IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was a Telephone Psychic For Miss Cleo

Basically the whole point was two things: keeping people on the phone as long as possible, and giving people confidence -- in other words telling people what they wanted to hear, even if we had to make it up.

May 7, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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The new documentary "Hotline," a look at the world of phone hotlines featuring Miss Cleo just premiered this week. In honor of that, we're rerunning Rebecca Barthel's classic IHTM about working as a telephone psychic.

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I’ve had many many many jobs over the years: working at a makeup counter in large department store, as an absolutely horrible waitress, selling kitchen knives, delivering newspapers via my car in the middle of the night, teaching English to foreigners in a 3rd world country. But no job could compare to being a telephone psychic. Even to this day when someone asks if the rumor is true, I nod, not sure if I should be proud, embarrassed or just chalk it up to be young and broke.

I was in college, 19 years old, and needed money. I did not want to fold shirts at the Gap like my other college companions (I spent a few years doing that already in high school) or make frappuccinos at Starbucks. I wanted easy money without having to take my clothes off. I was in college now, it was time to leave those old crappy jobs behind me. No more being belittled into tears for putting the wrong cheese on a sandwich. I wanted more pay for less work. I was also extremely naïve.

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Then my college friend Tina came into my dorm room one day with the independent free local paper in hand. Without saying a word, she pointed at an ad already circled in blue pen.

Are You Psychic? Wanted: Telephone Psychics to work from home. Up to $12 per hour. Set your own schedule.

The only thing I saw was "up to $12 dollars an hour."

“Let’s do this, Tina,” I said. No hesitation whatsoever.

The next day we three-way called the 1-800 number listed on the ad. We spoke with a knowledgeable woman named Missy who didn’t even give us an interview. I thought for sure that she would at least want to know what my prior jobs were and that I was a detailed orientated team player. Nope. She explained how much money we could make, the legality of it (no one under the age 18 was allowed to call, but they could use the old college frat boy excuse, “She told me she was 18, man!” and then there was nothing we could do).

Basically, Missy said, as if she had given this speech 10 times already today, the whole point was two things: keeping people on the phone as long as possible (the more calls would come through, also the more money I would earn) and giving people confidence -- in other words telling people what they wanted to hear, even if we had to make it up. Great, I worked in sales before, I could totally do that.

Missy was not finished. “Oh yeah," she added nonchalantly, “if anyone asks to speak with Miss Cleo, tell them she is on vacation in South Florida.” Miss Cleo??? The Miss Cleo?? The Jamaican Miss Cleo on the commercials who bellowed out "Call me now!" That Miss Cleo? “That’s what the psychic readers network is,” Missy said once again, as if this was no big deal.

Luckily, a kid in our dorm had a fax machine so Missy faxed us over an application, telling us to put that we had psychic abilities in under job qualifications. She also faxed us 2 scripts to use.

My morals were long gone at that point. But I had no idea how quickly after starting this job they would return in full force.

Our first day at work, we logged into the system with our landline phones. (This was before cell phones basically replaced the landline.) The calls would keep coming through one after the other if we could maintain a 20 minute average. Believe you me, talking to people about their future for 20 minutes ain’t as easy as you think. If you could not maintain that average, the length between calls would become longer and longer, until the point where it would become days.

We were instructed on different techniques of keeping people on the phone. When a person just asks one question, we were supposed to tell them we needed to feel their vibe to get their energy before we could answer any questions. The scripts were very general. You will come across money, love is in the future, someone at work is jealous of you, someone at work likes you -- yaddayaddayadda. We also had the tarot script, which was the same bunch of general information.

I expected this new job to be slack. Read the script, tell them what they want to hear, bada bing, bada boom.

Most people would just ask one question and hang up. “Is my wife cheatin’ on me?” a man growled into the phone.

“Ummm.” I fumbled through my scripts as to what to say next. “Let me see here. I need to get a better vibe --”

The man on the other line scared me and repeated his question, this time 10 times louder. “I said, is my wife cheatin’ on me!”

I just wanted him off the phone, now he was messing up MY vibe. My heart started to patter -- what if I said yes, and she actually wasn’t, which led to my imagining a story about his wife’s murder called “Deadly Psychic Answers” on Dateline? What if I said no, and right at this moment she was engaged in some sort of sexual deviance with his twin brother Reggie? I decided on the "no" part.

“Cool,” he replied, and then click.

The next few hours dragged by. My voice was starting to hurt, and most of the people were females who seemed to be in terrible financial situations. I felt like saying “Well, duh, you’re spending $3.99 per minute on this call, of course your ass is going to be filing for bankruptcy.” Again I told them the things they wanted to hear: love, money, and good luck in the future.

“You’re soooooo right, oh my gawd, oh my gawd, you’re so right!!! Jesus Christ, oh my gawd,” one woman would not stop saying in her nasally New York accent.

Then there were the skeptics. Everything I said was wrong. “Someone at work is very jealous of you, I just get this feeling.”

“I don’t work,” They would reply bluntly.

“Well someone is jealous of you, I want to say maybe someone in your family.”

“All my family is dead.”

“OK, maybe a friend or close acquaintance.”

“I don’t have any friends.”

On the second day of work, I was already getting tired of this. Some of these callers really believed what I was saying. I doubt anyone read the fine print that said it was for entertainment purposes only. Plus, I could not keep people on the phone long enough for the life of me. The calls were becoming less frequent. Maybe part of me wanted it that way. The fewer calls, the fewer lies I had to lie. I was starting to feel bad.

The next few calls made me feel like the scum of the earth. An Indian woman with a thick accent told me that she had just filed for bankruptcy and her husband had just left her for another woman. (You’d be surprised how much people would reveal to you.) She felt alone in this country. I began flipping through the script with my usual mambo jumbo when she interrupted me by asking if she was pregnant.

I stopped, twirled the cord with my index finger and took a deep breath. What the hell, I thought to myself. Silence. She repeated the question again. This was not covered in training. “To be honest, I cannot get a clear reading on this, something is blocking my reading.” She seemed disappointed, and asked me again. Why didn’t she just go to the doctor? “Ma’am I think you need to go to a doctor to check this out, as I still cannot get a clear reading.” She said she would wait for me to pick up on her vibe as she spoke in whispers. I repeated myself once more and ended the call.

The final straw came as I waited almost an hour and a half for my next call to come. When people are sad or in distress they want to look for answers of hope and guidance. They become almost desperate, even it means calling the psychic friends network.

The voice on the other end was young and small. She said she was 18 and recently lost her father. Though she didn’t have particular questions she seemed very sad, confused, and often started to ask a question and then quickly stopped herself. She was nervous but quickly loosened up.

This call had hit a chord with me as at her age my father had also passed away. She wanted to know if she was going to be okay, and if her father was watching over her. My heart became heavy and I felt terrible. Really? Why couldn’t she ask something else? My morals came back with a vengeance. She seemed so lonely and sad, that I told her the truth. I told her without revealing too much my experience and that over time things will get better. I told her that it’s okay to be sad and cry. It’s okay to want to lie in bed all day. And he is watching, sometimes you’ll have dreams about him. You may feel alone, but you’re not, that I promise you.

The call ended shortly after that. I logged off the Psychic readers network for the last time. I was done. I felt dirty and nasty, and thought about taking a nice long shower to wash away the disgust I felt. Tina walked into my room and announced she hadn’t received any calls in 3 hours, plus her roommate had complained she was tying up the phone line.

“I’m going back to The Gap, they offered me my job back.”

I nodded and told her I was done. Tina told me the Starbucks at the mall was looking was looking for someone and I should apply.

I received my only paycheck from Psychic Readers Network. Minus taxes and all that jazz, it came out to a little over $20.00 for a day and a half of work.

Just a few years later, Miss Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network were sued for fraud and deceptive advertising. But then again, people will always believe what they want to believe. I wanted to believe it was easy, fast money, the callers wanted to believe what I was saying were true. Sometimes the best way to learn things is the hard way.