Ashleigh Blake never dreamed of becoming a beauty queen. The 21-year-old amateur model and part-time tutor fantasized about being a movie star or the next Glee triple threat, and posted her resume on the casting networking site GotCast in hopes that Hollywood might call. But when a recruitment associate for Miss California USA, the splashiest state franchise in Donald Trump's Miss Universe pageant ecosystem, sent Ashleigh a message in November 2012 expressing interest in scheduling a meeting, she responded right away. "I didn't expect them to pick me in a million years," Ashleigh said. "When they did, I thought it was the start of my dreams coming true."
What happened next was more like a nightmare.
Miss USA competitors get a bad rap; they're known for being party girls (Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006), porn stars (Melissa King, Miss Delaware Teen USA 2013), and homophobes (Carrie Prejean, former Miss California USA 2009 and Miss USA 2009 first runner-up).
But our investigation found that the people behind the scenes — not the camera-ready women they hide behind — are the ones truly worthy of a spotlight. Some of the men who recruit and run the organization's lucrative pageants are scam artists with lengthy track records of manipulating desperate clients with false promises of fame. Chasing the dream can be pricey, but sources told us it's possible to pay up with sexual favors.
Miss America girls want to be doctors and lawyers. Miss USA girls want to grow up to be Victoria's Secret models.
MUO co-owner Donald Trump has made his name milking controversy for cash, but it's hard to imagine that even he would advocate profiting off the activities some high-level Miss USA representatives have been involved with for years. State directors and recruiters sign contracts promising to uphold the "upstanding reputation and image" of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO), but no one's watching to make sure they actually comply. And when power runs unchecked, things can sour faster than a runner-up's fake smile.
Last December, millions of people — "one billion," according to Trump — in approximately 190 countries watched Rhode Island resident Olivia Culpo beat out 88 other beauty queens to become Miss Universe. It was the organization's most-watched competition since 2008. The day before the pageant aired, a judge awarded the MUO $5 million in damages against ex-Miss Pennsylvania Sheena Monnin over her claims that the Miss USA pageant was rigged.
"We are pleased that the integrity of the Miss USA pageant remains intact," MUO President Paula Shugart said in a statement. "We were always confident in what the outcome would be as the truth was on our side."
Confidence aside, the MUO is used to controversy. That's why the Miss America pageant is so averse to being confused with its smuttier sister that it rather brusquely explains the differences between the two pageants on its website's FAQ. The distinction was established over half a century ago, when Yolande Betbeze, a convent girl from Alabama, refused to pose for swimsuit photos after winning the 1951 Miss America title. A swimsuit sponsor retaliated by launching the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants as competitors — and effective product promotion tools.
Generations later, the foil remains. One 2013 Miss America hopeful recently told Marie Claire that she considered the crown a stepping stone on the way to becoming a state governor. Miss America girls want to be doctors and lawyers, 2004 Miss USA Shandi Finnessey once told Fox & Friends, while Miss USA girls want to grow up to be Victoria's Secret models.
Trump, who bought the MUO in 1996 and co-owns it with NBCUniversal, clearly has no problem with the pageant's reputation. "Ratings have been terrific," Trump told The Insider in 2010 after controversy arose over official competition photos of lingerie-clad contestants rolling around in bed. "They are a little bit sexy but I'll tell you what — everybody's watching so I have no problems with it."
But no one's paying attention to what happens behind the scenes.
After being contacted by a Miss California USA recruiter, Ashleigh rushed to fill out an online application. She was soon invited to an interview session with pageant recruiter Domingo Rodriguez at a Clarion Hotel near her apartment in Tracy, a drab city bordered by three interstate highways on the outskirts of the Bay Area. She and a handful of other girls in attendance vying for spots in younger sister pageant Miss California Teen USA watched a promotional video and then had one-on-one interviews with Rodriguez.
"The pageant industry is expensive for young ladies. Everyone wants to make money somehow."
Rodriguez, a middle-aged smooth-talker, told Ashleigh he would help her find sponsors when she said she couldn't afford the pageant's initial and nonrefundable $895 deposit fee. If Ashleigh was interested in other paid modeling jobs – and she was, yes, of course — Rodriguez knew of a magazine in Miami that needed a cover model. In a follow-up email to Ashleigh sent a few days later, Rodriguez reiterated the magazine opportunity and remained encouraging. "We can meet sometime in the future if you like to take you [sic] to the next level," he wrote. "Keep Smiling!" The next day, he texted Ashleigh, saying she should feel free to contact him on his cell if it was easier than email.
Ashleigh was excited but unsettled by Rodriguez's fervent enthusiasm; her baby-faced features and skinny 5'8'' frame were more fitting for an American Apparel billboard than a national beauty pageant. But when she called the phone number listed on the pageant's website and reached K2 Productions, the company that produces Miss California USA, a receptionist confirmed that Rodriguez was indeed employed by K2 Productions' official recruitment and marketing arm, Chase the Crown. Feeling reassured, Ashleigh texted Rodriguez back to learn more.
Rodriguez instructed Ashleigh to email modeling photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. After she sent four PG-rated photos, a woman who identified herself as Jazmine Mitchell of Life Talent Ltd asked Ashleigh what type of modeling/acting she would be open to, specifying that "our Agency does G to X rated modeling assignments." Ashleigh politely said she would prefer only "implied nudity" and referenced her childhood modeling work with Osh Kosh B'Gosh. Rodriguez also asked Ashleigh to send him a photo to show his "magazine contacts," so she texted him one of herself in a pink bikini, posing against a living room couch. "Is there anything else I can do in the meantime?" she texted. "I would love the chance to model for pretty much any assignment!"
Five minutes later, Rodriguez responded: the magazine wanted her on the cover and she'd pocket 80% of the paycheck, but they had to meet in person to discuss the terms of the agreement. Ashleigh thought it was odd that he couldn't discuss the contract over Skype, but agreed to meet him at a Starbucks in Tracy; Miss California USA had confirmed he was legit and Rodriguez had told her via text that "there is an interest we need to sell it now." In the days before the meeting, Rodriquez sent her inspirational texts: "Keep smiling…visualize success."
When the two met later that week, Rodriguez showed up without any paperwork and asked Ashleigh to get inside his car. She felt uncomfortable but got inside; he was an official Miss USA recruiter, after all, and she had come this far. Once the doors were closed, Rodriguez told Ashleigh that the agreement wasn't written. It was oral.
"Basically, I had to give him head and other ‘sexual favors' if I wanted to be on the cover of the magazine," Ashleigh said. Rodriguez explained that this was simply the "fast track" that 90% of all successful actors and models took to the top: if she performed additional sexual favors for the powerful men on the modeling circuit, her path to fame would be guaranteed.
Ashleigh said Rodriguez asked her to "prove herself" right there in the Starbucks parking lot. When she looked upset, he let her out of the car and told her to think it over. Instead, she spoke with an officer at the Tracy Police Department the very next day. But because Rodriguez hadn't actually forced her to go down on him, the incident was a civil matter, not a criminal one.
The Miss Universe pageant and recruitment ecosystem.
Next, Ashleigh contacted Keith Lewis, the State Director for Miss California USA and Miss California Teen USA and co-director of K2 Productions, the company that produces the pageants and vouched for Rodriguez. Lewis told Ashleigh in an email that he was horrified by her experience and would remedy the situation, but advised her to keep her story under wraps "to prevent the possibility of tainting the outcome." Whether he was referring to the outcome of the pageant — which he encouraged Ashleigh to still apply for — or the investigation was unclear.
Two days later, Lewis wrote to Ashleigh that K2's official recruitment company, Chase the Crown, had agreed to relieve Rodriguez of his recruiting responsibilities. Lewis told her he had spoken at length to the detective assigned to Ashleigh's complaint – but unfortunately, he wrote, neither the police nor he would be able to follow up any further. Lewis was sympathetic, and he told Ashleigh he was trying to find her an "appropriate therapist" near her apartment. Thoughtful, perhaps, although Ashleigh had never asked for counseling in the first place — and that was the last she heard from Lewis on the matter. According to the police officer who received Ashleigh's report, no one from K2 Productions ever contacted him or any other law enforcement authority. Lewis never found Ashleigh that "appropriate" therapist, either.
That's when Ashleigh decided she was out. "I no longer wanted to be affiliated with the Miss USA brand," she said with a sarcastic laugh. Ashleigh uploaded a video to YouTube (below) in hopes of spreading her story, but no one seemed to take notice.
Rodriguez confirmed to Jezebel in a telephone interview that he had met Ashleigh in his car outside of a Tracy Starbucks in an attempt to teach her how to succeed in the modeling business. "She told me she would do whatever it takes, and now she's throwing my help in her face," he said. He denied that he personally requested a blow job, but said that he told Ashleigh he knew of a magazine where "young ladies can get on the cover if they do some type of sexual favors with the people at the magazine." He said he had offered the same option to other young women and that at least one had taken him up on his offer — and was "doing very well."
"This is character assassination and it's a shame because I've helped a lot of people in the past." he said. "When a young lady says she wants to find out opportunities, I'll pass the word out."
He said he only met with Ashleigh because he was under the impression that she couldn't afford to make it in Miss California USA. "The pageant industry is expensive for young ladies," he said. "I feel bad for those who dream about it but financially can't make it happen. Everyone wants to make some money somehow."
Keith Lewis is currently the state director for six Miss USA pageants: he owns the franchises for Miss California USA, Miss New York USA, and Miss New Hampshire USA, as well as the respective teen competitions for each state. Lewis told us that he first met Chase the Crown founder and former president Erik DeSando 25 years ago, back when the two ran their own individual talent agencies. The two publicly announced a "strategic alliance" in 2004, moved into the same office building, and shared some of the same employees.
Soon after, both men got involved in side projects: Lewis became the state director for Miss California USA and DeSando launched Be Productions LLC, the "undisputed destination for young artists interested in realizing their dreams."
Be Productions lured kids (and their parents) by telling them they had star potential – but, of course, the young would-be stars needed to pay thousands of dollars up front for headshots and acting classes if they wanted to be cast on Disney shows like Hannah Montana and Zoey 101.
Be Production's Talent Director was Domingo Rodriguez, then known as Domingo Casañas. The seamy trio — Rodriguez, Lewis, and DeSando –- had solidified their business relationship.
In 2009, an ABC News investigation led to a widely publicized federal class action lawsuit that accused Be Productions of swindling over $20 million from more than 6,000 families by attempting to sidestep a state consumer protection law specifically meant to keep dubious advance fee talent agencies in check, publishing false and misleading information about its prices and services and referring clients to classes and photo shoots in exchange for paid compensation. The lawsuit, which is still pending, claimed that the contracts signed by thousands of families "violate the law and cannot be enforced."
Judging by multiple emails on a website devoted to detailing Be Productions' scam operation, Rodriguez has spent a significant amount of time complaining about the subsequent backlash. "Now when someone looks up my name on Google it shows your Stage Parent attitude where you blame the talent director for whatever reasons you feel your son Arthur has not become a star," Rodriguez wrote to one parent. "This is sad." Rodriguez used the email address email@example.com — the same email address he would give girls like Ashleigh years later — to tell parents to "keep smiling," apparently his favorite inspirational phrase.
Before the bad publicity, Be Productions was listed on the official Miss California USA website under "recruiters" along with DeSando and Rodriguez's names; afterwards, DeSando's last name mysteriously switched to "John." Once the discredited Be Productions shuttered, DeSando launched Chase the Crown, and his good pal Lewis advertised the company as "the official recruitment and marketing arm for K2 Productions" in a variety of official MUO materials and press releases.
DeSando was proud of Be Productions — he told Entrepreneur that he projected sales of $15 million in 2008. He was great at pageant recruiting, too, a job he held for four years, working for a variety of state directors including Lewis. Together, the duo turned the Miss California USA franchise into the largest state pageant in the Miss USA system. Under K2 Productions and Chase the Crown's partnership, Miss California USA registered over 400 contestants in 2010 and continued its meteoric rise up until last year, when the franchise once again boasted having the most registered participants for any state in the history of the pageant.
But in May 2012, DeSando abruptly left. "Make sure you make it clear in the article that I NO LONGER work in recruitment," DeSando wrote in an email to Jezebel. "Sorry to be a pain but there is much politics in the MUO system and I want to make sure things arent misrepresented."
Why did DeSando part ways with MUO — as he claims he did last spring — if he was doing so well? Lewis said he wasn't able to have a "candid conversation" about DeSando's departure and would only say that it was "a mutually agreeable decision" and that DeSando was not permitted to use the Miss USA or Miss Universe trademarks or interact with "Miss USA girls" after that time.
But a source close to the issue told Jezebel under guarantee of anonymity that MUO higher-ups told Lewis in spring 2012 that they wouldn't renew his franchise agreement if he continued to employ DeSando as a recruiter. They had received too many serious complaints about DeSando's behavior – according to another source, one was that he often sent girls a shirtless photo of himself posing as former congressman and notorious sexter Anthony Weiner.
It's not a good sign if Donald Trump doesn't want to be associated with you.
DeSando told us that while he still does some "consulting" for Chase the Crown, his sister now officially runs the company. But DeSando's personal website says he still works in "marketing and recruitment" for K2 Productions. On November 12th –- around five months after Lewis supposedly severed ties with DeSando at MUO's request — DeSando sent out an email blast advertising "model industry specialists" services and wrote, "I work for K2 productions the official producer of the Miss California USA, Miss New York USA, Miss New Hampshire USA and Miss Maine, USA contests." On January 25th, 2013, DeSando posted a status update on his Facebook looking for women "that can speak in front of a room and have the ability to convince others"; those interested could email him at his Chase the Crown address. Additionally, several Miss USA franchise websites are still owned by DeSando and are being used by K2 and Lewis as their official application pages for prospective beauty queens.
Either DeSando never stopped recruiting for his old buddy Lewis, despite MUO's refusal to work with him, or he wanted to work independently while using the MUO brand for personal profit. And why wouldn't he?
DeSando told Jezebel he made "well into the six figures" while working with MUO because he was, in his own words, the top pageant recruiter in the country.
"I stand out because I sell a specific concept to the girls who aren't going to win," he explained. "We have to make sure those girls feel good about themselves even when they're going to fail."
But technically these men can't make the girls "feel good" without playing by the rules. The MUO owns all rights to the Miss USA state preliminary pageants, but licenses individuals and companies to operate their state level pageants with their Miss USA branding. If MUO says a recruiter has to go, then the recruiter has to go. But DeSando didn't go.
Lewis says K2 Productions makes all recruiters sign a Code of Conduct every year that uses language from the franchise agreement he has with MUO. "Our job is to uphold the standards of the Miss Universe Organization," he said. "I'll lose my franchise if it's found I'm not doing that."
But the men violated or attempted to violate more rules than they followed, from the way they liberally peppered their various endeavors with the Miss USA marks without approval to the way they tried to solicit clients for their sketchy side projects to, of course, failing to uphold "the upstanding reputation and image" of the pageant.
Further investigations go in all kinds of directions. Here's just one: DeSando's best friend and former roommate was John B. Hawkins, a model and one-time Studio 54 bartender who was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, insurance fraud and grand theft and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for devising a scheme in the late '80s to murder a man in order to collect a $1.5 million life insurance policy.
"We have to make sure those girls feel good about themselves even when they're going to fail."
Hawkins's case was one of the largest murder cases ever solved by America's Most Wanted; the story was turned into a book, Insured for Murder, and two movies. DeSando lived with John B. Hawkins during the time that the murder was planned, allowed Hawkins to use him as an alias, according to an FBI report, and was the one who signed for the insurance payout, according to Law and Ordinance.
According to a Columbus Dispatch article from September 1989 headed "Testimony of Erik Desando, Former Roommate of John B Hawkins, Full of Holes, Defense Lawyer Says," DeSando was "defensive" under cross-examination and provided different accounts over the years depending on who was asking.
There's no rule against hiring a convicted criminal's close associate to represent your company, and MUO wouldn't disclose the complaints that caused them to tell Lewis to tell DeSando to step down. Instead, they gave us a statement: "Ultimately the franchisee is responsible for their employees as well as individuals they select to run their recruiting process" and that "any accusations of impropriety by anyone purporting to represent the Miss Universe Organization, be it on a National level or through our state franchisees are taken very seriously and will be investigated."
But it doesn't seem that MUO followed up to make sure DeSando and his cohorts were staying away. Neither did Lewis, DeSando's long-time friend, who would only say that he is "an extremely ethical and spiritual person and would never allow anything to go unchecked or enacted on by one of our vendors or their associates," as he wrote to us in an email.
Everyone wants to blame someone else. And in the end, it's the broke girls looking for their big break who get screwed.
On February 19th, DeSando sent Ashleigh an invite to join "It Girls," his newest business endeavor that purports to teach women how to brand themselves like Oprah or Taylor Swift. "You are a diamond in the rough. With our help, you will learn to unleash your untapped potential until you transform into a polished gem."
Desando described It Girls to us as "the pageant industry on steroids."
Just as he did with Be Productions and Miss USA, DeSando is using reputable brands without their permission — Disney, Miss USA, and now celebrity likenesses — to substantiate his business and take advantage of young women.
And the beat goes on.
Ashleigh won't be signing up. "I never thought I was worthy enough anyway," she said. "I didn't think I was what they were looking for."
Her father disagreed. "Congratulations future Ms. Universe or is it Ms. World," he wrote on her Facebook on November 26th, the day after she met Rodriguez for the first time. "I know you will be future Ms. California minimum."
"Thanks Dad :)" she wrote back.
Update: Erik DeSando resigned from It Girls one hour after we notified him of the allegations in our follow-up piece.
Know more about the MUO? Email me.