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India’s Harnaaz Sandhu wins Miss Universe contest held in Israel

Sandhu, a 21-year-old model, tops a field of some 80 contestants in a pageant that was touched by politics and the pandemic.

Harnaaz Sandhu of India has been crowned the 70th Miss Universe, topping a field of some 80 contestants in a pageant that was touched by politics and the pandemic.

The previously reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, crowned her successor, a 21-year-old model, on Sunday in the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat.

The pageant was held in the middle of the night, wrapping up at 5am local time (0300 GMT on Monday) to accommodate the primetime schedule in the United States.

The pageant included traditional displays of national costumes, swimwear and a series of interview questions to test contestants’ public speaking skills. The top 10 showed off intricately bedazzled full-length gowns in either gold, silver or bronze.

The Philippines’s Beatrice Luigi Gomez wore an asymmetrical cut dress with one sleeve, highlighting a new tattoo she said “celebrates her womanhood”.

Before Sandhu, two Indians have won the title of Miss Universe: Bollywood actresses Sushmita Sen in 1994 and Lara Dutta in 2000.

Sandhu performs in the National Costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, Israel [Ariel Schalit/AP]

Call for boycott

The contest also drew attention in recent weeks for other reasons.

A grassroots Palestinian-led boycott movement had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

In the end, only Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with close ties to the Palestinians, did not send a representative, citing the global COVID-19 situation. The South African government, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, withdrew support for the country’s representative over her participation.

In an interview last month, Meza urged contestants to leave politics out of the pageant, saying the gathering was meant to bring together women from different backgrounds. “When you are in there, you forget about politics, about your religion,” she told The Associated Press news agency at the time.

Sara Salansky, an official with the Israeli tourism ministry, said the country was selected to host the contest earlier this year because of Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination programme.

South Africa’s Lalela Mswane, from left, India’s Harnaaz Sandhu and Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira advance to the top 3 during the Miss Universe pageant [Ariel Schalit/AP]

The contest suffered a last-minute hiccup with the arrival of the Omicron variant, which forced Israel to close its borders to foreign tourists late last month.

Most of the Miss Universe contestants were already in the country before the new regulations came into effect. But those who came afterwards were given special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.

Throughout the run-up to Sunday’s contest, all contestants were tested for the coronavirus every 48 hours and required to obey strict mask requirements.

Amid all the safeguards, France’s contestant, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days in quarantine, she was declared virus-free last week and allowed to rejoin the competition.

Last year’s pageant was delayed due to the pandemic before Meza was crowned in May of this year for her abbreviated tenure.




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