So who's telling lies: the swinging Sultan or the `white slave' beauty?

Tim Cornwell in Los Angeles on the girls-for-hire allegations that have hit the world's richest man

On the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the Sultan of Brunei made a radio address to his nearly 300,000 subjects.

"We have been implicated by slander and defamation that could very well undermine the respect and trust the people have placed on us," warned Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The allegations made against the sultanate, he said, were "worse than murder".

These "destructive forces" aimed at the world's richest man, who celebrated his 50th birthday last year in the company of the Prince of Wales and Michael Jackson, are emanating from the US District Court in Los Angeles. Shannon Marketic, a former Miss USA, is suing the Sultan, his brother and the "talent agency" that allegedly recruited her for a Brunei sex tour for a total of $90m (pounds 57m).

Miss Marketic, 26, claims she innocently accepted a $3,000 a day assignment in Brunei for "personal appearances and promotional work". In the company of six other American women, she alleges, she was made to dance nightly from 10pm till 3am, groped and called a whore. She was barred from leaving the country, she alleges, when she refused to prostitute herself. She was not raped, nor, apparently, did she have sex with anyone. Instead, this devout Christian girl from Malibu is suing for "mental anguish, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, other trauma". Though she never claims to have met the Sultan or his brother, she was allegedly forced to be a private dancer in his palace grounds, and did not like it one bit. Her lawsuit is laden with phrases such as "white slavery" and "human chattel".

The whole sorry mess has landed on the door of the State Department in Washington. The Sultan has claimed diplomatic immunity, and the case is on hold while officials consider it.

It promises to be a delicate diplomatic matter. The Sultan, whose US assets include the Beverly Hills Hotel and homes in Las Vegas, claims exemption from US jurisdiction as a foreign head of state. His brother, HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who served as his minister of finance, claims to hold a diplomatic passport. Miss Marketic's lawyers assert that neither is on the State Department's list of accredited diplomats.

Whatever the eventual ruling, the case is a deep embarrassment to the Sultan, who has turned away from his youthful reputation as a polo-playing playboy and stressed his position as a Muslim monarch. It is terrific fodder for the US tabloids, which have not been particularly kind to either side.

Even if the Sultan is dropped from the list of defendants, Miss Marketic may still pursue her case against the Kaliber Talent Agency, which, she alleges, procured girls from across the US. Kaliber has not, so far, denied that the Sultanate was its client, but it claims it is protected by a clause in her contract binding the parties in any dispute to outside arbitration, and not the courts.

There are two prevailing views on Shannon Marketic. One is that she should have known perfectly well what she was getting into. On the other hand, if she must sue anyone for $90m, she picked the right target in someone worth nearly $40bn.

The Miss USA title does not quite carry the clout of Miss America. But the contest is nationally televised, and the winner would typically pick up prizes and promotional deals worth something like $250,000. One Miss USA, Lynda Carter, went on to be television's Wonder Woman. Others have made big modelling careers. Shannon claimed to specialise in fronting for Christian organisations. Her "Most Requested Topics" for speaking appearances, according to a brochure brandished by her lawyers, include "How to Live a Godly Life", and "Submit (to God) to Succeed". She performed "monodramas" on the evils of abortion, suicide, substance abuse and rape. When she appeared in court this spring, one of the opposing lawyers said scornfully, she was accompanied by "Biblical-type gospel people". Given this image, it is still unclear just how Miss Marketic hooked up with Kaliber, run by Elizabeth and David Khan. Kaliber provides "talent", Mrs Khan's lawyer says, to confidential clients around the world. It has an office address near Hollywood, but this turns out to be a box number at a mailing and packaging shop.

Talent agencies abound in Los Angeles, advertised in the back pages of city magazines. At the bottom end of the entertainment food chain, there are those that openly cater to the porn industry, like the World Modeling Talent Agency in the San Fernando Valley, or Pretty Girls Inc in Hollywood. Most tell stories of girls who have gone to the Far and Middle East, even Brunei, but furnish few particulars. "They all went out knowing what was expected," said Kate McVey - screen name "Stormy Gale" - at Pretty Girls.

Kaliber was in a different class, not least because of its pay rates. An "independent contractor agreement" which Miss Marketic signed states that Kaliber provided "certain services for a client whose identity is confidential". Payments for a minimum of six weeks, with all expenses paid, was $21,000 a week, for "consulting with the client with regard to planning and providing entertainment and social activities for persons situated at the site". A court document on Kaliber's "commission structure" shows payments to the agency of a further $8,500 a week per model. "All birthday money is your own," it said cryptically. "All jewellery is your own." All expenses, allegedly including first-class tickets on Singapore Airlines, were paid.

The Khans must have considered Miss Marketic a major coup. Theypromised her no sex was involved, she says. Not so the men she entertained in Brunei, who she claims yelled things like: "I don't know why the boss paid so much money for you. You are the worst group of whores we have had over here."

Others might have been recognised the former Miss USA as a dangerous commodity, a Christian from the prudish world of beauty pageants, not some former Playboy Playmate used to the bare essentials.

"What was wrong with Miss Brunei?" was how one Internet magazine headlined the story. It is a question the Sultan - or whoever did arrange for a Miss USA to visit Brunei - may well be asking themselves.

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