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.
Jessica Kalasho found Kargar on Facebook and contacted her a few months before the 2016 competition. Jessica Kalasho and Kargar met at a Starbucks in Santee the following day. Minutes into the meeting,“I questioned whether the pageant was legit,” Kargar says in a thick Eastern European accent — she is half Persian and half Russian. “I’ve been in pageants before, big ones, and this is not how it is done. In my previous contests I had to fill out long applications, like 100 pages, with detailed questions. But Jessica just asked me for the $50 entry fee and basic information. In fact, even before completing the form she asks how many tickets I would like to buy because seats go fast. I wanted my friends and family to be able to attend so I bought ten tickets for $1000.”
Two months later Kargar arrived at the pageant rehearsals. It was the first time she met Ben Kalasho. Shortly after arriving, Kalasho told the contestants he wanted to meet them for one-on-one interviews.
Kargar remembers getting called into the room. “I walked in and it was just him with a camera in a dark room. It made me uncomfortable. I thought how strange the whole thing was. Before he turned on the camera he circled me and asked if I had a boyfriend. He got closer to me and whispered in my ear that I was so hot. He asked where I was going after the rehearsal. I said home. He then said that he couldn’t take his eyes off of me. I felt really small and couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Rehearsals began shortly thereafter. Kalasho asked the women to walk up and down the stage. While the women walked, Kargar says, Kalasho made rude comments about the women’s bodies. Kargar waited for someone to quit. She would have followed, except, “I had already bought the tickets for $1000 and paid for my dress, which was $15,000. So, by that point I was just too invested. I do remember thinking during the rehearsal, as he was standing there looking us up and down and making demeaning comments about our bodies, someone was going to walk out and if they did I would do the same. But no one left and no one said anything.”
Then it was Kargar’s turn to walk the stage. She remembers Kalasho commenting that her breasts were jiggling too much. He made her walk up and down four times, each time making additional comments. “I was embarrassed and ashamed, but I felt as if I had no choice.”
Kargar arrived late to the final day of rehearsals. She says Kalasho pulled her aside. “He said, ‘You wanna win tomorrow?’” Kargar recalls. “Then he said, ‘You stay here at the hotel tonight, with me, and you win.’
“I was shocked. I said no. He looked like he couldn’t believe I turned him down. I knew then that I wasn’t going to get a fair shot.”
Kargar finished fourth.
“Immediately after the competition he came up to me and sarcastically said, ‘Oh, you didn’t win? Well, maybe next year.’ I knew that he meant that I had lost because I wouldn’t hook up with him. He has this competition and says it’s to empower Middle Eastern women, and instead he treated us like we were his slaves.”
Kalasho’s advances didn’t stop there, says Kargar. She says he would often text her or contact her through social media. He sent half-naked selfies, she says.
The 2017 Miss Middle East Pageant was held at the Marriott in La Jolla on June 29. According to pageant volunteer Josh Parker, news of Tawfiq’s lawsuit “was this cloud over everyone. I noticed volunteers stopped showing up. It was obvious people did not want to participate. The girls started to feel more uncomfortable. [Kalasho] would curse all the time — ‘fuck this and fuck that.’ I texted him one night that he should stop, that some of the women were still teenagers. The next day I showed up and he’s cussing even more. At one point he told the girls that he controlled them and they should refer to him as god.”
On the fourth day of rehearsals, the contestants and workers learned of Tawfiq’s lawsuit through media reports.
“[That day], I remember he started yelling at everyone, cussing nonstop, forbidding anyone from talking to the media. I stayed because I want this to succeed. But now that I know what actually happened to [Tawfiq] and [Kargar], and putting together some of the other rumors, it all makes sense. As much as I believe in the mission, I have no faith that he is in it for the right reasons.”
Kalasho declined to comment on the allegations that he created the fake profiles and propositioned Kargar. In a June 7 statement, when the Reader broke the news that Tawfiq was suing, Kalasho had the following to say: “While it is an unfortunate circumstance, Tawfiq’s allegations are easily disproved and we too look forward to exposing her allegations to the bright light of proof at trial. As the founder and president of the largest ethnic pageant in the world, The Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant USA, we take pride in following all the legal necessary steps of executing binding contracts, of which we have in fact in the case at bar. We will protect our brand and reputation at all costs and will not yield to publicity stunts and erroneous allegations whereby ulterior motives and a chance for fame or hunger for money are the clear and evident reasons for such dispute.”