Famed phone psychic Ms. Cleo is among the many subjects of Tony Shaff’s new documentary “Hotline,” which just had its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto this week. The film is a thoughtful and eye-opening look at the extensive world of phone hotlines — from sex to suicide prevention to Ms. Cleo herself — that expresses the importance of human-to-human interaction.
Cleo gives the film some considerably heartfelt energy as she talks about what being a phone psychic meant to her, and how hurt she was when many people pointed fingers at her when the company she worked for — the Psychic Readers Network (a company she was often at odds with) — was sued for deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices. Her name was cleared legally, but she never felt like people came around to believe that she was innocent (though if they see “Hotline,” it would become hard to believe otherwise).
She was just as heartfelt — and incredibly charming — in person, when she sat down with me at Hot Docs to talk about her big screen debut.
“What I want people to take away from the film is that I’m hoping that we don’t forget how to do this,” she said, pointing back and forth between us. “That we get so comfortable with all this (points to my iPhone) that we forget. Because evolution is constant. I mean, certain banking institutions in America charge you to talk to a live person. You understand me? What is that? I have to pay $5 to talk to a teller!? Where are we going with all that. And if we don’t stay connected now, I got to tell you — I’m not idealistic about tomorrow. I worry about the children. And I worry about our ability to convey what we are feeling effectively. It’s becoming a lost art.”
When Tony Staff reached out to Cleo about participating in the film, she admits she was apprehensive.
“Tony reached out and told me that they were going to do a documentary about hotlines,” Cleo said. “‘And we can’t do it without including you, Ms. Cleo.’ But I don’t do many interviews. I haven’t done any video interviews since the end of 2002. But Tony had a very special connection. He knew one of my godchildren. He didn’t know that he did… But I found out, and that’s how the universe works.”
Cleo was clearly quite happy with the end result.
“What I loved watching was — and what most poignant for me — was the connection I made with other people that were featured in the film,” she said. “It really touched me. I’m tickled. I think it’s brilliant, and as far as I’m concerned it’s in the cards. It’s going to do well and go far… And it’ll be lovely.”
“I’m as gay as a two dollar bill, same as you,” she said to me. “And I mean no disrespect, because I’m gay. And for a long time… Long before you were even born, in fact. And in the black community and the Jamaican community, that’s not easy. Not at all. As a matter of fact, when I came out publicly in 2006, I lost a large portion of my family. It’s so difficult. I’m grateful for all you younger folks where it’s not that way anymore. But I’m a mom. I have grown children. I’m not sure how old you are but I’m pretty sure at least two of them are older than you. And it was tough worrying that someone would take your children because of who you are.”
Cleo said that was another bonus to working with openly gay filmmaker Shaff.
“I didn’t know it until he got to the house,” she said. “But once I realized he was family it was like ‘okay, I’m good to go.’ There is a similarity in what we have to deal with. No matter what. Even though it’s 2014, not every person you run into is going to embrace you. But at some point in time you have to stand for something or you fall for it. So by the time the media had thrown me out there to whatever devices, I thought, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take back my power. I’m not going to let them out me, I’m going to out myself. And I did it with The Advocate, and they did a very good job. I don’t know if people ever read it. We were laughing about it earlier, I think only about 30% of people who know of me know that I’m gay. They’re clueless! I don’t hide… I’ve been gay since I was about 16. I went to an all girls boarding school and loved my mother for it. She would die if she heard that but she’s already dead so it doesn’t matter.”
Get more of Ms. Cleo in “Hotline,” which screens at Hot Docs two more times and then is surely off to become a fixture on doc and LGBT film festival circuits.