Interview: Linor Abargil

Raped beauty queen finds fulfilment in helping victims


When Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World in 1998, she burst into tears. Nothing particularly unusual about that - pretty much every beauty contest winner cries. But for the then 18-year-old Israeli, it was different. On a modelling assignment in Milan several weeks previously, she had been brutally raped by the Israeli travel agent who was supposed to be driving her to the airport. Such was the violence involved in the attack on a quiet back road in the middle of the night that Abargil was convinced she would be killed and left by the roadside.

Speaking from Israel ahead of the UK Jewish Film Festival screening of her documentary Brave Miss World - which tells both the story of her trauma and of her subsequent campaign to empower fellow victims - Abargil relives those desperate moments when she fought for her life. The rapist, Uri Shlomo, whom she felt she knew and trusted, drew a knife and raped her repeatedly before attempting to strangle her with a cord. "I was sure that was the end of me that night. Somehow I managed to talk my way out of it. I told him it was a one-night stand and that seemed to calm him down."

She eventually persuaded him drive her to Milan railway station where she made her escape. She took a train to Rome and reported the incident to the police before flying back to Israel. Shlomo was arrested on his return to Israel and was convicted the following year. He remains in jail, although a parole hearing is pending.

So back to the moment when she was announced as Miss World, Abargil was "crying because I suddenly realised what had happened. I wasn't in therapy yet and there was a gagging order [around the case] so nobody knew what had happened to me. It seemed unbelievable that I had gone in such a short time from almost losing my life to winning this competition. It was really crazy - there are such extremes in life."

As years went by, the idea came to her that she could do something to help fellow victims. She began to use her fame to give lectures about her experience with the intention that those who had been through a similar ordeal would come forward and talk about what had happened to them. Then her friend Motty Reif suggested she make a documentary. "I felt that when I got this Miss World title, I had to give a real meaning to this crown," she says. "And doing the film meant the purpose had arrived."

US documentary maker Cecilia Peck - daughter of Hollywood legend Gregory Peck - was recruited to direct the film and the cameras followed her for five years as she toured the world talking to fellow rape victims, recounting her own story and ultimately returning to the scene of the crime. It was a gruelling process. "If I knew how long it was going to take me to make this film I would think twice," she says now. "It took five years of my life and it was very hard to hear all these terrible stories that nobody had listened to.

"I'm not a therapist or a psychiatrist. I'm just Linor from Netanya who won Miss World and was raped when I was 18. I was so lucky that my parents taught me how to believe in myself. But so many people in the world didn't have what I had."

Brave Miss World has been shown at nearly 200 festivals around the world and has been nominated for an Emmy. Despite the trauma of reliving her experiences time and again, Abargil says that her work gives her comfort. There was a point, though, when she needed a break. "It was too much. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't function really. These stories were surrounding me all the time and, yes, it brought back all the bad things and that was hard. If you hear this every day you feel like the whole world is bad, even though this is not the truth.

"There are many beautiful and good things in the world but it makes you feel like everyone is a rapist and everyone is a bad person."

What kept her going was her determination that victims around the world should have a voice."I believe that just speaking about what you go through can change your life. I want to make sure this is something people talk about and don't feel ashamed - and to help them to feel that they are not to blame."

Her travels have taken her from America to areas of South Africa and India where rape is rife. She also hopes to come to the UK. In Brave Miss World, we see her taking on the burden of these talks, hearing the accounts of many women, some who have, like her, survived near death experiences. We also see her journey towards religious observance. Now married with three young children, she has become strictly Orthodox.

She acknowledges that the attack has changed her way of thinking. "I believe all people go through many tough things in their lives. Some people ask questions and some people don't. I ask questions and, of course, when this happened to me I had many of them about why are we here and for what. I found myself. I fell in love with what I heard about Judaism and it made me a much stronger person. I believe in good. I'm not perfect but I am learning and becoming stronger."

Much has changed in her life over the 16 years since her Miss World coronation. So how does she feel about beauty pageants now? "Of course I wouldn't want my kids to participate in beauty contests. But for me it was my life's journey. I wouldn't take any of it back. It's funny, I don't think I was the most beautiful girl in that competition but it is as if God knew I had a bigger goal. I have been able to get people to listen to me and that is amazing. I have such a big purpose in my life. To me, it feels like I have won."

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