In El Cajon city councilmember Ben Kalasho’s words, he created the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant to “empower” Middle Eastern women and award them the freedom to “wear what you want, marry who you want, vote, drive and have equal standings in court and community.”
The pageant is in its fourth year. Kalasho, who was elected to El Cajon’s City Council in 2016, boasts Miss Middle East is the “largest ethnic beauty pageant in the world.”
The pageant’s goal, adds Kalasho, is to provide Middle Eastern women a “vehicle for such bold and empowering steps. We owe it to our girls, our women, our future....”
Now, two former contestants are suing Kalasho and his pageant. They claim the contest is less a vehicle for boosting Middle Eastern women than it is a vehicle for Kalasho to commit fraud, obtain fame, harass and denigrate women, and, according to one contestant, a tool to lure women into having sex with him.
On June 7, Zhala Tawfiq, who won the crown in 2016, filed a lawsuit against Kalasho and the Miss Middle East Pageant for fraud and for posting fake nude photos of her online after the parties had a contractual dispute.
Now another former contestant has come forward with allegations that Kalasho harassed her and propositioned her to have sex with him in exchange for the crown.
I was terrified
Zhala Tawfiq, 26, decided to enter the pageant in 2016 despite working a full-time job and living in Los Angeles. “I knew the pageant was small and that it was not going to bring me substantial opportunities or career advancement, but I loved the mission and purpose of Miss Middle East,” she writes in a July 20 email.
On May 19, 2016, Tawfiq won the Miss Middle East crown. When the results were announced She approached center stage and took hold of the four-by-two-foot symbolic check for $2000.
Three days after the pageant, Kalasho and his wife Jessica, a former model who helps run the pageant, emailed Tawfiq with an employment contract to sign. The terms: Kalasho and his Miss Middle East Pageant would pay Tawfiq three installments of $666.66 over the course of the year as her prize money. In exchange, Ben or Jessica Kalasho wanted control of Tawfiq’s social media profiles in order to post messages, pictures, and promote the pageant. The contract also required Tawfiq to sell five tickets for the following year’s pageant and five tickets to Kalasho’s San Diego East County Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce (whose name has since changed) annual Royal Masquerade Party. Lastly, Kalasho required Tawfiq to appear at five additional chamber-of-commerce events.
Tawfiq says she found the proposed arrangement odd, but she gave Kalasho the benefit of doubt. “I was a bit suspicious but I also had no pageant experience. I told myself that this is probably common for all pageants. I figured that since they started a pageant and want it to be successful they would go by the book.”
However, after signing the contract, “I realized something was amiss. After I won, I had no agenda, no itinerary, and no duties as Miss Middle East. I finally emailed [Ben and Jessica Kalasho] a month later asking if they have an itinerary for upcoming events for the year so that I make sure I am available. I was eager and excited to get started, but unfortunately I learned quickly that the pageant was more for show than making actual real impact on the community.”
Tawfiq scheduled her own appearances, absent Kalasho’s direction. One month after winning, she visited educational camps for underprivileged children in Los Angeles and spoke about her culture, background, the pageant, and her work in the pharmaceutical industry. In July 2016 she appeared at a Women in Action conference in Chicago where she promoted the pageant without Kalasho’s direction. In December she hosted a party for Syrian refugees in El Cajon, again without Kalasho’s participation.
By that time Tawfiq had cashed two of the three checks for a total of $1332. Meanwhile she had spent several thousand dollars on hair, makeup, and clothes for photo-shoots and other appearances.
In March 2017, Kalasho posted a video on Tawfiq’s Facebook profile without Tawfiq’s approval. She wrote to Kalasho on Snapchat.
“Hi Ben, you should let me know next time you upload to my Facebook ;)”
Kalasho responded, “Nah.”
Tawfiq informed him she had changed her password and he should not “invade her [Facebook] and upload a video I am not even in.”
Kalasho’s shot back, “It’s part of your job. In it or not, it wasn’t a random thing…Duh…. Next upload will be next week. I suggest the password be accessible immediately.”
In April, Tawfiq was set to fly to Kurdistan on a vacation. She planned to promote the pageant on television and magazines in addition to visit family.
While at the airport waiting to depart, she found a fake Instagram account titled “Zhala_Tawfiq_Fanpage.” The account featured four doctored nude photos of Tawfiq. The profile description stated, “Leaked images of Miss Middle East Beauty Queen fan page.”
Tawfiq has never posed nude. She says she initally refused to pose in a bathing suit for a pageant photo-shoot, though she relented because the clothing designer was a breast-cancer survivor and the suit was conservatively fashioned for fellow survivors.
Asked whether she believes the Kalashos were behind the fake profile, Tawfiq says, “No doubt in my mind. When I saw them I couldn’t hold back the tears. I was terrified of someone getting a hold of it and spreading it on the internet. I would be humiliated, not to mention it could jeopardize my career.”
The profile was removed. On May 15, 2017, Kalasho informed Tawfiq that he was stripping her of her crown.
I wouldn’t hook up with him
Paris Kargar walks toward an outside table at True Food in Fashion Valley. She struts as if walking down the fashion runway. She is tall, thin. Her hair is straight and dark, her skin olive.