AT FIRST, SHANNON MARKETIC WAS SKEPTICAL. As Miss USA 1992, she had often been paid hefty fees for making public appearances. But never before had she received an offer I quite like the one that came via the Kaliber Talent Consultants in Los Angeles last spring: first-class transportation to the tiny oil-rich country of Brunei—adjacent to Malaysia in Southeast Asia—accommodations on the grounds of the nation's longtime ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and $3,000 a day, all in exchange, she was told, for doing modeling and promotional work. Too good to be true? So it appeared. But her agreement with Kaliber seemed clear: Under no circumstances were sexual services required. She brought in her father to look at the contract. She talked to other women who had been to Brunei. "They all assured her it was straight up," says her close friend Kelly Hu, who plays Dr. Rae Chang on NBC's Sunset Beach. "From what she heard, she was going to have a great time."

And so, last August, armed with a suitcase full of evening dresses and, she has said, assurances from the Kaliber agency that her trip could result in a corporate position as a rep for one of the Sultan's many stateside holdings (including the famed Beverly Hills Hotel), Marketic, 26, took off for Brunei. But for the deeply religious Christian beauty queen, the visit proved anything but great—and the lawsuit she filed in L.A. federal court on Jan. 17 has opened up to unprecedented scrutiny the exotic, opulent and mysterious life of the man whose estimated $40 billion fortune makes him the wealthiest monarch in the world. In her suit against the Sultan, 50, his brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah, 47, and the owners of the Kaliber agency, Marketic claims that she was held against her will for 32 days; that she was gassed and sexually manhandled at one of the royal palaces in Brunei; and that when finally allowed to leave, she was paid only $10,000, not the $97,000 owed her.

Though Marketic's lawyers have advised her not to speak until the case is resolved, she is insistent on explaining her bottom line. Marketic is seeking more than $10 million in damages from the Sultan on charges of kidnapping and transporting women for prostitution, but she is equally concerned, she suggests, with vindication. "The Sultan doesn't have to answer to me," Marketic told PEOPLE. "But he does have to answer to God."

The Sultan has told his subjects emphatically that he is innocent. In April in a rare public statement apparently alluding to Marketic's charges, the Sultan, who has ruled over his Muslim nation of 300,000 subjects for three decades, went on radio imploring Brunei's citizens to remain vigilant against allegations he called "worse than murder." In Manhattan the Sultan's publicist Alan Capper minced no words. "This woman is not known to either [the Sultan] or Prince Jefri," he told PEOPLE. "Never heard of her, never met her."

Capper is less emphatic when asked if nightly parties stocked with well-paid beauties from around the world do, as Marketic alleges, take place on the royal grounds. "I'm not acknowledging anything," he says. Friends such as Marketic's ex-fiancé, Atlanta Falcon wide receiver Todd Kinchen, are quick to dismiss the Sultan's denials. "Shannon's a good Christian woman," Kinchen says. "She wouldn't make anything like this up." But even if she didn't, at least one observer believes Marketic shouldn't have been shocked by what happened. "For $3,000 a day," says Jennifer Makris, 23,1997's Miss New Jersey USA, who has a friend who went to Brunei, "what in the world did [she] expect?"

Then again, this is the world of His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah—where his beloved horses are housed in hundreds of air-conditioned stables (humans make do in his 1,778-room palace), where the eldest of his 10 children can take spins in his 150 Rolls-Royces, and where his two wives (he is allowed four by Muslim law) have been known to drop half a million dollars in an afternoon of shopping. What to expect in such a world is anybody's guess; but when Marketic was invited to enter it in the spring of 1996, what she needed was cash.

At first, Marketic says she didn't seriously consider the Brunei venture suggested by Elizabeth and David Khan, owners of the Kaliber talent agency. Instead, unable to establish herself as an actress and unsure if she wanted to continue her business classes at Pepperdine University, she left L.A. for Dallas. She moved in with her parents, Dennis, 48, a former defense contractor for the Air Force, and Mary, 48, who were working for a Christian ministry. Soon after arriving, though, she was offered a role in a B film titled Crazy Desire. Producers Vincent Guarino and Gil Grunsky gave her a $2,000 advance—she signed her IOUs with a lipstick kiss—and she returned to L.A. in July.

To her dismay, Marketic says, the script was soon rewritten to include sex scenes she was unwilling to do, so she quit, agreeing to repay the $2,000 at the rate of $100 a month. In August, with no job and no other income in sight, she decided to go to Brunei. Guarino, acting as her temporary manager, says he advised her not to go lest she lose roles stateside—but to no avail. Marketic borrowed another $1,000 from Grunsky and, along with six other women, including her friend Brandi Sherwood, 26,1997's Miss USA, left for Brunei.

From the moment she landed, says another friend, Kelly Vaughn, 27, an actress, Marketic sensed trouble. When upon arrival she was asked by government officials to turn over her passport and return airline ticket, says Vaughn, "Shannon freaked out, but what could she do?" As Marketic tells it, after stopping at an infirmary for shots and blood work (she believes the women were being tested for sexually transmitted diseases), they were taken to one of several homes on the royal grounds. They left their bags, dressed for the evening, and then Marketic, Sherwood and their two female housemates were taken to a (tm) palace library. The next thing Marketic knew, she and the others had passed out—from some kind of gas, she alleges. "All she remembers is waking up, and all of her clothes were disheveled," says-Vaughn, "like someone had been messing with them."

At about 10:30 that night, and every night for a month afterward, Marketic says she and other women were taken to a party room, complete with disco ball and karaoke machine. According to her court papers, several men, including one of the Sultan's brothers, attended the parties, but not the Sultan himself. When the disco ball dropped, Marketic alleges, the women were told to dance, whereupon the men began groping them and shouting vulgarities.

According to Marketic's suit, it soon became clear that she and the others were expected to do more than model or dance. "If the girls received a phone call and were told not to wear makeup or perfume," says Vaughn, "it meant they were being picked up to have sexual relations." Though Marketic was never approached for sex, she demanded to leave. "She'd say, 'Look, there's been a big misunderstanding,' " says Vaughn. "But they'd just laugh at her."

For a month, alleges Marketic, she was a virtual prisoner. By day she and the others were most often confined to their houses, only once allowed to go to the pool. Marketic says their phone calls were monitored and their actions recorded by surveillance cameras in every room—including the bathroom. Every night, until at least 3 a.m., they were expected to be at parties. Finally, Marketic claims, she was able to persuade a guard to send a Federal Express package to her father with a coded message to get her out. That night at the party, says Vaughn, "Shannon showed them the FedEx receipt. They told her she had two hours to pack."

While Marketic's lawsuit awaits action in federal court—the Sultan is seeking immunity based on his status as Brunei's head of state—observers are trying to make sense of the imbroglio. This is hardly the first time the Sultan has found his retinue's social activities under scrutiny. In 1993 the Philippine senate investigated allegations that girls were being lured to Brunei for sex, though no charges were ever brought against anyone from Brunei. In L.A., models and actresses have long told tales of jetting off to Brunei to pick up quick money, while never quite being clear about whether they had to sleep with anyone to get it. "It's been described to me as a dream come true," says a former Playboy Playmate of the Month, who insists several friends have made the trip. "You get jewels, clothes, money."

Few women want to talk publicly about the experience. But recently, Brandi Sherwood, whom Marketic believed would corroborate her story, released a statement denying that she herself had experienced any sexual misconduct while in Brunei. And in Manila, an ex-girlfriend of Prince Jefri's who lived in his palace from 1991 to 1993 along with Jefri's three wives, insists that no guests of Brunei's royal family are mistreated. "They are generous and well mannered," she says. "When a wife and I were together, Jefri was always hands off. The image [Marketic] is projecting, it's way out."

Producer Gil Grunsky, who remains friendly with Marketic (though she has not yet repaid his loans), believes she is simply a victim of culture shock, never having understood the rules in Brunei. "She really thought she was going to get 20 grand a week for being decorative," he says. In the end, Grunsky's view echoes that of those who believe in Marketic—and many who do not. "The best word I can use to describe her," he says, "is naive."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
JULIE JORDAN, JOHN HANNAH, LYNDON STAMBLER and MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles., LIZ MCNEIL in New York City, SIMON PERRY and NINA A. BIDDLE in London and KAREN EMMONS in Manila

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan,
  • John Hannah,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Michele Keller,
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Simon Perry,
  • Nina A. Biddle,
  • Karen Emmons.