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, early on Monday in the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat.
The pageant was held in the middle of the night, wrapping up at 5 am (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 Miss Universe title: Bollywood actresses Sushmita Sen in 1994 and Lara Dutta in 2000.
The contest also drew attention in recent weeks for other reasons, with several contestants defying pressure to boycott in support of the Palestinians.
A grassroots Palestinian-led boycott movement had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel wrote: “We urge all participants to withdraw, to avoid complicity in Israel’s apartheid regime and its violation of Palestinian human rights.”
The 80 contestants also included Miss Morocco Kawtar Benhalima and Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani, whose Muslim-majority nations normalised ties with Israel last year.
In the end, only Indonesia and Malaysia, nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, did not send a representative, citing the global COVID-19 situation, not Israel’s rights record.
South Africa, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, withdrew support for the country’s representative over her participation, citing “atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians”.
The United Arab Emirates, which also normalised ties with Israel last year and where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a historic visit on Sunday, has also not sent a candidate.
But the UAE said that was “due to time constraints” in selecting its national winner.
Contestants for the pageant landed in Israel late last month and have since toured sites, sometimes coming under criticism for cultural insensitivity.
In one stop in the Bedouin city of Rahat, the candidates wore robes with traditional Palestinian embroidery while rolling grape leaves – which Gomez tweeted was a “Day in the life of a Bedouin”.
The Bedouin are traditionally nomadic Palestinians who have long complained of discrimination in housing and education by the Israeli government.
“Colonialism, racism, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, whitewashing, all in one place,” tweeted Ines Abdel Razek of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, an advocacy group.
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.
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.
Participants in the pageant, which was co-owned by Donald Trump before he became US president, must be between the ages of 18 and 28 and should not be married or have a child.