By Michael E. Miller
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This trail of deception and half-baked mystical mishmash stems from the same woman who signs off on ARS's billing statements, which bear the admonishment, "Taking responsibility for your actions is an important step in your spiritual journey."
The spoor from Miss Cleo's personal journey is becoming clearer, thanks to a pair of sisters from California. Elizabeth Salazar, now self-employed doing radio promos in San Rafael, California, found Miss Cleo's face eerily familiar. After she read Cleo's real name in "Call Me Now ... And Pay Me Later," she contacted New Times with tales out of school --high school, specifically. She and her sister Margaret casually knew Youree Harris when all three were students at Ramona Convent Secondary School, a private Catholic girls' academy in Alhambra, California. Margaret, a year older than Elizabeth, says that when they attended, the school had only about 300 students, so everyone knew everyone else.
The school was rebuilt after an October 1987 earthquake in which the old structure "crumbled to the ground," Elizabeth says. But when she knew Harris there in the mid-1970s, they went to class in a beautiful 1889 building. It housed a college prep school dedicated to academic excellence, one that stressed moral rectitude and tried to inculcate deep Catholic values. Ramona has its share of notable alumnae, including actress Loretta Young and Los Angeles NBC anchorwoman Michelle Ruiz. Ramona made a virtue of tolerance, welcoming Muslim international students as well as girls from downtown Los Angeles.
Harris was a boarder, the Salazars say, whose parents paid $600 per year to send their daughter to the school. "That was a hell of a lot of money in those days," Elizabeth says. "(The nuns) were always drilling in how much parents paid to send them there and how they'd better turn out right." All three girls attended Ramona from seventh grade on, the entire six years the school offered, she says. "Most girls didn't make it through the six years because it's a tough school, academically speaking," she says. "They instilled all these religious values in us, and religious courses were mandatory."
Elizabeth and Harris weren't close friends, she says -- Harris was a year younger -- but she does remember her well, whether "frolicking" on park playground equipment during a school outing in 1975 or in a gym class they shared the next year. "I don't recall her having any sort of accent," Elizabeth says. "Maybe a Los Angeles accent."
Even then, the magnetism Harris would later use in her Miss Cleo persona was apparent. "She was a very nice person," Elizabeth says. "I'd pass her in the hall, and she always had a smile on her face." Margaret, who now works in procurement for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, agrees, adding an anecdote about life at Ramona: From freshman year on, the students could attend dances held at the school. Harris, still too young, wanted to go, so she would creep downstairs from the dorms and sit in the stairwell, listening to disco until the nuns spotted her and shooed her back upstairs.
Considering how thoroughly Ramona students were indoctrinated with a sense of right and wrong, Elizabeth can't believe how Harris turned out. "We were taught to be Christian women, and we were academically schooled to do well by our Christian image -- and to give back to the world." They were taught about the importance of choosing good over evil, a decision that Harris apparently bungled, Elizabeth says. "She chose to do evil."
But however little of Catholic doctrine Harris absorbed, she may have been introduced at Ramona to the gimmicks that have served her so well. One of the school's mandatory courses was "Christianity and the Occult," taught by Sister Delora, an elderly nun, now deceased. There, Harris and the Salazars were introduced to tarot cards, palm reading, and psychic claims. "They wanted us to be well-rounded Christians and to let us know that there is evil out in the world and that these are some of the ways it can infiltrate your life," Elizabeth says. But this was no Bible-thumping condemnation of evil spirits; the class coolly discussed how Miss Cleo's future methods lead to evil through greed and deception. That's why Elizabeth is incredulous.
"I'm thinking, 'What the hell are you thinking? You took the same course I did. They taught us that stuff's bull,'" she says. "Stuff like that just makes me tear my hair out, because she's just taking everything the Sisters of the Holy Name taught us and just perverting it," Elizabeth says. "I'm sure Sister Delora is rolling over in her grave right now."