Miss Cleoís Tarot Power Collectors Edition Tarot Card Deck and
Instructional Video by Miss Cleo, J.F. Lambert, Seth Stephens, and L. Thomas
Review by Lee A. Bursten
Most readers will need no introduction to the sociological phenomenon that is
Miss Cleo. But for the benefit of those who donít live in the U.S. or those
who donít watch television, Miss Cleo is the spokesperson for a psychic
hotline company, where if you call a 900 telephone number and pay several
dollars per minute, a "tarot expert" will give you a reading. This
company has produced several infomercials and commercials starring Miss Cleo, a
woman with a commanding and warm presence who exhorts us to "Call me
now!" in a lilting Jamaican accent. When I watch these commercials, Miss Cleo's readings appear to me to be
entirely faked. One possibility is that they are completely scripted; another is that the readings are real on Miss Cleo's end, but the "clients"
are paid actresses who unfailingly gasp and giggle with astonishment at her ridiculously precise details ("and he has a cleft chin, doesn't he, sweetie?").
Besides these commercials which blanket the airwaves, the company has also gained attention (or should I say, notoriety) from a series of lawsuits accusing it of fraudulent business practices and violating various statesí no-call laws. Nancy Garen, the author of Tarot Made Easy and The Tarot According to You, has sued the company for copyright infringement, because, according to her lawsuit, they have allegedly copied large chunks of her writings and used them for their Miss Cleo websites, without attribution, as well as allegedly distributing them to their telephone readers for use while giving readings. It seems to me that anyone wanting to obtain "tarot power" could save lots and lots of money by simply buying Ms. Garenís books and foregoing the 900 telephone calls.
In my opinion, Miss Cleo is not doing the world of Tarot any favors, because she is simply reinforcing the common opinion that Tarot readers are charlatans or worse. Perhaps most offensive is her claim to be a "shaman." I donít know much about shamanism, but my impression is that shamans are more interested in healing people than in separating them from their money. Itís not that Iím against Tarot readers being paid for their work, but I think itís pretty clear that Miss Cleoís customers are not getting their moneyís worth, especially when we read stories of telephone readers with no Tarot experience being recruited at shopping malls. You can find out more about the shadowy world of the telephone psychic by reading a very funny book, Secrets of a Telephone Psychic by Frederick Woodruff. It was written P.C. (pre-Cleo), but you can still get an idea of the kinds of things that go on. And at $9.95, it will cost you less than a call to Miss Cleo and be much more entertaining.
Be that as it may, I suspect many Tarot collectors will be unable to resist the novelty of walking into their local Walgreenís and picking up a Tarot deck. Itís available as a standalone deck with Little White Booklet (LWB) at $19.95, and as a set which consists of the deck, the LWB, and an instructional video by the shaman herself, as well as a free bonus -- a 90-page paperback book by Miss Cleo called Keepiní It Real: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Living, which seems a little skimpy for its $12.95 cover price. The price of the set is $34.95. I bought the set, so Iíll first discuss the deck and LWB, and then the video.
I admit at the outset that my expectations for this deck were very low. I expected a badly-drawn knockoff of the Rider-Waite-Smith (R-W-S) deck, perhaps with a very New-Agey, soft-focus approach, consistent with the backdrops used in her commercials. I was surprised to discover that this is actually an interesting effort. The authors have obviously given some thought to providing some new takes on the R-W-S standard. The cards bear a superficial resemblance to the R-W-S, with their bright, flat colors, and the Minors mostly follow the R-W-S scheme, but there the resemblance ends. The designers have eschewed the New Age and instead hearken back to an older Tarot tradition of Egyptian-inspired designs. Actually there isnít a whole lot of Egyptian symbolism, apart from the costumes and the desert landscapes. Dogs are drawn in the Egyptian style; there are a few scarab beetles pictured; the coins in the suit of Coins are emblazoned with the Eye of Horus; and there are a few animal-headed deities. Interestingly, though, the sun on the Sun card has rays ending in hands, which image can also be found on Lo Scarabeoís Nefertariís Tarot Sun card. I think one of the reasons the deck is successful is that, despite the Egyptian content, the designers are not pushing a particular ideology or theme, thus freeing them to concentrate on creating a specific mood for each card.
The cards are drawn in a comic-book style, and are fairly simple. At first glance I was a little put off by the slightly sketchy appearance of the drawings, as well as the flat colors, but I found I got used to it. The deck lacks an abundance of symbolism, but its strong point is that the human figures have been drawn with a great deal of flair and dynamism, and the lack of symbolism is made up for by the highly expressive postures. A good example of the deckís eye-catching vividness is the Justice card. There are several cards which are done with imagination and originality, such as the Hanged Man. On many cards, the symbolism is extremely reduced. Death, for example, is simply an animal-headed bodybuilder who watches implacably as a person kneels, weeping, before him. The Devil shows an animal-headed deity seated on a block of stone, while a river erupts in flames behind him. Whimsy rears its head in the Moon, where a dog and a lobster roll on the ground in lunatic laughter under an Egyptian moon. The World card is quite interesting, simply a person standing, grasping two staffs, between two rivers. The way the person is drawn, itís hard to tell if itís a man or a woman, leaving us to wonder if the designers are deliberately following the esoteric tradition of the World dancer being hermaphroditic.
Several of the cards require an adjustment of their meaning in order to match the picture. The Fool, for example, shows a young muscular man teetering on the edge of a cliff, while holding a cup in which an obviously alcoholic beverage is sloshing. Thus the standard meaning (or at least my standard meaning), a leap into the unknown, shifts to a caution against recklessness (and drunkenness).
The other thing that struck me about this deck is its masculinity. Masculine Tarot decks are rare, and one would have expected that Miss Cleoís intended audience would be overwhelmingly female. The women are drawn as slender and willowy and rather undefined, but the men are mostly very muscular and are drawn with much more detail and vividness. Several cards that featured women in the R-W-S now feature men instead, such as the Nine of Coins. As if to make up for this, the Aces all show suit symbols held be a feminine hand, complete with long red fingernails. Also, interestingly, the Ten of Cups shows two men rather than a man and a woman, although itís hard to tell if theyíre meant to be a couple or simply standard-bearers. Readers looking for a masculine deck may enjoy this one.
The LWB is comparable to those produced by US Games. Upright and reversed meanings are provided, as well as two spreads. At first it seemed to me that some of the Minor meanings did not match the images on the cards, as if the author of the booklet had not seen the art. On the Six of Cups, for example, a man carrying a cup walks away from a similarly-dressed man who is sitting in the desert with five cups. The LWB says, "A card that represents oneís past, their memories of simple pleasures Ö you may make a move of some type hoping to recapture the past." But after thinking about it, it occurred to me that the man carrying away the cup could be seen as having revisited a pleasant memory and trying to bring a remnant of it back into the present. Seen this way, the image is actually rather poignant.
Unfortunately, the divinatory meanings contained in the LWB are mostly the dreaded laundry list of concepts which are indirectly related, if related at all. "Gossip," the entry for the Moon tells us; "defamation, nosy individuals, close proximity to inquirer, secret truths." Reversed, "Frequent mistakes, and an emotional dilemma." Pity the poor beginner who, armed only with the deck and LWB, thinks they must memorize all this stuff.
Some of the cardsí meanings are rather unorthodox. For example, the meaning given for the Star is "Sense of loss (individual or material), hope, reflection." I can see hope and reflection, but Miss Cleo is the only Tarot authority I have seen who assigns the meaning of "loss" to the upright Star. Interestingly, the figure on the card looks none too happy, providing further evidence that the cardsí images and meanings were indeed developed in collaboration with Miss Cleo.
Now on to the video. Despite my low opinion of Miss Cleoís employersí business practices, and despite my misgivings about her willingness to involve herself in such an enterprise, I do admit that she has an engaging personality and is enjoyable to watch. I was impressed with the way she handled herself when a card popped out of the deck while shuffling, seamlessly improvising a discourse on what to do with such cards. The video, which has been professionally produced, does actually serve as a good introduction to the Tarot to those who know nothing about it. Itís about a half-hour long, which makes it a little short, in my opinion, to justify the $15.00 extra that one is paying in order to obtain it. Unfortunately, almost a third of the video is taken up by Miss Cleo reading the Major Arcana upright and reversed meanings from out of the LWB. While she does this, a graphic of the card appears on the screen, which reverses itself when she reads the reversed meaning, which was a nice touch. I suppose the publishers are assuming that many of the people who buy this set will be reluctant to actually pick up and read the LWB, but I think theyíre selling their audience short.
The video starts with a history of the Tarot which contains completely misleading information, such as that the cards have been "traced back to ancient Egypt," and that during the Renaissance, "ruling kings and queens were routinely treated to Tarot readings." The facts are that card historians have traced the cards back to the 15th century but not before, and during the Renaissance the cards were used for gaming, not for divination.
During her recitation of the Major meanings, she sometimes gives meanings that differ from those in the LWB. In the case of the Wheel of Fortune, the videoís meaning actually contradicts the LWBís. The LWB says the Wheel reversed means "You are unable to move forward. Delays and disappointments." But Miss Cleo tells us on the video that it means "Unexpected increase in money and resources, ease of movement." Actually, there are some differences between the LWB, the recitation on the video, and the meanings she uses when she gives sample interpretations later in the video, but there are also enough similarities for me to believe that Miss Cleo certainly had a hand in determining the cardsí meanings. Her approach to card meanings seems to be rather fluid, as is her approach to position meanings in spreads, which Iíll discuss later.
For the Minor cards, Miss Cleo thankfully does not recite meanings from the LWB. She discusses them generally, and provides suit meanings, which are not included in the LWB. Some of them seem rather odd, such as Cups, "Emotional fruits of our labors," and Swords, "Emotional struggles which cause us to judge ourselves and others." Although Iíve resolved most of my confusion regarding differences between the cards and their stated meanings, Iím still a little confused by the Two of Swords, which shows a woman who is fending off a dog with two swords, while covering her eyes with her arm. The LWB says this is a card of "strong friendship," and on the video Miss Cleo says this is a relationship card. But I certainly canít see that in the card image.
For me, it was worth the added price of the set to hear Miss Cleo more or less admit that many of the absurdly precise details she comes up with in her infomercials are not derived from the cards. This is what she says: "You all often are marveled at how Cleo gets so many details [she often refers to herself in the third person]. Does she pull them out of the air? True enough, the spirits come and give me much. But often I get very specific information just from the cards."
The inner cynic shouts with glee, "In other words, she makes it all up!"
Next, Miss Cleo discusses spreads. First she goes through her Four Doors Spread, which is what she uses on her television infomercials. Itís also discussed, inadequately, in the LWB. Fortunately, she does explain it fully on the video. Miss Cleoís method of Tarot reading is very free-wheeling, which isnít necessarily a bad thing. She doesnít go in for specific position meanings in spreads, but instead simply lays the cards out and just says what she sees. The Four Doors spread is interesting because it allows you to lay down successive rows of cards, sort of like Rachel Pollackís Work Cycle spread, to get more information. Also, itís kinda fun to keep flipping over the cards and placing them on piles, as if one were playing solitaire.
She also discusses her Three-Card spread, which is not mentioned in the LWB. This is exactly the same as the Four Doors spread, except that it uses rows of three cards rather than four, and this time there are specific position meanings: Past, Present, and Future.
Finally, she discusses the Celtic Cross. In the LWB, the Celtic Cross is illustrated but specific position meanings are not given. On the video, itís apparent that, again, her style of reading is very loose. She does identify cards one and two as "where the individual is at"; and card six, usually the near future, is identified as a "card of transition or connection." Card five is called "a strong position," but isnít identified with any more specificity than that. Then all four cards which make up the "staff," cards seven through 10, together signify the future.
I think this is a valid way to read, although itís different from what most of us are used to. Using this free-wheeling style might encourage us to relax a bit and not read the cards with a too-analytical approach.
When discussing the spreads she also offers sample interpretations. I began to be a little uneasy when some (but, again, not all) of her interpretations differed significantly from those given in the LWB. For instance, the LWB gloomily calls the Queen of Swords "A card associated with female sadness, infertility, physical issues, mourning a child or partner. The pain is still very real and plagues her daily." But when Miss Cleo turns over the Queen of Swords on the video, she identifies her as "A formidable woman, generous and upstanding."
Since most of her customers are young women, Miss Cleo has a tendency to see the female Court cards as representing the client, and male Court cards as her suitors. Since there are four female Court cards and 12 male ones in the deck, this means the end result is likely to be that the client has two or more boyfriends, a situation which does indeed appear frequently in her infomercial readings. This approach is not consistent with the LWB, which defines three of the four Knights as situations, not as people. Again, this reinforces my belief that Miss Cleo takes a very loose and improvisational approach to card interpretation. Also, she thinks nothing of skipping a card or two altogether if they donít make sense in terms of the story she is weaving together.
I suppose we should count ourselves as lucky that the video is interrupted only four times to display the 900 hotline number, in case we want more information on how to read the cards. Needless to say, I am extremely doubtful as to the qualifications of these people to teach the Tarot, much less give readings.
So on the whole, although Miss Cleo is entertaining to watch, I would recommend buying the deck without the video, unless youíre consumed with curiosity about what Miss Cleo has done with it, or unless you want to see exactly how she does the Four Doors spread. For those who are complete beginners, there are plenty of books out there, even some which cost less than $15.00, which would provide a better and more complete introduction to the Tarot.
I do, however, recommend the deck. Itís done with verve and flair, and its masculinity and sense of humor about itself make it stand out in the crowded field of Tarot decks.
You can order the deck or the set from Miss Cleoís websites, but youíll have to pay an extortionary $9.95 for shipping for the set ($7.95 for the deck). Her websites tell us that, "These cards are not available in any stores," but this is not true, as they are available in Walgreenís stores. You can also order it from Walgreenís online store, but they will charge you about $5.00 shipping, as well as about $2.00 for tax, apparently a new development in online shopping. So I think your best bet, if you have access to a Walgreenís, is to go there and try that first.
Miss Cleoís Tarot Power Collectors Edition Tarot Card Deck and
Cards designed and illustrated by J.F. Lambert; cards colored by Seth Stephens
Booklet Co-Authored by L. Thomas Trosclair
Update: As of 3/11/02, Walgreens has pulled this deck from their shelves, and their website no longer lists it. "Miss Cleo's" website no longer offers the item for sale, though it is being given away in a promotional contest. If you obtained one of these decks, perhaps you have acquired a real collector's item.
Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.
Images © 2002 Lambert/Stephans
Review © 2002 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes