Secret Identities: Dennis Culver Predicted the Future Under Ms. Cleo’s Tele-Fortune Teller Cabal
October 24, 2018
Writer Dennis Culver may currently be slumming it with a band of delinquent teens, wasting their lives drunk, high, and beating the stardust out of parasitic aliens in the new series, Burnouts. But before he was penning irreverent sci-fi alongside artist Geoffo, Culver was an industrious salesman, sweating into the midnight hours on the phone and in person. The future scribe worked from ages 16-25 in sales, starting off by cold-calling prospects for cemetery and funeral services. But even Culver couldn’t have predicted his next career pivot: a member of the Psychic Readers Network, fronted by the charismatic Jamaican seer, Miss Cleo.
It didn’t take a fortune teller to see through the facade of the operation, though; various publications soon found that Cleo was a Los-Angeles born playwright named Youree Dell Harris and that her 900-bound legion of psychics were telemarketers. Parent company Access Resource Services soon received 11 lawsuits alleging fraud and harassment. (Though the Network ended after only three years in 2002, Harris would live on as a pop culture icon, even appearing in French Toast Crunch commercials.) Culver looks back on his card-reading days and the exploits that followed.
Are you a psychic?
I don't think so! Although, I had to sign something saying I was in order to get the job. I was in my 20s, and I needed money—that is the root of my psychic ability. All that said, I was very good at being a phone psychic. So make of that what you will.
What was the application process, and how long did you work for the Psychic Readers Network?
I started telemarketing when I was 16, working for a company that sold cemetery and funeral services to people "Pre-Need" (one of my other secret identities). I moved up through the company doing sales and management before I moved out to Los Angeles from Florida. One of the people I worked with, who was also very good on the phone, ended up working for Miss Cleo and encouraged me to apply. The process was much easier than you might think it was. The work was all commission, and the longer you kept people on the phone, the more calls you got. I assume they had a huge turnover.
Miss Cleo was a playwright from Los Angeles, and her psychic associates were telemarketers, but that said, over 6 million people made calls to Access Resource Services over its history, averaging $60 a call at $4.99 a minute. How did you “predict” your callers’ futures? Was it scripted? Improvisational?
I was encouraged to buy a book about tarot cards and use that instead of actual cards. When someone called, I would "shuffle the deck and pick a card" by opening to a random page in the book. Then I would read what it said about the meaning of that card and apply it to whatever they had a question about. It was mostly people with problems wanting to talk to someone who would tell them to do the thing that they already knew they should do. I was basically giving advice and telling them what my gut told me. Often they would forget details they mentioned earlier in the call and be completely amazed when I brought them up again. I had no idea about cold-reading until much later in my life, but I reckon I was doing some of that intuitively.
What was your most memorable call?
I distinctly remember a guy who worked in finance that called me in the middle of the night. He was coked out of his mind and thought I was completely amazing. There were laws at the time that limited these types of calls to one hour in the U.S. When it hit that limit, he called back immediately and got me somehow again and talked for another hour on top of that. He also tried to talk me into becoming his personal psychic and cutting out the middle woman of Miss Cleo. I gave him my spam email but never heard from him.
What was your worst call?
Worst call was probably the deeply disturbed person that would constantly call and try to initiate phone sex. This was made worse by the fact that if you hung up, then it messed up your call-time ratio, which meant it would take much longer for the calls to come in. I assume other psychics got these calls, too, because of the frequency I'd get them. Can't imagine what that phone bill looked like every month!
Did you enjoy the job?
At first, yes. I found it fascinating talking to all types of people, but it quickly became debilitating on my psyche. I started to notice I had a lowered opinion about society. People would call in with serious money problems, spending money they didn't have, and I started advising them to hang up the call and reach out to people who could actually help them. I only lasted a few months. The money was good, but it wasn't for me.
How did the experience give you a better understanding of people? Has that understanding influenced your writing?
I think just in the way talking to lots of different people from lots of different places and social standings can do that. All of that influences me constantly. It adds to the chorus of voices shouting in my head, certainly. (Some perhaps with messages about your future0o0o0o0o.)
Burnouts #2 by Dennis Culver, Geoffo, Dave Dwonch, Lauren Perry, and Chris Burnham releases in comic shops on October 24, 2018. Photo by Pat Loika.