Eleven years ago, Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World. As the 18-year-old Israeli model smiled for the TV cameras and accepted the congratulations of her fellow contestants, no one would have suspected that the memory of a horrific ordeal was still fresh in her mind.
Seven weeks earlier, she had been raped at knifepoint.
Since then, Abargil — now 29, and a household name in her native Israel — has been on a mission to convince rape victims who are reluctant to go to the police not to let their attackers get away without punishment. To further her cause, she is making a documentary about her harrowing experience and her fight to have the man who attacked her brought to justice.
“It’s going to be very hard,” she admits, talking from her smart office in Tel Aviv. “But in the end I think it’s going to be amazing. No one well known has ever done a documentary about being raped. If you are a celebrity and put your name next to rape, you get less work. That’s why nobody has done it.”
On October 6 1998, Abargil was finishing a fashion show in Milan. She asked her travel agent to book a flight to Rome from where she would fly back to Israel. The agent, Egyptian-born Israeli Uri Shlomo, insisted the flights were fully booked and offered to drive her to Rome.
Abargil accepted the lift, but as soon as they reached the outskirts of Milan, Shlomo stopped his BMW and drew a knife. He then taped her mouth and hands and raped her repeatedly before trying to strangle her with a cord.
“I knew Shlomo,” says Abargil, who now combines modelling with studying law. “I trusted him to organise my travel arrangements. He was lying to me for three days that there were no flights to Rome. I was very naive. You never think that someone wants to lie to you. Why would you? You don’t think people can do such a bad thing to others, especially when you’re 18.”
Somehow Abargil managed to persuade Shlomo not to kill her. “I told him: ‘It’s a one-night stand.’ I heard this in a movie once and I thought it was a good line. He was telling me all the time that he was sorry and that I couldn’t tell anyone and I had to promise to him that I would tell no one. In the middle of everything I talked to him about his family which made him very mad. I guess it affected him. He told me he had a son.
“I felt like I was fighting with him so hard and then he just stopped and he said: ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone.’
“People tell you that when you get into life-or-death situations, you become like an animal. You want to survive so badly you get a kind of power.”
Shlomo took Abargil back to Milan train station where she called her mother and told her what had happened. Then she took a train to Rome, where she filed a complaint with police before returning to Israel. Shlomo was arrested and detained for several days, but was then released because of lack of evidence.
But Abargil was not prepared to accept the decision. She reported the rape to the Israeli authorities who issued an arrest warrant and began extradition proceedings.
“My family told me: ‘Whatever happens, first of all, you’re right,’” she says. “As soon as I called my mother, she supported me without saying a word. If you ask: ‘But why did you go with him?’, this is blame. Most of the parents of rape victims do that and that’s it, the girl is never going to speak again about anything. But keeping it to yourself is like taking a gun and shooting yourself in the head. Almost everybody blamed me because I’m a model and beauty queen. I was so strong because of my family, so I didn’t care.”
It was Abargil’s mother who convinced her to go ahead with the Miss World beauty pageant as a way of focusing on something positive. Taking part allowed her, temporarily at least, to put the rape out of her mind. “I was in the Seychelles,” she says. “I was with great girls. I didn’t think about anything. I didn’t care about the competition. I didn’t care about what happened. I just wanted to forget.
“I was interviewed by the judges, and everybody had a thing prepared which they learned by heart, and I was like: ‘You know, I don’t want to model. I think this world is hypocritical.’
“The last thing on my mind was the competition. But in the same breath I wanted to win whatever came my way. I had so much anger in me and so many things that I wanted to do, that they saw it. They told themselves: ‘This girl, she has something. She’s not the most beautiful, but she has something.’”
After winning the contest, Abargil told the judges about the rape and that she was reluctant to travel in carrying out her duties as Miss World (particularly since she was required to be available to the Israeli police to give evidence against Shlomo). She even suggested that they might have picked the wrong girl.
“They said: ‘Whatever you want.’ They were very understanding. They made me do only some of the [media] interviews. People always laugh at Miss Worlds because they want to save the planet and they wave very nicely. I really believe that the people who get power in the world should try to change the world. However funny and big that sounds, people should change the world — even if it’s by changing one woman.”
Uri Shlomo was later sentenced to 16 years in jail when the authorities tricked him into returning to Israel. They secured his conviction by using DNA evidence found in his car.
“Afterwards,” Abargil recalls, “some girls called me and said he had done the same to them. They didn’t have the evidence, though. If these girls before me had done what I did, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to me.”
Abargil, who was recently divorced from her Lithuanian basketball-star husband, Sarunas Jasikevicius, believes her persistence and ultimate success in getting Shlomo convicted should provide encouragement to other rape victims. Her documentary, which she is making with Oscar-nominated producer Cecilia Peck (daughter of the Hollywood star Gregory Peck), will include testimony from victims, as well as graphic details of her own story.
Despite the agony she has gone through, Abargil refuses to believe that rapists are evil people. “
They are human beings that have a big, big problem,” she says. “But they are not villains at all. They can be anyone.”