Sunday, November 22, 2009

Kurd will participate in Miss California


Santa Clara County - When Jessica Lagasse was 11 months old, she was orphaned and on the brink of starvation in her native Iraq. Her hair was falling out, she could barely sit up, and her body mass had atrophied.

Now, the 18-year-old will represent Almaden Valley in the Miss California USA pageant this weekend in Rancho Mirage.

"If you really think about, it's kind of crazy," she says.

She is one of at least two South Bay women in the pageant, joining Campbell's Erin Bell, 19, a Westmont High School graduate and student at West Valley College who plans to study music, with hopes of becoming a recording artist.

Lagasse and her 20-year-old sister, Shirena, are from Iraqi Kurdistan. Their mother, Kurdistana, was killed in March 1991, when Saddam Hussein's forces were bombing the region to suppress a Kurdish rebellion. After his wife's death, the girls' father, Sirdar Muhammed Karem, went door-to-door, asking random families to watch the girls for a few days until he could return. He never did. But he met Dan and DeAnna Lagasse,www.ekurd.netwho were doing relief work at a refugee camp in Turkey. The Lagasses visited the girls at Sirdar's request. When they arrived, Shirena's body was swollen from a lack of nutrients, and Jessica hadn't eaten properly for months.

Jessica Lagasse doesn't remember her father — she only has a single, blurry picture of him— and has never seen a picture of her mother. And while she wants to win Miss California USA because it would "be fun to be in the public eye like that," she also hopes it will help her become a role model because of her experiences in Iraq.

Shirena Lagasse is married and lives near Sacramento, and Jessica Lagasse has been working as a nanny and lives with three friends in a Cupertino apartment. The pageant will not be her first foray into show business or public contests.

Jessica Lagasse ended up in the Miss California USA pageant almost by accident. One day in August, she was goofing around online with a friend, applying for reality TV shows, when she saw an ad for the contest. Later that day, she typed and sent a summary of her life story as an application. She didn't hear anything until Oct. 4, when she got an e-mail saying she'd been "preapproved" to compete.

The e-mail also said she needed to be at the Executive Inn and Suites in Oakland the next day for an 11 a.m. interview. Jessica Lagasse is representing Almaden Valley because that was where she first lived after moving to San Jose. Whether she advances or not, Lagasse has come a long way since her early years in Iraq.

"If I lose, that's a bummer," she says. "But I'm still going to be very excited that I got to be a part of something like that." (Photo:

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