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Interview: Director Tony Shaff and Miss Cleo discuss Hotline

Currently touring world film festivals, Tony Shaff’s documentary Hotline tells the story of multiple telephone hotline operators. Among the films subjects are phone sex operators, suicide hotline operators, and Miss Cleo a self-declared “voodoo priestess” working as an operator on a psychic hotline. Cleo became famous in the late ‘90s after appearing in a series of infomercials demanding viewers to “Call me now, for your free reading!” After the company she was working for was sued, Cleo disappeared from the public eye. When Hotline premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, we sat down with director Tony Shaff and Miss Cleo to discuss both the film and Cleo’s life as a psychic.

Scene Creek: The film does a great job of showing the many different types of hotlines. With such vast scope, what was the main thing you were trying to capture in the film?

Tony Shaff: Well I started off working as a telephone psychic, many years later I moved to New York and volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline. I found a lot of the similar types of conversations on those two lines: people who were lonely and isolated and just really needed someone to connect with. So going into the film I wanted to find these hotlines and find the universality between them. We’re all sort of sharing a common experience as the people who call or work on telephone hotlines. So going in I was really curious what it was that someone was getting out of being a worker for, say the homework hotline and how was that the same as working for an LGBT hotline. Also, I’m realizing as we move further and further in the digital age, we’re becoming very connected, but we’re not connecting the way that we used to with talking on the telephone. That voice-to-voice conversation is so important and so vital in the way in which we’re connected as humans. I think maybe my answer to that was longer than the film itself.

SC: So when working for the Psychic hotline, you were a psychic?

TS: I was. I was actually taking calls for the hotline that Miss Cleo was on the television working for. I was working out of my barely furnished apartment in Los Angeles and taking calls into my home phone. I was reading tarot cards, but I personally never claimed to be psychic or anything like Miss Cleo is. There were many times where I was getting calls saying, “Where’s Cleo? I want to talk to Cleo!” and I will say that there were times where they asked so many times, and did not want to talk to me, that I would just say, “Hold on for one moment, I’ll go get her.” I would just put the phone down and wait until they hung up.

SC: You never wanted to try out your own Miss Cleo? Your own “Call me now!”?

TS: I do not have the accent.

SC: Speaking of that accent, you were born in Los Angeles, is that correct Miss Cleo?

Miss Cleo: I was born in Jamaica.

SC: Oh, it said on the Internet that you were born in the United States.

MC: The Internet has one story and they’ve run it in a thousand pages. I have done so many more things, but they don’t care. People don’t necessarily want truth, they want that fifteen-second sound-bite and then they run with it.

SC: Well that’s one of the great things about the film. It finally lets people hear your side of the story after so many years. All people really knew about you was the infomercials and those Miss Cleo products.

MC: Now understand, I didn’t own the company, so those were all things that were done probably with my objection. There were t-shirts at one point in time, they wanted to put my face on calling cards, they wanted to put my face everywhere. It was very uncomfortable for me, I’m a creative, I’m not a good public person, I’m not a good famous person. When [Tony] approached me, I loved the idea. There have been plenty of Indie filmmakers who said they wanted to tell my story. I said I didn’t know if I wanted anyone to tell my story, maybe I’ll tell my story. But Tony’s idea was more about connecting with people. There’s a sex hotline operator in the film, and she says that people have told her that her voice is soothing. I’ve heard the same thing. People have said, “Oh Miss Cleo said it’s gonna be okay, so it’s gonna be okay.” I had a client the night before I flew into Toronto and she was crying on the line and she had a lot of stuff on her plate. She said, “Oh I feel so much better”, and when I get back into town I’m going to check on her, and she’s in Virginia. So it doesn’t matter the miles, it matters the heart. I think that that’s what Tony shows with each and every individual that he selected in the film. I just watched the film myself yesterday and I started to cry in a couple of different places; because I got it, I’ve lived it.

SC: So for both of you, and the many people in the film, it really came down to that human connection. People are still making money though, I mean, it is a business. Where do you find the balance there?

TS: Well it’s difficult. For me, I was trying to fix my car. I knew that I needed to get my car fixed. There was still this sort of yearning and need to talk to people and awaken something in me.  Even though there might be a lot of business people, they would never continue to do the job if they didn’t have that inner desire to talk to people. You couldn’t be a great phone sex operator or a great telephone psychic if you didn’t have that motivation in yourself, not to just make money, because everyone has to make money in there life. They need to also fulfill something in their selves. That’s just my personal opinion. You could be a really bad phone sex operator and you would just never make any money. If people don’t feel that connection, you can’t fake it.

MC: That’s true.

TS: Did you find that experience with yourself Cleo?

MC: Absolutely. When you speak to the business end of it, for me, I’ve been in practice for more than twenty years. I was doing what I do long before Psychic Friends Network and I still do it now, ten years later. I’m not a psychic, I’m a voodoo priestess, I want you to get it accurate. They didn’t want to put that on television fourteen years ago because they thought it would frighten people. Voodoo is what I do, and it doesn’t frighten me. I always thought it was funny, because if I was out and about in the world when I was on television and somebody stopped me, and you’d be surprised, and stuck their hand in my face to say, “Read my palm!” Well I don’t read palms, “Then tell me something Miss Cleo!”, and I would. Right there, right then, and then I’d keep on moving. I can’t tell you how much I’ve done for free, you hear me, and the business end of it, the people that owned the company, they made a great ton. Me? I made .00001%, but it’s all good, because it’s not about business for me, in Jamaica we say, “Money no frighten me.” My job and my spirits take care of whatever I need from top to bottom. So money is fine for people, I don’t have no time for money. People come up to me and say, “Miss Cleo, you could be doing this, you could be doing that.” Okay, I no sell my soul for money honey. I’ve turned down five things, including Oprah, in the last month in a half, cause they’re looking for ratings. I got into bad contracts fourteen years ago, since then, I don’t play with a contract. I turn down things continually. So I hear you when you talk about the business end, but I say to that is that people go to therapists and psychiatrists who charge them $200 and at the forty-five minute point say, “I’m sorry our time is up.” Nobody even blinks at them, not one blink. Phone sex operator? She has value, so why do we blink and judge that? We are frightened of things we do not understand in this context. I can’t be bothered. I ain’t frightened of too much of anything except for the press. Whoa, we’re still talking. You’re gonna be an editing mother f**ker when we’re done with this.

SC: As a “voodoo priestess” do you still read tarot cards?

MC: I read many tools, tarot is just one of them. I read runestones, I read chicken bones, I even read tea leaves on an occasion.

SC: So you’re still working and giving your number out?

MC: Here’s the deal, in my private practice I am referral only. I have no need to advertise. But there are people where I’ll say “Honey, I’m sorry, take your money and leave.”

SC: Why is that?

MC: Their spirits don’t connect, they’re not ready to hear, or they want to test me. I get aggravated, I’ll be honest with you. I had a client one time who sought me out. She went to the coffee house I frequent and kept asking the owner when I was coming in. So we met at the coffee house and she sat down and went, “Well I went on the internet and I read all of this horrible stuff about you. Can you tell me something first before I give you my money?” I said, “No, why don’t you get your ass up and get the hell out the door! I didn’t call you, you called me. I didn’t chase you down, I didn’t entice you.” Then, when I get like that I said, “Fine, I’ll tell you something. But I still don’t want you money, so after you leave me alone.” Everything I said to her was spot-on. So I told her she could go, but she said, “Oh no no no no!” I told her I should charge her more just for aggravating me. She’s been a client now for five years. She came to me after the first couple of visits and was going to have a mammogram. After reading the cards I said, “However the test comes back, you get a second opinion, because it’s not going to be accurate.” First test came back clear. Most women would have taken that and ran out the door. She went and had a second opinion and they found the cancer. For me, that’s huge. I’ve had people who have crossed over when they didn’t listen to me when I talked to them about their health. So this task, sometimes it’s a blessing, and sometimes it’s a burden. Ya understand? I know when people are going to die that are close to me. That doesn’t feel comfortable. Can you imagine? I know when I walk into a room who is genuine and who is not. It doesn’t always feel good to have that much information. Subsequently what I do is immerse myself in my friends and family. I stay there because it’s safe and they love me, and my client base loves me as well. This is huge for me, I’m very vulnerable.

SC: But at the end of the day, don’t you think there are people who call themselves psychics who are not being honest?

MC: I don’t know that there’s a lot, I’m certain that there are people that out there that are. We hear about it in the news and it’s unfortunate because there are plenty of us out there that are heart, so it makes all of us look bad. There are a lot of people out there that feel that way about me, because they do not know the truth. There are some people who still think I’m in jail. What did I do? I’ve never been inside a jailhouse a day in my life, my dear. When I understood what heart was, it must’ve taken me seven years after the madness, I said, “Okay, I’m good.” Like the quote used in the film, I don’t know how many people I’ve helped on that phone line, but I’m sure I helped someone.

While you can’t call Cleo yourself, you can visit her site conversationswithcleo.com to learn about her book, CDs and even her very own jerk rub. I was lucky enough to get a reading from Cleo during the interview, and I can gladly promise she is absolutely the real deal.

Hotline will have its US premier May 31st at the Brooklyn Film Festival.

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.