(update 1: adds details throughout, minor edits, changes headline)
By Pablo Duer
Eilat, Israel, Dec 13 (EFE).- India’s Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned the new Miss Universe at the 70th edition of the beauty pageant held in the Israeli city of Eilat early Monday.
Sandhu was crowned by her Mexican predecessor Andrea Meza after edging out Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira and South Africa’s Lalela Mswane, who were first and second runners-up respectively.
Chandigarh-born Sandhu, 21, is a model and actress and an advocate for the rights of women, especially their access to education.
She describes her gynecologist mother as her role model, and said on multiple occasions that if she could become Miss Universe, women around the world should not hesitate to pursue their dreams.
Sandhu also defended vaccination and the restrictions imposed around the world to check the spread of Covid-19, saying that health must be the priority as it’s all individuals have.
In a very close competition, the Indian dazzled the judges both with her parades down the catwalk and with the confidence with which responded to questions.
“The biggest pressure the youth of today is facing is to believe in themselves, to know that you are unique and that’s what makes you beautiful. Stop comparing yourselves with others and let’s talk about more important things that’s happening worldwide,” Sandhu said when asked during the final question-and answer round what advice she would give to young women on how to deal with the pressures they face.
One of the peculiar moments she faced was when host Steve Harvey asked her to do an animal impression, to which she responded by meowing like a cat. When asked about it, Sandhu said that “this is one of the stereotypes that people have, that beauty pageants are all about looking beautiful. It’s not that. It’s about being yourself on stage.”
This is the third time an Indian has won the contest after actors Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta in 1994 and 2000 respectively.
Rounding off the top five finalists out of the 80 contestants were Colombia’s Valeria Ayos and the Philippines’ Beatrice Luigi Gomez.
As is often the case with events of this scale taking place in Israel, the competition was preceded by a series of political controversies.
One of them was the decision of South Africa’s second runner-up Mswane to take part in the competition despite her government’s call to withdraw due to the “atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians.”
Many critics of Israel’s policies towards Palestine also slammed Israel’s hosting of the event as a way to draw attention away from the conflict.
Meanwhile, the presence of contestants from Bahrain and Morocco was hailed by the Israeli media and politicians, who saw it as a sign of the growing bond between Israel and these countries following the normalization of diplomatic relations last year.
The Israeli government’s decision to ban the entry of tourists for two weeks to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant initially raised fears that the competition would be canceled, and frustration among some over the exceptions granted to contestants and fans.
The main impact of the pandemic, however, was seen in the stands of the custom-made Universe Arena, several of which were empty amid the absence of foreigners and a seeming lack of interest among the public.
Israeli artist Noa Kirel, American singer-songwriter JoJo and a group of local musicians led by Israeli pop star Harel Skaat performed at the event. EFE