Miss Cleo

Miss Cleo 2017 Lilly EcheverriaMiamiHeraldMCTGettyImages
Photo: Lilly Echeverria/Miami Herald/MCT/Getty Images

Youree Dell Cleomill Harris was born on August 12, 1962 (to July 26, 2016). Better known as Miss Cleo, she was a self-proclaimed psychic and alleged shaman who achieved television fame as a spokeswoman for a pay-per-call psychic service from 1997 to 2003.

Harris was born in Los Angeles, California, to Caribbean Catholic parents who she says knew early on that she was a lesbian. “Nobody really talked about it,” she told “The Advocate.” “It was like the pink elephant in the room. I never felt bad, but I knew society didn’t accept me. This was the ’70s. Things were changing, but they weren’t all that changed. My first girlfriend was in high school. She had blond hair and blue eyes and was on the swim team. I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread. In the last months of our senior year we were found out by her father, and she was sent to a college out of state. I was heartbroken.”

By the age of 21, she had been married to a man, had a daughter, and got divorced. Later, Harris had two long-term relationships with women, and gave birth to a second daughter in her late 20s.

In 1996, Harris and her then-partner opened a production company which produced several of her plays, including the autobiographical “Women Only: A Celebration of Love, Life and Healing.” In the late 1990s, Harris began to work for the Psychic Readers Network as a paid television infomercial spokesperson. Although she didn’t own the company, Harris soon became its famous face as the psychic with a Jamaican accent who declared, “The cards never lie!”

Within five years, charges of deceptive advertising and fraud began circulating, and the Psychic Readers Network had been sued by several states and the Federal Communications Commission. Harris was not indicted when the Federal Trade Commission charged the Network’s promoters with deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices. It also became known that Harris was, in fact, born in the United States, not in Trelawny, Jamaica as her employer’s website had stated.

In 2006, Harris came out as a lesbian in an interview with “The Advocate” after being inspired by her godson. “He and I started talking when he was concerned about coming out. He was 16. When he made the decision I told him I’d be there to support him 100%, and he embraced [coming out] wholeheartedly. It’s a different vibe than when I was his age, being raised Catholic in an all-girls boarding school. But he was afraid of nothing, and I thought, I can’t be a hypocrite. This boy is going to force me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Even after coming out, Harris was concerned about her future. “The reason it’s scary is because in my personal experience, Black cultures throughout the world have a more difficult time accepting homosexuality in their family,” Harris said. “I have family members who will be shocked; they don’t know. I have some family members who are very close to me, and they do know. But I’ve been afraid of the wrath, of the exile. When I came out to a number of friends in the late ’80s I had a number of friends who turned their backs on me and walked away. That was really intense. I really believed they were my friends.”

Using the name Cleomili Harris, she spoke about her experiences at the Psychic Readers Network in the 2004 documentary, “Hotline.” The following year, she appeared as Miss Cleo in a series of cereal advertisements, but they were pulled after the Psychic Readers Network claimed it owned the rights to the Miss Cleo character. Harris, who had been living in Miami Beach, eventually settled in Davie and Lake Worth, Florida.

On July 26, 2016, Harris died following a long illness at the age of 53. She had been battling colon cancer that had spread to other organs.

We remember Youree Dell Cleomill Harris as the iconic Miss Cleo, and her support for our community.

Walter Nicks

Nicks, Walter 2017 Detroit Public Library
Photo: Detroit Public Library Collection

Walter Nicks was born on July 26, 1925 (to April 3, 2007). He was an internationally renowned dancer, choreographer, and teacher of jazz and modern dance whose career spanned six decades.

Walter Nicks was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Central High School before attending Howard University from 1942 to 1944. Nicks received some of his earliest dance training with Eleanor Frampton at the Karamu Settlement House in Cleveland.

In 1945, Nicks began studying dance at the Katherine Dunham School in New York City, where he became a certified master teacher of the Dunham technique in 1948, and was appointed associate director of dance from 1947 to 1953. During this time, Nicks studied with a variety of modern dance teachers, including José Limón, Robert Joffrey, Karel Shook, Louis Horst, and Doris Humphrey.

After dancing with the Benny Goodman Jazz Review on a 13-month tour in 1948 and 1949, Nicks left the Dunham School in 1953 and traveled to Mexico, where he founded his first company, El Ballet Negro de Walter Nicks. The troupe performed at the Insurgentes Theatre in Mexico City, at the Sans Souci in Havana, on television in the Dominican Republic, and at the Condado Beach Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nicks spent five months in Haiti learning Vodou dances, and then cultural dances in Brazil.

Nicks was also quite busy performing and choreographing in the United States during the 1950s, including the Broadway shows “My Darlin’ Aida” (1952), “House of Flowers” (1954-55), and “Jamaica” (1957-59). He coached Arthur Mitchell, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen De Lavallade, Dolores Harper, Louis Johnson, Donald McKayle, Albert Popwell, and Glory Van Scott, among others. He was an instructor at the Phillips-Fort Studio in New York, and was a prominent contributor to the city’s Black modern-dance renaissance during the decade.

In 1959, Nicks introduced jazz dance instruction to Europe at the International Academy of Dance in Germany, and began working with Harry Belafonte in the United States. Nicks choreographed Belafonte’s CBS specials “Tonight with Belafonte” (1959) and “New York 19” (1960), as well as his touring productions of “Sing, Man, Sing” (1956), with dancers Alvin Ailey and Mary Hinkson, and “Belafonte ’63.” Nicks studied traditional dance in Guinea as a special consultant to the government there in 1963, and was instrumental in the creation of Le Ballet National Djoliba.

During the 1960s and early 70s, Nicks’ focus turned to Sweden, where, under the auspices of Lia Schubert, he became a consultant at the University of Stockholm, a guest instructor and performer at the Swedish Ballet Academy, and star on Swedish television. He was professor and director of jazz dance at Statens Dansskola in Stockholm, choreographed the Swedish production of “West Side Story,” and danced with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Gustaf Vasa Church in Stockholm.

At the request of the French Federation of Dance, Nicks founded the Walter Nicks Dance Theatre Workshop in the summer of 1972. The company toured France and Belgium, and later performed in the French Caribbean. Over the years, the Workshop partnered with community outreach organizations such as the Connecticut College American Dance Festival, Arts Recognition and Talent Search (ARTS), and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Artists-in-Schools program (1973-1981). The troupe had residencies at elementary and secondary public schools across the United States through the 1980s.

Nicks co-founded and became artistic director of France’s Centre Formation Professionelle in 1982, and in October of 1989, he choreographed “Spirit Blues” for the National Ballet of Finland.

In 2000, Nicks choreographed “Trance Atlantic” for Philadanco, the same year the American Dance Festival honored him for his teaching. Two years later, he taught and performed at the Katherine Dunham celebration at Jacob’s Pillow, served on the faculty of the New York City Board of Education’s Dance Institute, and was celebrated by the International Association of Blacks in Dance for his contributions to dance.

Throughout his long career, Nicks was also known as an instructor of courses and workshops at colleges, university and dance companies across the globe. That part of his life took him to places like Israel, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Connecticut College, University of Maryland, University of Nevada, Duke University, and Howard University.

Nicks also served on the Executive Committee of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, and on the Advisory Board of the Black Arts Network Diaspora.

In 2007, Nicks died in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 81.

Although very little has been written about Nicks’ life outside of dance, a collection held by the New York Public Library contains correspondence between Nicks and Arthur O’Neil, his longtime companion.

We salute Walter Nicks for his numerous contributions to dance, and for his support of our community.