They’ve been photographed repeatedly with Mayor Eric Adams. They’ve volunteered their time at more than 100 government and civic events in the last three months. They are contestants in Miss Immigrant USA, where many traditional beauty pageant rules do not apply.
Here, contestants representing different countries of origin are judged not by their age or physical appearance but by the number of publicity events they attend, and how they represent themselves and their organization in person and online, said co-founder Magdalena Kulisz, herself a Polish immigrant photographed in many events with a sash on.
At the heart of the pageant, founded in 2018, is “a network of women who stand united in uplifting one another, championing change, and contributing to the community,” according to its website.
Indeed, contestants credited the organization for celebrating and empowering immigrant women by building their confidence and expanding their networks.
Some, however, also said their experience with the pageant, which has a 2.6 star rating from Google users, has been confusing and chaotic, leaving them uncomfortable with its approach, and what they say is the dominant role and dismissive tone of its male co-founder, Shahar Kenan, who goes by Sha.
Those concerns came to a head after THE CITY spoke on Wednesday with Kulisz and Kenan, who are domestic as well as business partners, and asked them to address some of those criticisms ahead of its planned ceremony in Times Square to crown a new Miss Immigrant USA.
But on Friday evening, about 12 hours before the event was to take place, Kulisz messaged its 18 contestants:
“We need to cancel until further notice the announcement of the winners due to our sickness, Sha and I got food poisoned.”
That one-sentence notice, also emailed to THE CITY, wasn’t a total surprise to contestants who said the group had done nothing to promote the ceremony, which was itself supposed to replace a gala pageant that had been scheduled for October.
“It’s scrambled, and it’s kind of like, you take it or leave it,” a contestant said of the organizers’ decisions. Speaking to THE CITY hours before the group canceled its crowning, she continued: “We made our choice. If you can handle them, fine. If you can’t, fine.”
Kulisz and Kenan have been “together as a couple” since 2018, according to a $5 million lawsuit they filed in 2018 accusing Paypal of withdrawing money from their joint business account.
Just how Miss Immigrant USA funds itself — and for whose benefit — is all a bit of a mystery. The pair say the pageant does not take application or entrance fees from contestants and is entirely self-funded.
“We do everything by ourselves — from our money, from our time,” Kenan said Wednesday. “We don’t even get what is called a donation.”
But in a 2019 LinkedIn post — where she laid out her ambitions for a Miss Immigrant USA in every city and noted that “Our President, Donald Trump for years used his beauty pageants to boost business interests abroad. :)” — Kulisz offered 25% off of tickets starting at $20 to that year’s gala pageant, held at the Watson Hotel that is now being used to host asylum seekers.
Kenan and Kulisz claim the pageant is run by a nonprofit called the Miss Immigrant Foundation, which registered as an entity in Delaware in 2019. But that organization has never filed a 990 financial report with the IRS, which would be required by law for nonprofits that bring in more than $200,000 or have more than $500,000 in assets. “I don’t know what it is, 990,” Kenan said during Wednesday’s conversation.
According to the New York State Attorney General’s office, the organization also does not have a registration pending with its charities bureau, as is required for most organizations that “engage in charitable activities in New York or solicit charitable contributions.” Kenan and Kulisz did not respond to subsequent inquiries about that.
Kenan is an attorney who does collection work on insurance claims for medical professionals, while Kulisz is the CEO of a social media marketing company called Orange River Media, with the motto “Build Know. Like.Trust Factor” and a website featuring pictures of Miss Immigrant USA contestants. Kenan is also a partner in that business, according to their 2018 lawsuit against Paypal, which was filed from the same address that’s listed on the Miss Immigrant USA website.
The suit, which a judge ultimately dismissed, also claimed that Paypal’s actions had led to their eviction from Kulisz’s $1,700-a-month studio apartment before “Luckily, with a good heart of a friend want to help, at the last minute, he lets the Plaintiffs to stay in one of his rental apartments, worth $5500 monthly.”
Kulisz made the front page of The Daily News earlier this year for reportedly offering two cargo vans, both with the same license plate and parked on the Upper West Side, as places to stay on Airbnb. The superhost’s listing showed a toilet directly between two car seats with a sign taped to the lid: “For Emergency USE only please! Please avoid doing #2 here!”
Asked about that story on Thursday, Kulisz said that “What happened happened even if it’s not what happened.”
‘This Year Is So Sad’
Even before canceling this year’s crowning ceremony quite literally at the 11th hour, Kenan and Kulisz’s hesitation was evident in a video meeting they scheduled with THE CITY on Wednesday that stretched to nearly two hours, where they shared the pageant’s goal of going “beyond a one-night event” and creating “an all-year experience.”
Asked about their expectations for the Times Square crowning, Kenan looked over to Kulisz and asked: “This is canceled, right? We canceled it?”
He shot a quick glance at her, and continued: “I’m not sure it’s going to happen even.”
Kenan told THE CITY in the course of that conversation that the Times Square crowning had been meant to replace the coronation gala and pageant they’d canceled this year because of a budget shortfall in their bootstrap operation.
“This year is so sad… The elected officials, when they have the budget to support, although they look like us, they see us, they love us, nobody offers us a budget to help with what we’re doing,” he said, expressing his frustration that the same officials who like to be photographed with pageant contestants hadn’t supported the group with public funds.
As Adams has talked this year about how an influx of migrants “will destroy New York City,” Miss Immigrant USA has promoted pictures of its contestants and Kulisz attending events at Gracie Mansion, walking alongside the mayor at parades and cheering him on during speeches and at events, including at several flag-raising ceremonies for other nations.
The group has also posted photos of its contestants with other politicians and dignitaries, including Gov. Kathy Hochul. Assemblymember Steven Raga was present at the group’s red carpet gala last year, where the main sponsor was AmphiBag — “a Bag and a Scarf in one garment,” which was also created by the pageant’s co-founders and given to guests as a gift. City Sheriff Anthony Miranda also attended the event, where Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Manuel Castro crowned Lana Tu, an immigrant from Vietnam, as the 2023 Miss Immigrant USA.
“He spoke about the importance of immigrants in New York City and connected with community members there,” City Hall spokesperson Liz Garcia said of Castro’s appearance.
Responding to the complaint about the pageant not receiving city funding, Garcia noted that the pageant group did not get funding because it hadn’t asked for it, noting that nonprofits are encouraged to go through a formal request process to seek funding.
“We would have determined whether they were eligible if it was something they would have come to us with,” she said. “It was a little bit confusing.”
As to the many photos and videos on the group’s website and social media accounts showing Adams with Kulisz and pageant contestants, often in sashes, Garcia said that “the mayor consistently touts his support for the immigrant community, and we are always looking for ways to engage the community in our community events.”
While the Miss Immigrant USA website says nothing about the winner’s rewards, it does note that contestants would be assessed “by anonymous Community Partners’ representatives” for their “involvement in community events, presentation skills, social media presence, and their capacity to act as role models through community service and immigrant empowerment.”
“Every event serves as a mini-pageant, with each contestant evaluated by an undisclosed group of judges,” it continues. Kenan said Wednesday that the winners would go on to represent the organization in more events until the next pageant season commences.
‘They Might Think We Are the Problem’
The two founders did not “come to this project as a mission about immigrants,” said Kenan, who immigrated from Israel nearly two decades ago.
When they founded Miss Immigrant USA in 2018, he said during Wednesday’s conversation, the idea had been to offer opportunities for women to participate in pageants who would otherwise not qualify under traditional criterias — offering as examples older women, married women and women with tattoos.
“So we were thinking like, what would be a good name to include everyone? And Sha came up with the name Miss Immigrant,” said Kulisz.
Kenan, who did most of the speaking over a 100-minute interview, chimed in, adding that they had together “decided to go with this name and see what happens” because no one else had claimed it.
“It was a journey of learning. Until now we are still learning: What is an immigrant? What’s going on? What’s going on in the city?” he continued. At another point, he said “Even if someone moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, for me, it’s immigrant. It’s a phenomenon. It’s something that happens to people when you are moving from place to place.”
Indeed, at the top of the Miss Immigrant USA website is the slogan: “We Are All Immigrants Everyone Is Welcome”.
While the organization says its goal is to “embolden, empower and raise the glory of immigrants,” when asked about the migrants arriving in New York City now, Kenan stressed that Miss Immigrant USA is not involved in politics — despite the many photos of contestants with elected officials the group posts on its social feeds and website.
“We don’t remark, we don’t take sides,” he said. “Of course, we see what happens, but this is not our mission to say if someone does the right way or another way or the other way.”
Asked about harsh reviews online about how “these people are frauds,” including several singling out Kenan — “male owner is a liar” — he said the group weren’t aware of them before Kulisz reminded him in a soft voice that “this is from the past, remember?”
“We do have people that don’t like the organization,” Kulisz began before Kenan interjected: “Remember it’s a competition also between the girls. Once they don’t win, they’re angry… And if they don’t win, they might think we are the problem.”
Some current contestants, though, say that the problem is Kenan.
“I don’t want to be treated like a little girl or somebody who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” one contestant said. “I want to receive the same respect I’m giving to people.”
Another gave Kenan credit for encouraging the contestants to act with confidence around politicians and dignitaries.
“When we’re around all these people,” the contestant said, Kenan reminds them “we should not feel like we’re nothing… We should know that we belong on those stages — and I really like that about him.”
She continued, however: “But then I can also see that he’s a chauvinist because he wants to force his way, like, all the time. Like it must be his words, his ways, or the highway.”
Several contestants took care to distinguish Kulisz from Kenan.
“She’s generally pretty quiet, always with a smile, gentle and has generosity to give,” a third contestant said. But “he overpowers her… if he is her partner, it’s the wrong partner.”
One contestant added that “what he has to say, at the end of the day, his word is the last word.”
At the end of the Zoom conversation on Wednesday, Kenan said of his co-founder that “the most important thing you need to emphasize is that it’s all about her. She is the leader, she is doing all the job. Without her, there is nothing.”
When THE CITY requested the two pose together for a screenshot, Kenan first said the picture should be of just Kulisz before relenting after THE CITY asked to have both of them appear.
On Monday, the Miss Immigrant USA email account sent an unsigned reply to follow-up questions from THE CITY about Kenan’s behavior toward women in the pageant. It read, in full:
“Unfortunately we don’t have time for this.”
‘What We Actually Deserve’
Myla Kuche, a 38-year-old banker and contestant who immigrated from Ukraine 15 years ago, said she had first met Kulisz at a feminist picnic years ago, and decided to participate in this year’s pageant after Kulisz reached out to recruit her.
Kuche said she has valued the networking opportunities, as wearing a Miss Immigrant USA sash to events often sparked interest from others. These conversations, she said, have become platforms for her to rally support for her home country following Russia’s invasion.
“Ukraine needs support as never before,” said Kuche. “I think with different events and periods of time people forget about that. It’s important to remind them that we as Ukrainians still fighting the regime.”
Having accomplished that, Kuche said not having a culminating crowning ceremony in Times Square was “ok by me.”
But another contestant who appreciated parts of the pageant had a harsher verdict.
“As much as I want to represent that organization, I don’t want to misrepresent myself or my values,” said the contestant, who declined to be named. “If I knew it was going to end like this, I would never put myself in this position.”
Alimata Coulibaly, a Malian immigrant and entrepreneur in her early 40s, said on Wednesday she was honored to be representing her home country as well as Muslim women and the other West African countries where she’s lived.
Coulibaly was approached by Kulisz to participate in the contest when they met at a Greater New York Chamber of Commerce event earlier this year. She had been skeptical at first because she didn’t feel she represented the typical qualities of a pageant contestant, but was ultimately convinced as she saw that the organization’s stated values aligned with her own. She hoped to use its platform to encourage the city to do more to provide housing to immigrants.
While there had been moments of frustration during the pageant season, she said, “I don’t want to get into that.”
But speaking again on Saturday, Coulibaly said “I was sorry to hear about their sickness. It was very disappointing to learn that” the crowning had been canceled.
“But everything happens for a reason I guess.”