Ms. Cleo And Me

I still remember the phone call that every actor wants to get, your agent letting you know your audition was a success and you got the job.  It was my first TV commercial and I was beyond excitement.   I had to immediately call my acting coach Ms. Panaro, since I had just completed her eight week TV commercial course in Miami Beach.   Surely I was the first student in my class to get a job.    “I’m happy for you Robért,” she said with her New York accent making it’s presence known, “but you know my religious background so I’m not exactly thrilled about the content.”  Yes, the content, how could I forget?    Indeed it was sort of shady but holy shit I was going to be on television!

The audition process for TV commercials is completely different from one to the next.  It usually involves being filmed, but not always, and sometimes the audition is actually a lot of fun and you get to make friends in the process.    Others can be pretty scary, where you’re dealing with a very angry casting director because someone didn’t show up somewhere or is late for something.   On this particular day, I found myself sitting on a metal folding chair in a small plain office that reminded me of a dry cleaners for some reason.   Opposite me was an older, handsome guy that resembled a mobster from the 1940’s, a look he was trying make use of in the head shot he shared with me.   He had commented on my photo earlier in the waiting room, telling me my eyes looked really nice, so I was pretty smitten.    I could barely see him now, with the bright studio light almost shining straight in my eyes.

Our casting director was sort of disheveled looking, but friendly enough.   He didn’t look like he belonged in Miami or in this decade for that matter, definitely more of a 70’s guy.    Turns out this would become a recurring theme in my experience.   He instructed my fellow actor and I to read the script, something that was incredibly awkward at first since it was written for a female character.    I had to read the lines out loud while a camera documented how nervous I was, stuttering at times and just feeling pretty stupid.   I had a little crush on my co-star and that definitely didn’t assist me in reciting lines about my boyfriend cheating, trying to make it sound like I wasn’t used to the concept.      After I was done the casting director laughed and said “alright you two homos, that’s a wrap” and I joined in with a nervous chuckle.     I was very much relieved the experience was over and was pretty positive nothing would come of this obviously miserable audition.

Geek With Muscles

the head-shot I used for agents and auditions

Well the phone call came and I was picked, they say it always happens that way.  You never get a part when you think you nailed an audition, only when you least expect it.    About a week later, I showed up to this huge office building in Broward, almost an hour North of where I lived at the time.    I was nervous but also pretty excited, they had already seen me at my worse and they still chose me, so I felt somewhat confident.   Filming wasn’t going to take place until a day later, we were just going to be introduced to the script and have a table reading of sorts.    A short elevator ride brought me to a very cool floor with lots of energy, brightly colored hallways and pictures of Bo Griffin taping the many psychic infomercials she had hosted.   I grew up listening to her on the radio, she was a DJ on Power 96, so the anticipation started to build.    “This is where the magic happens…” I thought to myself as I walked into a large conference room.

I quickly found a comfortable spot in the group of empty seats which gradually became filled with more and more people, most of which were young, beautiful, Latina girls with lots of makeup.    I quickly became very intrigued with one lady, slightly older and very business like.   She was telling me about her public access television show she taped on a regular basis and I was amazed at her ability to make her dreams happen, rather than waiting for them.    While we were talking, this rather tall, dark skinned woman, possibly from the Islands, came and sat next to me.   She looked almost gypsy like and carried with her about four decks of tarot cards in boxes, of which she proceeded to unpack and sort through.   It became apparent that she knew some of the girls at the table from prior commercials, as she began having conversations with them while she arranged the decks of tarot into separate piles.

I was beginning to drift off while waiting, it seemed to take a while as more and more actresses walked into the room.    One of the assistant directors made an appearance and several of the girls at the table instantly perked up and took on flirtatious postures.  Very much in unison they exclaimed “Hiiiiii Joooohhhnnnnn”,  as the words casting couch came into mind.    Then something in the conversation caught my attention.    Tall Tarot card lady, now with a very noticeable Caribbean accent, was talking about Scorpios and how they’re a power house of the Zodiac.      She began to make a statement, almost like warning all of us at the table…. “Scorpios are extremely loyal and will fight tooth and nail for you, but heaven forbid you cross one!   I would feel sorry for you!”   Being that I had just come out of an almost nine year relationship with a Scorpio, she couldn’t have been more spot on.   They were certainly everything she said and even more.   Suddenly, her head turned sharply opposite from facing the head of the table, where she was speaking to the others, and looked directly at me.    Her abruptness was almost startling as she said firmly “You know what I’m saying is true!”

My mouth dropped open.   I didn’t know her at the time, but Ms. Cleo had spoken.  I stood there frozen as if some psychic deer in the headlights thing just happened.  Holy shit this lady was for real.    She began going about her business once again, like the event never happened.  She didn’t even wait for me to respond, like she was simply passing some message on from the beyond and it was time to get back to work.   Just then, a production assistant walked in with a stack of scripts in hand.   She passed them out and explained to everyone that although these were written ahead of time, and we wouldn’t actually get a reading, we weren’t being dishonest since these represented actual stories from their actual psychics.  I was assigned one of the only two male characters in the script, coincidentally name Michael, although from Detroit, as we began the process of reading the lines aloud and familiarizing ourselves with the parts we’d be playing.

During the table reading Ms. Cleo was very busy.    She had no speaking parts at the time and would not be in front of the camera until almost a year later, but her job was an important one… making sure the script was accurate.  Using her four decks, Ms. Cleo rapidly duplicated the layout of the cards as the script dictated, and would offer suggestions or corrections if needed.    “The two of cups…” she began to explain, was for something or another but having a real psychic next to me didn’t seem to solve the internal struggle I was quietly enduring.    We were sort of lying, and the way the girls at the table were reading their lines, it was extremely obvious.   This cheesy sort of feeling began to creep in.   I finally got my turn to read and it was over before I knew it.   The main director had walked in minutes before, looking like a young Richard Belzer, and couldn’t care less about my performance.    What was it with the 70’s looks anyways? Was it coming back?  The cheese began to stink big time.

The next evening I was scheduled to show up at some office park with large warehouses attached.  I parked my car and walked into the building that I would later find out, was used to film straight porno films.   The inside looked pretty much like a regular office, a caterer was hard at work setting up dinner in the employee lounge while I walked towards a dimmed waiting area with lots of couches.    Offices had been converted into make-shift dressing rooms, and even a costume shop with lots of clothes hanging on racks inside.    Another door revealed the small warehouse area that was truly a fully functional sound stage with a really nice set.   It looked as though Jerry Springer could come in at any moment and make himself at home.   I was very impressed how a space about the size of a body shop, could be made into something capable of producing broadcast quality material.

Soon I was reunited with my cast mates from the day before, including some I almost didn’t recognize with makeup on.  This was pretty cool and the atmosphere began to move from cheesy and sort of embarrassing, to a real production vibe.   Bo Griffin was walking around with what seemed to be her personal makeup guy, you could hear the director making recommendations and other elements you would expect from a respectable cast and crew.   What did Ms. Panaro know anyway?!   Ms. Cleo eventually walked into the waiting area from the set, she was dressed in white see-through linen with her hair wrapped in white cloth, voodoo priestess look in full effect.    She was talking to people quite a lot and smiled constantly, never turning off the psychic thing.

We waited for many hours to get our chance to perform our parts as callers in the show, this was just a voice-over type gig, however the production had been held up by a huge accident on the expressway, which prevented many people from getting to the location in time for taping.   Ms. Cleo used this opportunity to talk to people like she already knew what they were going to say, almost finishing their sentences for them.  She would use phrases like “but you already knew that didn’t you…” and this would somehow really make people fall in love with her and want even more.   For a small fee, about $240 or so, you could get a reading with her and she gladly handed out business cards when asked.   Dinner was finally ready,  and catering announced “talent” had to wait until the crew got their share first.    This type of caste system is common on sets, however Bo Griffin insisted that we all eat together and that was wonderful of her.    I had my first “oh she’s so nice” story I could tell others.

The waiting room began to get less and less crowded as people did their scenes and left for the night.   What previously looked like a college slumber party began to look more like a wake, we were all exhausted and just wanted to go home.    When I heard them call my name I was thrilled to get my chance to activate my acting super power to its full potential, I would surely amaze them and certainly I’d be invited back, just like the Latina girls.    After all I was a natural, just like my sixth grade teacher Ms. Greg told me.   Unfortunately, another disappointment would await on this sort of fake psychic journey I was on.

I was escorted into the costume area and a headset was placed over my ears.  A sound technician put this very heavy metal microphone in front of me (I know because I tried to lift it and got my wrist slapped) and suddenly I could hear people talking in ultra clear stereo sound.    It was though I was taking a nap on Bo Griffin’s bosom, her whispers being completely audible.  “Oh Lord I ate way too much, I shouldn’t have eaten so much.” She said quietly to her co-star, who was sitting next to her.  “I love shoes… I have an addiction to shoes, I’m always buying them…” she continued to explain.  This went on and on until they finally started shooting and and I heard without warning “Caller are you there? Are you there caller?”  Oh shit, what was I doing?  I was so taken in by the experience, I wasn’t present in the moment and I was missing my line!  “Yes I’m here!” I said out loud which was followed by a very loud and angry “CUT!!”

Turns out it wasn’t my turn to speak at all, they were just filming some small bits for editing purposes.   I had fucked up already and they were pissed.   “Kill his mic” the director said with a very irritated tone.   The next half hour continued much in the same way, I couldn’t do anything right, I was told several times “you sound too scripted”,“do it again”,“you sound too happy” , the critique was endless.   It’s no wonder I never heard Michael from Detroit on any of the psychic commercials made from that taping and I was never asked back again.  The evening of disappointment did have a brighter side, I made almost $300 that night and most of it while sitting on a couch.   How many people can say that?   Wait, I take that back.

Months later I would be watching TV and heard a familiar voice say “Call Me Now!” and recognized her immediately.   She was know known as Ms. Cleo now, but I couldn’t remember ever hearing that name when we were shooting that night or the day prior.  She was decked out with her crystal ball and had made her way from being a behind the scenes consultant, to infomercial fame.  She had a pretty good run until eventually the entire world of call in psychics collapsed.    It was pretty evident to me this would happen eventually since during our table reading, we saw an IT guy running around with some green-bar print outs.   He noticed his grandmother’s phone number on a list of recent callers and was furious.   People at the company were laughing that she fell for the scheme and he was just shaking his head in disbelief.    Ms. Cleo would end up being charged for not disclosing her actual identity, contrary to the stories of her being arrested for running a scam, this simply wasn’t the case.  Ms. Cleo was a paid performer, not the owner of the company charging people for readings.    That would be like arresting Charlize Theron for selling perfume proven later to be toxic.  Ms. Cleo was just like the rest of us, she wanted to be successful at what she did and the opportunity presented itself, although arguably, not the most ethical way to do it.

It’s been almost 20 years since my Ms. Cleo experience and although short lived, it made a huge impression on me.    I’m not sure why, not even six months prior I had the opportunity to be an extra on a movie set and spent the afternoon following Harrison Ford around, standing only feet away from him for hours.    Yet I’m always telling people my Ms. Cleo story and even had a picture of her taped on my cubicle at work.   She has since died of cancer, as did Bo Griffin, but for some reason her memory lives on inside of me.  Maybe I feel she was treated a little unfairly by the media, targeted as though she was some sort of co-conspirator, when she was a victim of circumstance herself.     In any case, thank you for the memory Ms. Cleo, rest in peace.

this photo of Ms. Cleo was displayed proudly on my cubicle at work

If you’d like to see an actual part of the infomercial I was cast for, watch the YouTube video below.   The commercial begins at 1 minute into the video.   Both actresses with Bo Griffin were incredibly sweet, the one on the left was a painter for Universal Studios in Orlando when she wasn’t acting.  Notice Michael from Detroit never makes an appearance.   The infomercial itself was 30 minutes long.

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