychic -- because the word voodoo scares just about everybody."
Harris portrayed "Miss Cleo" from 1997 to 2002. In 1999 Court TV (now known as truTV) conducted an investigation of the psychic hotline that offered "free" readings to callers. They found that not only were callers charged, but also that some of the "psychics" were really actors.
According to a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story, Harris was found to have been a playwright known as Ree Perris. As Perris, she had appeared as a Jamaican character named Cleo in a play she wrote titled "For Women Only."
"Along with 'For Women Only,' Perris produced and performed two other plays in Seattle with the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in 1997," the article said. "But then Miss Cleo -- or Ree Perris, Youree Cleomili, Youree Dell Harris, Youree Perris, Rae Dell Harris, Cleomili Perris Youree, Cleomili Harris, or whatever she has called herself -- left town with a trail of debts and broken promises."
Harris -- whose extension was 16153 when she worked for the psychic call center -- told Vice she struggled with both being portrayed as a con artist and false stories that she had been jailed for being Miss Cleo.
"It's taken 10 years for me to move through all of that, because in the Jamaican culture -- especially with the way my father was -- all you have is your word," she said. "So it hurts for people to go around and be able to tell a lie to the point where it becomes fact on a [computer] box. So I struggle with it."
She eventually started her own hotline where she took calls for a fee.
In 2006 she came out as a lesbian in an interview with The Advocate. Inspired by her gay 16-year-old godson, Harris said she worried about sharing her sexuality.
"The reason it's scary is because in my personal experience, black cultures throughout the world have a more difficult time accepting homosexuality in their family," said Harris, who at the age of 19 gave birth to a daughter before she and her husband divorced when she was 21. "I have family members who will be shocked; they don't know."
In the years since, Harris became a grandmother and popped up occasionally in the media.
She appeared in the 2014 documentary "Hotline" about connections strangers can make over the phone. "I don't know who I helped, but I'm certain I helped some people," Harris said in the trailer for the documentary.