Miss Cleo's act is based on mystery. The pseudoshaman, shilling for her Fort Lauderdale bosses, dons exotic dress to sit in a cloud of smoldering incense, enticing callers to avail themselves of her self-professed fortunetelling powers. Millions have fallen for her pitch, and many thousands have complained that they didn't get what she promised for $4.95 per minute -- prompting lawsuits nationwide and an investigation of her background by the Florida attorney general.
Miss Cleo's brief corporate bio once claimed that she is a world-renowned psychic, a native of the Trelawney section of Jamaica, and a "Shango Shaman" for more than 20 years. Now all of those claims are coming apart.
The tall, charming woman affecting a deep Caribbean accent is an employee of Access Resource Services (ARS), one of a constellation of telemarketing companies owned by Fort Lauderdale entrepreneurs Steven Feder and Peter Stolz. All 20 of their businesses are run out of a tenth-floor office in the International Building at 2455 E. Sunrise Blvd. Although the two have operated psychic hotlines for a decade, none of their advertising icons could compete with Cleo, who debuted in 1999. But as state after state (nine so far) sued Feder, Stolz, and their companies for wildly inaccurate bills, bullying collection tactics, and broken promises of free tarot readings, the putative pedigree of their favorite pitchwoman came under close examination as well.
At issue is the fact that ARS has always presented the public picture of Miss Cleo as real. The company's most prominent attorney, Sean Moynihan of New York, insisted to New Times that Miss Cleo really believes she has psychic powers and that neither ARS nor its sister companies would ever hire anyone they believed to be a phony. But now Miss Cleo's mask is dropping away, bit by bit, revealing a very different face from the grinning mystic on TV.
Some information about her can be found in court documents and corporate records from Feder's and Stolz's previous brushes with the law (see "Call Me Now ... And Pay Me Later," January 3). Her name is Youree Harris, she's 39 years old, and she has lived most of her life in California and Florida. That last bit of info makes her status as a Jamaican shaman unlikely but doesn't rule it out.
What does rule it out is her birth certificate. As has been widely reported, Harris was born August 13, 1962, in what was then Los Angeles County General Hospital. Her mother, Alisa Teresa Hopis, lived on West Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles; her father, David Harris, was from Texas. Those facts emerged after the Florida attorney general entered the fray February 14, filing a civil suit in Broward Circuit Court to stop ARS's billing and solicitation practices, get refunds for those wrongly billed, and prove that Miss Cleo is not who she claims to be.
Despite being subpoenaed, Harris is still unwilling to talk. "She's resisting, at this point, even coming in for a deposition," says Florida Assistant Attorney General Bob Buchner, who has tracked Miss Cleo complaints for years. Still, new details about her past are seeping out. Most recently New Times learned about that hazy period between Harris's well-documented birth and her appearance on the telemarketing scene, including what may have been her introduction to the psychic racket -- at a respected Catholic girls' high school.
Two weeks after Florida sued, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Harris (then going by the name Ree Perris) concocted her Cleo persona as a character in a 1996 play called For Women Only, which she wrote and starred in. After that and two other plays she produced at Seattle's Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in 1997, Harris/Perris skipped town without paying her cast and crew and scammed the Parks and Recreation Department (to which the theater belongs) out of several thousand dollars for supplies and services, according to the Post-Intelligencer. Cast members told the local paper that she played on their sympathies by claiming to suffer from bone cancer and sickle cell anemia.
These stories seem to jibe with other tidbits New Times has picked up. Harris's rented house on SW 126th Avenue in Southwest Ranches is listed as the business address for Waghwaan Entertainment, the company she started on July 11, 2001. Harris told Jon Sorensen, of the New York State Consumer Protection Board, that her company is a charitable speakers' bureau raising money for sickle cell anemia. But Waghwaan Entertainment is registered in Florida as a for-profit company, and the local and national offices of several major sickle cell charities (contacted by New Times in December) had never heard of Harris nor her company. "They certainly haven't sent us any donations," says Frank Reddick, director of the Sickle Cell Association of Florida.
In her various self-promotions, Harris has claimed to be "a devoted Shango Shaman in training for well over twenty years." This assertion is gibberish. Shango, a deified 18th-century Yoruba king who appears as a guardian spirit and patron of thunder and wealth in Santeria/Lukumi, is served by priests called mogbas, not shamans. Shamanism is a distinct religious tradition that has nothing to do with supposed psychic powers, according to Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by the late Mircea Eliade, the preeminent expert on shamanism. While Shango's priests do practice a form of divination with cowrie shells, neither Shango nor shamanism have any connection with tarot cards, an invention of 14th-century Europe.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.
- Shots Fired Outside Club BAM Leaves Man Dead
- What's Open and Closed in Broward on Thanksgiving Day 2015
- Activists to Protest at Home of Monkey Importer UPDATED