Sao Paulo, Brazil—The newly crowned Miss Universe hopes her victory will allow her to assist her native country further escape its history of war and poverty, and believes that “racists need to seek help” for they are “not normal in the 21st century.”
Angola’s Leila Lopes on Monday night (Tuesday morning in Manila) became the new Miss Universe, edging out beauties from Ukraine, Brazil, the Philippines and China as the pageant marked its 60th anniversary.
The Philippine candidate, 25-year-old Shamcey Supsup, an architecture magna cum laude and native of General Santos City, finished third runner-up in the contest among 89 young women and watched by an estimated one billion people around the world.
Lopes, 25, wearing a glittery strapless gown with feathery fringe, accepted the crown from last year’s winner, Mexico’s Ximena Navarrete, after upsetting a lineup of Latin American beauties who had been favored to win.
Asked in the final round by a Filipino judge, Broadway star Lea Salonga, what physical trait about herself she would change if given the opportunity, Lopes replied: “Nothing, I am satisfied with what God gave me,” and added that it was important to have “inner beauty.”
Murmurs of wonder
Lopes wore a light-colored dress that contrasted well with her dark skin, and pinned her voluminous hair up in a bun that sent murmurs of wonder through the local press corps.
“Now I have work to do, and I want to try to keep my feet on the ground,” Lopes later told reporters as she struggled to hold back tears after receiving a standing ovation at São Paulo’s Credicard Hall.
She will go on to serve as a world ambassador of sorts, with a full calendar of public appearances to raise awareness about the fight against AIDS and other serious diseases.
Speaking in a timid voice shortly after taking the crown in South America’s largest city, Lopes said that “as Miss Angola I’ve already done a lot to help my people.”
“I’ve worked with various social causes. I work with poor kids, I work in the fight against HIV. I work to protect the elderly and I have to do everything that my country needs,” she said. “I think now as Miss Universe I will be able to do much more.”
No cosmetic surgery
Responding to questions, Lopes said that she had never had cosmetic surgery of any kind and that her three tips for beauty were to get a lot of sleep, use sunblock even when it’s not sunny and to drink lots of water. She said her smile was her best weapon in the competition.
Asked about racism in light of the fact that she’s one of the few blacks ever crowned Miss Universe, Lopes said that “any racist needs to seek help. It’s not normal in the 21st century to think in that way.”
Angola’s first winner, Lopes deftly handled the interview question that is asked of the remaining top five contestants. “Thank God I’m very satisfied with the way God created me and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Lopes said.
“I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty. I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I intend to follow these for the rest of my life,” she added.
The first runner-up was 23-year-old Olesia Stefanko of Ukraine and the second runner-up was the hometown favorite, Priscila Machado of Brazil. The third was the Philippines’ Supsup and the fourth was China’s Luo Zilin.
Contestants spent the past three weeks in São Paulo, trying to learn samba dance steps, visiting impoverished children and kicking a football around for cameras as the Miss Universe pageant came to Brazil for the first time.
She knew what to say
Despite battling against a home country favorite, Lopes won over the audience, speaking in the shared language of Portuguese. Angola, like Brazil, is a former Portuguese colony.
“She captivated the crowd and we were all behind her,” said Brazilian Natalie Bursztyn, 20, who was in the crowd inside Credicard Hall.
“It was great that the judges also saw what the fans saw and gave her the crown. Her dress was beautiful and she knew exactly what to say when they asked her the question about her looks,” Bursztyn added.
Another fan in the audience, Carolina Rocha, said Lopes’ win was “well deserved, we were cheering for her all along. Her smile and her friendliness was what set her apart from the others. She also answered her question very well, that likely helped her a lot.”
US broadcast journalist Connie Chung was one of the celebrity judges, and said before the competition that she was taking the contest seriously.
“I know my job and I’ll be tough, but fair,” Chung said. “You have to keep in mind that these women are not objects just to be looked at. They’re to be taken seriously. I want to choose somebody I take seriously and the world takes seriously, too.”
Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe organization, was hyped for the night.
“It’s our 60th anniversary, it’s a very big show,” she said. “We’re anticipating close to a billion viewers from around the world.”
Brazil is the place
Shugart said it was fitting the globe’s biggest beauty pageant be held in Brazil amid the country’s preparations to host some major events in the coming years.
“I don’t think there is any doubt in the rest of the world’s mind that Brazil is the place, between hosting the Olympics and hosting the World Cup,” she said. “I love the fact we’re going to kick it off. I always say we’re the ‘World Cup’ of beauty.”
The contestants must never have been married or had children and must be at least 18 years of age and under 27 years of age by Feb. 1 of the competition year.
The pageant, hosted by NBC “Today” anchor Natalie Morales and the Bravo network’s Andy Cohen, was broadcast live on NBC and distributed to about 170 countries.
The contest is coowned by Donald Trump and NBC, and the celebrity judges included Chung and two prominent Brazilians, supermodel Isabeli Fontana and Indy race car driver Helio Castroneves.
Sharply dressed women and men jostled for chances to have their photos taken with stars on the red carpet. Some traveled from across the globe to support contestants.
Jehona Dreshaj, 17, arrived from Kosovo to cheer on her sister, Aferdita Dreshaj, who is representing the European country.
“It doesn’t really matter the outcome, she is already a winner in our eye and we are so proud of her,” Dreshaj said. “This has been an incredible experience for her and for all of us. It’s great for her to be representing our country in an event like this”
Barely there bikinis
There have been no headline-grabbing gaffes going into this year’s competition, as opposed to past years that have seen controversies of various stripes. The show itself went off without a hitch.
Some of the contestants have complained to the local news media about the size of bikinis used in some photo shoots, with Miss Mexico Karin Ontiveros saying they were “very small.”
That was enough to draw chuckles in Brazil, where women from all walks of life, not just beauty queens, sport barely there swimwear on beaches throughout the country.
Miss USA Alyssa Campanella failed to end a long losing spell for her country in the competition. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.
The pageant started as a local bathing suit revue in Long Beach, California, organized by a swimwear company.
It was the ninth time the competition was held in Latin America but the first time it was hosted by Brazil.
Latin American women were the favorites this year after winning the crown in seven of the last 10 competitions, and all eyes were on the slender Vanessa Goncalves of Venezuela, which has a highly competitive beauty pageant circuit.
Venezuela won back-to-back crowns in 2008 and 2009—a first in the competition—and with a total of six wins falls just one short of the United States, which has more than 10 times its population.
But Goncalves and another favorite, Miss Kosovo, were eliminated after the swimsuit competition and did not make it into the group of finalists.
Reports from AFP and AP
Daily News Philippines