Miss Cleo on The Jenny Jones Show (Screenshot: YouTube)

Miss Cleo, the Jamaican-accented, self-styled psychic whose ads dominated the TV airwaves in the late 1990s and early 2000s, might have been a woman of extraordinary talents, but she was only one person. There was no way she could answer all those phone calls from lonely customers seeking advice about romance, money, and careers. Besides, she was busy doing infomercials and appearing on daytime talk shows. It took an army of fraudulent mystics to keep the Psychic Readers Network going during its heyday.

For a while in 2001, one of those fake psychics was novelist Bennett Madison, then in the process of flunking his way through Sarah Lawrence and desperately in need of quick cash. Madison writes with a mixture of nostalgia and melancholy about his days as one of Miss Cleo’s soldiers in a confessional New York Times piece called “I Was A Hotline Psychic For Miss Cleo.”

Bennett readily admits he has no psychic powers, so what qualifications landed him the job? Simply put, he saw an ad for “phone actors,” applied, and got the job instantly. The company provided him with “a minimal script and a computer program that simulated a tarot card spread,” but Bennett opted to improvise instead, even inventing characters like a Southern belle named Cassandra. The best part of the job was that Bennett could work from home instead of from some depressing phone bank. The calls were depressing enough. The people who sought the wisdom of Miss Cleo were often legitimately in crisis and in need of some kind of guidance that Bennett clearly could not provide. Still in all, the college student could fake his way through the calls with a certain degree of skill. “I was pleased with myself,” he remembers.

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But problems arose. It was difficult, for instance, to get any sort of payment from the Psychic Readers Network, and Bennett felt that his advice might have unwanted consequences if people actually followed it. He gave up on his phone psychic career. Fifteen years later, he harbors no bitterness against the late Miss Cleo, in reality an American-born ex-playwright named Youree Dell Harris. “I knew better than anyone else that Miss Cleo was a fake,” he writes, “but I always kind of believed in her anyway.”