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In the late 90’s, before Craigslist blew up, I grabbed a copy of the Village Voice looking for a weekend job to supplement my 9-5 office gig.
Young, lazy and wanting quick, easy money, I flipped to the backpages, where questionable employment options were featured. I was too scared to be an escort or sexual surrogate…but a phone psychic? That sounded easy.
Was I psychic? No, but I was an amazing bullshit artist. I set up an interview.
A woman from Texas called me, and asked me questions about my “special abilities,”, amidst her screaming children in the background.
“Have you worked as a psychic before?” she asked. “Quiet, Britney! Sorry, the kids are home today.”
“Yes, I’ve worked parties and people love my readings!” I lied.
“Do you have tarot or Spirit Animal cards you read with?”
“Oh, just a basic deck of tarot cards.” I didn’t have any tarot cards, or know how to use them, and I had no idea what Spirit Animal cards were.
“Please give me a sample reading.”
“Let me grab my cards.” I reached for a paperback book, held it close to the phone and flipped through it to simulate the sound of cards shuffling. Gave the woman a reading, (with the paper’s astrology section in front of me). She liked what she heard, faxed me paperwork, and I was able to start the following week.
“You will be working for the Psychic Friends Network.” This was truly a thrill! Miss Cleo, a supposed Jamaican born soothsayer, was their spokesperson!
The highly annoying commercials were always a pleasure to watch, and now I was going to be one of Miss Cleo’s very own physic friends out of my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. This was going to be awesome!
“Most of your callers will ask for Miss Cleo. Say that she’s on a coffee break, or speaking with someone else and that you are her personal friend. Never tell them that she’s not really there.”
“The callers get the first 2 minutes free. They will ask you as much as possible. Please try to keep them on the phone for as long as you can. After that, it’s $3.99 a minute. The amount of calls you receive will depend on how long your minute per call average will be. The length of your readings alert the system of your average, then more calls will be routed to your landline.”
Out of the $3.99 a minute, I would be making a whopping 15 cents per minute, ONLY when I was on the phone with a client.
I wouldn’t be able to rely on this as my sole source of income or quit my day job, but this had potential to bring in a little extra cash.
From “clocking-in” via an 800 number, I’d call to start my shift. This would alert their call center to start routing eager customers my way. I was told I could be on their radar for a number of hours before I’d get a call, but I was allowed to work any time day or night.
I had complete confidence that I’d quickly become one of Miss Cleo’s finest psychic friends.
My first night, I sat in front of my phone anxiously waiting for a caller. I chose the stereotypical fortune teller name “Serena” (we were NOT allowed to pose as Miss Cleo). After about 45 minutes, the phone rang!
“I only have 2 minutes to talk,” the woman said frantically. “I need to know if my boyfriend will be granted parole next month.”
“Let me consult my cards,” I lied. “What’s he in prison for?”
“Assault and robbery.”
“I sense that now is not the time for him to be freed.”
The woman hung up at exactly 2 minutes. (30 cents!) 45 minutes passed before I had another call.
“What do you desire and I can lead you in the right direction?” I asked the female caller.
“I just want to find true love! I need to find out if my boyfriend is cheating on me.”
“I sense that he is in contact with females often.” (Really now…what person isn’t in touch with a member of the opposite sex on a daily basis?)
“Yes, he’s a DJ at a strip club and there’s been a red car parked in front of his house for the past few nights. It belongs to a girl he works with.”
“He is cheating on you. I am sorry to say this my darling. The signs are very clear. You need to confront him, or walk away. He is not a trustworthy man.” She cried, thanked me and hung up. (75 cents!)
Five minutes later: “Is this Miss Cleo?”
“No she’s on a break right now, but I’m a good friend of hers. I can help you.”
Click. (15 cents!)
After another hour of waiting, I got bored and “clocked out.”
In 2 ½ hours, $1.20.
I tried to remain positive despite my first night. I cut myself some slack. I wasn’t REALLY psychic, but I was doing my best. I couldn’t give a thorough reading in the first 2 free minutes. I’d simply have to try harder to get callers to stay on the line.
This would include me taking long pauses, shuffling my “tarot cards” and consulting my “spirit guides” (horoscope from paper or magazine).
98% of the callers were women: frantic, and desperate. The easiest to keep on the phone were ones who’d call crying. They'd flat-out offer up information about their lives, like many of us do when talking to psychics, real or fake. We often say too much and hand the fortune teller a full plate of information without even realizing it.
I was telling the girl with the strip club DJ boyfriend that he was cheating on her, because she wouldn’t believe what she saw with her own eyes unless a “professional” told her so.
A woman who called complaining about being overweight, laughed when I told her I “knew” that she had eaten poorly that day and that a change in her diet was necessary if she wanted to lose weight. ($1.50)
The male college student wanted to know why the girl he liked stopped calling. I said she had moved on and lost interest.
“Don’t worry. You’re better than her. You’ll meet someone else in the next 3 to 6 months.” (A record breaking $3.00 for that gem of information!)
I wasn’t psychic, but I was doling out a dose of reality and tough love that none of their friends were willing to give. I had nothing to lose from what I said. In fact, I had 15 cents a minute to gain.
Then the lady from Florida called.
“Hi, umm yes.” This woman sounded completely sane, normal and nothing like the others I received calls from. “I need to know if my husband is dead or alive. He’s been missing for a few months now. The police haven’t been much help.”
My stomach dropped. I didn’t expect this kind of call.
“I sense that wherever your husband is, he is in a good place. He loves you very much even though he is not able to physically be with you.”
“Yes…but is he dead or alive?”
“I don’t know.” I said, wanting to hang up, but knowing I couldn’t because it was against Miss Cleo’s rules. “I cannot see that, but I know that he’s in a good safe place.”
“I thought you were supposed to be psychic? Every time I call one of these numbers, I can never get a straight answer. My daughter has called, so have I. No one can tell us if he’s dead or alive.”
“I think that you have been under a tremendous amount of stress dealing with this. I think you owe it to yourself to take some time for yourself. Go to a spa, enjoy a massage and a pedicure. Take care of you. You deserve that.”
“I just want to know if he’s dead or alive?”
She politely hung up. ($3.00) I officially put my crystal ball away, feeling horrible.
The next week, I received my first and last paycheck. It was somewhere around $28.00, for a collective 3 hours of my mystical advice. Miss Cleo’s profit from my time and efforts? In the ballpark of $700.
Being a phone psychic wasn’t fun or easy. At first it was entertaining, but when it involved other’s emotions and life or death, I didn’t feel right. Being one of Miss Cleo’s psychic friends had lost it’s appeal.
So I moved on and searched for another “easy money” job, that paid more than 15 cents a minute. Maybe a phone sex operator? Getting someone off by talking couldn't possibly feel as dirty as getting something over on someone as a phone psychic.