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From the Archives: Gloria Allred Is the Lawyer Everyone Loves to Hate

In a news conference at the Bevery Wilshire Hotel in 1996, attorney Gloria Allred announces that she is representing a 13-year-old boy who claimed to have been molested by Michael Jackson.

In a news conference at the Bevery Wilshire Hotel in 1996, attorney Gloria Allred announces that she is representing a 13-year-old boy who claimed to have been molested by Michael Jackson.

(Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times)

“Did you see Gloria Allred on the news last night?”

The guy at the front of the line in the mail center was talking to the clerk. “I’m surprised it took her this long to surface,” the clerk said, throwing a package on the scale. As usual, the topics of the day were under serious scrutiny. “You think they should fry O.J.?” Allred had just called for Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to seek the death penalty in the case against the world-renowned rental-car shill. “I think they should fry all lawyers,” the guy said, if not paraphrasing Shakespeare then at least expressing one of the few common reference points among Americans. “And I know just where to start.”

At any given time, there are highly visible people whose names generate an intense response that often tells you more about the person who is responding than about the person causing the response. In contemporary Los Angeles, perhaps no one has consistently generated more heat than feminist attorney Gloria Allred.

Just as some lawyers are prominently associated with cases involving the Mafia or political dissent, Allred is prominently associated with cases driven by every burning gender issue of the day: child abuse, sexual harassment, rape, date rape, spousal abuse, sexual discrimination, lesbian rights, gay rights. Sometimes these cases are already infamous: Allred represented two of the girls involved in the Spur Posse incident, and, for about five minutes, she represented the boy who claimed to have been abused by Michael Jackson.

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Sometimes her cases are groundbreaking: In 1979, she won a precedent-setting right-to-privacy case involving the use of polygraph tests by federal employers and she filed a civil suit against a man accused of rape, after which he was arrested and tried on criminal charges. She later won the suit and the story became the basis of the TV movie “Without Her Consent.”

In 1980, in the landmark Larson vs. Pitchess case, she sued to force the county to change its medieval policy of tying pregnant inmates to their beds while they gave birth. Several years ago, she won a change in policy at Saks Fifth Avenue stores when she sued them for charging women more for alterations than men.

She is currently representing Holly Ramona, who made headlines earlier this year when her father successfully sued Holly’s therapists for reinforcing false memories of incest in his daughter. Holly is now suing her father for molestation.

Because Allred wages these battles in the court of public opinion as well as in the courthouse, she is the best-known feminist attorney in the nation and, according to Los Angeles magazine, one of “the 30 most powerful people in Los Angeles” (1990) and one of “the 50 most interesting people in L.A.” (1994). In terms of power, this puts her in the company of such individuals as Armand Hammer, Henry Waxman, Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz and David Geffen. In terms of being interesting, she ranks No. 17, after Ray Bradbury and before Richard Riordan. Just for the record, she includes these stats in her official bio.

Others on the lists probably mention their status in their bios as well, but Allred’s resume affirms what many of us suspect: She is not publicity shy. She is a local television commentator and host of a local radio show; she appears often on national talk shows and at press conferences in her offices and around town. She says she has had fewer press conferences this year than in the past. I’ve counted eight, including one that announced a victory in a lawsuit against photographers who refused to publish a photograph of a graduate and his male “partner in life” in a high school reunion yearbook, a win against a man who molested his goddaughter and, more recently, the filing of a lawsuit against Mervyn’s for discriminating against male parents who want to accompany their daughters into dressing rooms.

“That’s all?” people generally say when I reveal my tally. The perception is that there have been many more, that the only thing Allred does is hold press conferences, which is why there was a collective “oh, no, not again” reaction when she came forward in favor of the death penalty in the Simpson case. The response had everything to do with her and nothing to do with what she was saying, which was: “As long as the death penalty is sought against women accused of killing their husbands, it should be sought, when the situation warrants, against men charged with killing their wives.”

Although reporters generally turn out in force at Allred’s conferences, they are often wary. Rather than simply not show up, our information gatekeepers employ loaded language in coverage of Allred; an article in The Times, for instance, said she built “public spectacles” around her cases. In reality, most press conferences, from those sponsored by the White House to movie studios announcing box office grosses, are spectacles, reeking of contrivance and rarely driven by urgency. But when the press decides to prove that it can’t be used, darn it, then their credo is, “We’re not going to let Gloria Allred pull any fast ones!”

But what is Allred attempting to get away with, and why must the public be protected? The prevailing sentiment, that she is a “self-promoter,” just doesn’t explain the level of antipathy. Why is it that Gloria Allred--not celebrities with public relations agencies on the payroll, not a former football player on trial for the murder of his ex-wife who dishes out dating advice in a supposed suicide note (“Marcus, you’ve got a great lady in Catherine, don’t mess it up”), not people who stand at freeway exit ramps with signs that say “Buy my screenplay"--is so often accused of debasing herself?

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The “self-promoter” label has stuck to Allred for several reasons. First, once labels are applied, it is difficult to peel them off. Bill Clinton will probably go down in history as “the guy who wanted to please everyone,” despite such things as the invasion of Haiti, which appears to have pleased no one.

Second, people distrust a person on a mission, either because they are reminded of their own lack of passion and feel guilty or because they recall other zealots through the ages and are scared. Joan of Arc may be a saint, a role model and a good part for Ingrid Bergman, but why can’t we all lighten up with a round of drinks?

Third, Allred is female. Generally speaking, a self-promoting man is regarded as colorful at worst, at best, authoritative. Consider Robert Shapiro, no sacks yet but perhaps the best-uniformed member of O.J. Simpson’s defensive squad. Here is a man who gives seminars for other lawyers on how to use the media. Yet the conventional wisdom is not that he is a “self-promoter” but that he is smart. The press loves being used by this guy. His fans would say that his use of the media is for his clients’ benefit, but how does permitting People magazine to photograph Shapiro and his wife poolside aid O.J. Simpson? By winning over the pool-owning members of the jury?

Finally, it must be acknowledged that Allred is at the scene of many societal car accidents. People seem to find this tiresome. They’ve stopped rubber-necking; why can’t she? But Allred is not there because she chases them; the contrary is true. People with grievances know that she handles a certain kind of case, and they seek her for representation. Not everyone who comes to her is seeking publicity, but certainly there are those who have no intention of avoiding it. Is there anyone among us who does not harbor the desire to stand before a bank of microphones and say, “OK, Mr. Brokaw, I’ve got time for one more question”?

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People seem to forget that Gloria Allred is a lawyer with a civil practice and therefore in the business of lawsuits. Her high visibility in an age when last year’s massacre of lawyers in a San Francisco law firm resulted in yet more lawyer jokes makes her a lightning rod for animosity. If Allred is guilty of anything, it is that she seems to have no perspective, conjuring press conferences without discrimination.

“Not true!” she proclaims. “There are plenty of cases I can’t talk about that deserve publicity. If I’m having a press conference, it’s in my client’s interest, and it’s an issue of public importance.” It’s not that her press conferences happen so frequently (they don’t), it’s that she seems unable to distinguish between the trivial and the profound. “Who am I to make that decision?” she says. “Should I stay silent when I see an injustice? If I went away, believe me, everyone would by saying, ‘Gloria, please, don’t be quiet!”

While Allred may have a passion for riding the airwaves, underneath it all she is driven by a superannuated sense of fair play. For her, everything is equally urgent, worthy of a latter-day, “Stop the presses! Replate!” “So many of the issues I deal with,” she says, “how could you not hold a press conference?”

An Allred’s spacious, tasteful, chintz-and-mahogany Wilshire Boulevard law offices high atop other spacious, tasteful offices for other interesting and powerful people, the press is packed into the conference room. The room crackles with rumors. Everyone has heard that Allred is about to announce a suit against a “major male actor who is also a director” and that it is in the category of sexual harassment. The game is “Name That Bad-Boy Actor.” “Sean Penn?” someone says. “Clint Eastwood?” offers someone else. A die-hard “Rawhide” fan, I defend Clint vigorously.

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And then Allred enters, dressed in the trademark impeccable style of the upper echelons of the legal class. Today it’s a Chanel suit, black and white, dark stockings and heels (she is 5 feet, 2 1/2 inches tall and in public rarely wears shoes that don’t add height), accessorized with matching everything. She not only makes eye contact (camera operators included) and remembers names but also seems genuine and warm (unlike those public figures who know how to work the press but smile inappropriately, such as jury consultant Jo-Ellan Habner Demetrius).

Allred is followed to the head of the conference table by Diana Botsford, a former television executive. Soon the mystery is solved. The actor in question is Maximilian Schell. The jackals had been hoping for a younger kill. Botsford alleges that while she was working at the production company Kushner-Locke, Schell--who was directing a film that the company was producing for, ironically enough, the Family Channel--committed a number of sexual offenses. The result of her complaint: another press conference, this one held by Schell. The star of “Judgment at Nuremberg” has denied the accusations. The case is significant because the plaintiff is not suing an employer. Stay tuned for a showdown this month.

I suppose that at a time when the President of the United States, at least one senator, one Supreme Court nominee, the Navy, the CIA, the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department have labored under charges of sexual harassment, real news would be the formation of a support group for those who have not been accused of some sort of sexual gaffe. Of course, to Botsford and Allred, what Schell committed was more than a gaffe. But why was their complaint filed with so much fanfare?

“The only way to get people to change their behavior,” Allred says, “is to hit them where it hurts.” Financially, in other words. And in Schell’s case, via publicity.

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But, says Nancy Fitzhugh, Schell’s lawyer, “This case does a disservice to women. Schell was not an employee of Kushner-Locke. It’s not a case of sexual harassment. I’m very disappointed that (Allred) has taken this on. It dilutes other major cases. There are cases where there are legitimate examples of sexual harassment, but this is not one of them. I don’t want to see us use the legal system to change the behavior of men.”

However, Allred’s stated mission in life is exactly that. And like so many things in life, it all goes back to the crucible of high school. “Of the two of us,” says best friend Fern Brown Caplan, a lawyer who grew up with Allred in Philadelphia, “I was the klutz. I’m short and chubby. She was the pretty one. Gloria always told boys, ‘You gotta find a date for my friend Fern if you want to go out with me.’ ”

Allred, it seems, is still doing whatever it takes to make sure that everyone gets taken to the prom. In this case, Botsford was at the dance, but as Allred sees it, she was hobbled by her escorts. “If I don’t tell women about their rights,” Allred asks, “who will?”

It is the cry of the crusader down through the ages: I have no choice, I must. Across the shifting social plains, Allred gallops like an avenging goddess under a banner proclaiming, “Sue them, for they know not what they do.”

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Soon after the Schell press conference, Allred called another to announce the filing of a lawsuit against the family of a convicted child molester for failing to inform a female friend of his past. The failure, Allred claimed, resulted in the molestation of her son.

Because a celebrity is not involved, the suit has not attracted as much initial fanfare as the one filed against Schell. Yet it is far more important because it suggests that a society that fully protects consumers has failed to protect the truly helpless--children. On a Montel Williams show devoted to this issue, Allred presented a stunning case in favor of a metaphorical scarlet letter for those who have taken advantage of children.

It seems that a woman named Helen had been dating a guy named Bob Martin. One day, a friend of Helen was watching an HBO special about parolees. It featured none other than Bob Martin and talked about his criminal record of child abuse. The friend informed a shocked Helen; Bob had become close with her son and the pair spent a great deal of time together. Helen soon after arranged with the police to meet her and her son. After hours of questioning, Helen’s fear had been confirmed: He had described 2 1/2 years’ worth of molestation.

It seems that a woman named Helen had been dating a guy named Bob Martin. One day, a friend of Helen was watching an HBO special about parolees. It featured none other than Bob Martin and talked about his criminal record of child abuse. The friend informed a shocked Helen; Bob had become close with her son and the pair spent a great deal of time together. Helen soon after arranged with the police to meet her and her son. After hours of questioning, Helen’s fear had been confirmed: He had described 2 1/2 years’ worth of molestation.

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Certainly this is a very difficult issue. The idea of forcing families to inform on one of their own, particularly a person who has already been punished, would seem to violate America’s obsession with privacy at its very core and is not what the founding fathers had in mind. But to Allred there is no gray area here.

“A child is the least able to bear the consequences of a failure to warn,” Allred says. “We must impose a legal duty to warn.”

Allred is at her best with a seemingly impossible case such as this. It presents an opportunity to use the civil court system to change the world, and sometimes this approach actually works.

“Allred is a very effective lawyer in the courtroom,” says former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, who was in office when Allred approached him with the then-unpopular deadbeat-dad issue. “It was her idea to publish the names of parents who had warrants outstanding for non-payment of child support. We had an opinion from the attorney general that it was legal to print the list. In fact,” Philibosian says, “taxpayers are victimized when a single parent without child support goes on welfare. Publishing the list (in the now-defunct Herald Examiner and a paper in the San Gabriel Valley) was effective, and it was done at Ms. Allred’s instigation.”

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At first, the party at the hollywood athletic club looks like a GQ cover reunion--it’s wall-to-wall Euromodels. But they’re here to celebrate the first issue of LA’s Eligible, a magazine that features beefcake with high-interest bank accounts. Allred was interviewed in the first issue and, she explains, she wanted to come to the party not because she’s looking to meet someone (she isn’t) but because she feels an obligation to help female entrepreneurs (the publisher is a woman).

As Allred circulates, it becomes apparent that her social life parallels her democratic view of those with probative civil grievances. She attends high- and low-profile events and is at home in each. Here, she is constantly stopped by members of both sexes who want either her autograph or a picture taken with her or both. Invariably, the audience-seeker says that he/she was inspired by Allred and would like to discuss a particular issue in the news. Allred enthusiastically signs, poses for photos and engages in discussion of topics of the day. Once again, Mom was right, I think; you can tell a lot about somebody the way they treat “the help.” Allred is such a natural at the democracy of communication that one wonders why she hasn’t yet run for political office.

“People are always asking me,” she says. “But I don’t want to. I like what I am doing now.”

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A few weeks later, I meet up with her at the Cinegrill in the Roosevelt Hotel. Her friend Cybill Shepherd is performing her lounge act, and Allred has invited me to come along. Allred and Shepherd are good friends, but she also wanted to attend Shepherd’s show for a reason not unlike the reason she was at the LA’s Eligible” party--"Shepherd is a single, working mother and I feel I should support her.”

At a party afterward, I bump into an old friend and introduce him to Allred. He says that he likes her radio show (now weekdays on KABC) and, in fact, as a result of one of her recent broadcasts, has just purchased a copy of “The Encyclopedia of Bizarre Sexual Practices.” This was a show in response to a caller who had raised questions about the genesis of bestiality. I wonder if mention of that encyclopedia on Allred’s show spurred more than one sale and joked that I might phone bookstores around town to investigate. “Oh, great,” Allred says with a laugh. “Eighteen years of law practice, and it’s down to bestiality.”

It comes as a surprise that Allred has a sense of humor. Publicly, she rarely displays it. The humor exit ramp is generally bypassed by missionaries, for fear of not being taken seriously. Allred’s single-mindedness is translated by some as not just being humorless but “strident” as well.

Some have called her worse than that. In 1981, then-State Sen. John Schmitz (R-Corona del Mar), in response to a chastity belt she presented him during a series of hearings he chaired on abortion, issued a press release in which he called her a “slick, butch lawyeress.” She sued him for defamation, won in 1986, and gave her $20,000 award to groups she believed had been maligned in the same press release, including the National Council of Jewish Women, the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center and the California Abortion Rights Action League.

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The Schmitz episode, ultimately, may have had a softening effect on Allred. “In the old days,” says friend Meredith MacRae, “her manner was somewhat strident. But now she looks far more feminine and soft. Her hair is longer. I think she’s everything a woman should be--intelligent, fair, generous and beautiful.”

Regardless of hair length, there are those who persist in interpreting Allred as “strident.” But as her daughter, Lisa Bloom, an associate in Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, says, “Why wouldn’t you want your lawyer to be strident?”

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What is the genesis of Allred’s mission? She herself isn’t quite sure. She grew up as the only child in a poor Jewish household in Philadelphia. The family name was Bloom. “I would go to the movies by myself, and my father would wait for me in the park,” Allred recalls. “We couldn’t afford for both of us to go in.”

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That’s because her father was a Fuller Brush man; her mother was a homemaker. Both had only an eighth-grade education. Stella Bloom loved to read and go out and dance, but Morris Bloom devoted his one day off each week to Gloria. Both parents lavished a great deal of attention on their daughter, and she bears all the marks of an only child who grew up in a loving, intact household: She is highly confident, has a great sense of entitlement, is entirely comfortable being the center of attention yet seeks co-conspirators, others to dance with. Although influenced by both parents, she says that it was a great-aunt--a pediatric heart surgeon in Philadelphia--who was a role model. “She was the only woman I knew who wasn’t a homemaker,” Allred recalls. “She didn’t get married, didn’t cook, didn’t have kids, didn’t apologize for it, liked life. That was very unusual then.”

Allred attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, a public school that required high grades for entry, which Allred regards as key in her development. “They called me Joan of Arc,” she says, “because of my haircut.”

“Girls ran everything at school,” she says, “the paper, the student council. There was never a question that girls couldn’t compete in the world. I remember the vice principal telling us in 1959 that we could have professions.”

After high school, Allred attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an honors English major. She married Peyton Bray and had her first and only child while in college. After she graduated, her marriage was over, and she went to work as an assistant buyer at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia. “I had my first lesson in discriminatory salaries then,” she says. “There was another assistant buyer who was making more money than I was. They told me it was because he had a family. But that turned out not to be true. I decided I better leave.”

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She began substitute teaching and liked it so much that she became a full-time teacher and was assigned to Ben Franklin High, an all-black boys’ school, where she taught for two years. In 1966, she moved to Los Angeles. “A (school district) recruiter had come to Philadelphia after the Watts rebellion,” she says. “I figured if I was going to be poor, I might as well live in the land of sunshine.”

Also, her ex-husband’s family is in La Jolla, and she wanted her daughter to have a relationship with them. In Los Angeles, she was assigned to the east side of town and later Watts. “There were kids from homes similar to mine,” she says. “The conditions in the schools were so bad that I felt the only way they could be changed was legally.”

She left to attend Loyola University School of Law in Los Angeles. In 1968, she married William C. Allred, a manufacturer of aircraft parts who, because of his non-discriminatory hiring practices, was occasionally profiled in those “he’s a feminist too” valentines that seem to fuel Sunday style sections. Nineteen years later, the couple was divorced, with much publicity, when William Allred was convicted of defrauding the federal government by selling counterfeit aircraft parts through his company.

In 1976, Allred founded her own practice. “After I graduated, I decided I wanted to start an all-women’s practice,” she says in her office, which is a stylish mix of the lawyerly and the feminine, a kind of combination library-dining room-work space. “But the women I wanted weren’t available, so I went to Plan B.” Plan B involved two Loyola classmates--Nathan Goldberg and Michael Maroko--who went into partnership with Allred.

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Plan B, it seems, has worked out to everybody’s satisfaction. The firm specializes in three areas: employment discrimination (which includes sexual harassment and wrongful termination), civil rights (which includes rape and child sexual abuse) and family law (divorce, custody cases, litigation involving gay parents and so on).

“Our firm is very topical,” says Maroko. “We deal with a myriad of issues. For instance, we handled the Mermelstein case, in which a concentration camp survivor answered a notice published by the right-wing Institute for Historical Review offering $50,000 to anyone who could prove that ‘Jews were gassed in gas chambers at Auschwitz.’ When Mr. Mermelstein came forward, they refused to pay him. We sued and won. It was a pro bono case.”

High-profile lawsuits are often filed on behalf of people with no money seeking moral vindication against other people who have no money. About 25% of the firm’s cases are pro bono or earn only court-awarded fees--which is not to say that Allred’s firm does not make money. According to Maroko, they handled $3 million to $4 million in billings last year. “We are attracted to cases that have broad public impact,” says Goldberg. “We get 400 to 600 calls per month from people who feel they were discriminated against at work. We have a person fielding calls from people without referral. We have more than 1,000 prospective clients calling per month.

“Our practice is very exciting, there’s always a tumult going on, but it’s an organized tumult.”

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Later that evening, I met up with Allred at her radio show, where the tumult always continues. Her show is more well informed than the average phone-in yak fest, since its host is an actual lawyer, not just some guy with a microphone who announces that “politicians are crooks,” then sits back and watches the switchboard flame out with calls. This medium is the perfect outlet for the pure democrat, a ballot for everyone’s vote, regardless of whether you happen to be phoning from your Lexus on the freeway, your suburban bathtub or a pay phone in your cellblock.

Perhaps one of the most interesting discussions I have heard on any phone-in talk show happened during an evening devoted to modern folklore--"The Sentencing of Ellie Nesler.” Nesler, a Tuolumne County woman, killed the man who had just been convicted of molesting her son. Allred had been advertising this topic for weeks, and it began to take on the feel of a judicial tent meeting, providing the opportunity not only to express an opinion about one of the most volatile issues of our time but also to cleanse your soul of the innate desire to seek revenge--not with a practicing member of the clergy but with a member of one of the professions that has assumed that role, a lawyer.

“Hi, Stan, you’re on with Gloria Allred,” she said, taking another call. Stan made the startling announcement that he had taken the law into his own hands. He took advantage of a prison job in order to kill the inmate who had raped and killed his young daughter. Then Stan went to jail. But, alas, the reality of talk radio interrupted Stan’s heartbreaking tale: It was time for a traffic report. “Stan, do you have regrets?” Allred asked. “Yes, I do,” Stan replied. “I deeply regret what I did, but I’m glad that I did it.”

She asked Stan if he would call back. “I want to hear the whole story,” she said.

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Many things demand our attention these days, and few are worthy. As a book by the Pope and one by a friend of Nicole Brown battle for the top of the charts, it all starts to sound like white noise. Recently, I attended another press conference at Allred’s office, this one announcing victory in a lawsuit against a man who had been convicted of molesting his goddaughter. The 13-year-old girl, Desiray Bartak, was with Allred at the head of the table. Actually, to Allred’s great pride, it was Allred’s daughter who helped litigate the case, although Lisa Bloom was unable to attend the press conference.

As she always does when a client speaks, Allred gazed raptly at “little Desiray” as she introduced her, making sure that all attention flowed not to her but to the person she represents. “I was molested by my godfather,” the remarkably composed Desiray said. “I had to change schools. I went to countless therapists. I was humiliated by students, the principal and the school counselor. I had thoughts of killing myself. I was ashamed and thought I did something wrong.”

Later, I asked Desiray how she had come to contact Allred. Allred had broken through the noise: “I saw her doing a commentary on KABC about deadbeat dads,” she said. “I have one, and I decided to write her a letter about what happened to me. The man who molested me had already pled guilty, and I wanted to sue.”

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Allred responded to the letter, and since then, she and Desiray have appeared together on “20/20" and been interviewed in People magazine. “Talking to the press is part of the healing process for me,” Desiray says, a true moderne. “My therapist, my attorney and my mom all agree.” Some day, she says, she wants to be a lawyer.


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