Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned Miss Universe in the Israeli city of Eilat early Monday, with several contestants defying pressure to boycott in support of the Palestinians.
The 70th edition of the annual pageant, held in Israel for the first time, has also faced complications from the coronavirus pandemic.
During the live coronation night at Universe Dome, Filipino fans went wild when the Philippines’ Beatrice Luigi Gomez was announced the fifth in the Top 5, ending a two-year streak in which the country did not make it into the Top 10. Gomez did not advance further, however.
Sandhu took the top prize in the Red Sea resort with Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira first runner-up and Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane taking the second runner-up spot.
Philippine actress Marian Rivera and Indian actress Urvashi Rautela were among the members of the selection committee this year.
The 21-year-old Indian beauty, who’s pursuing her master’s degree in public administration, made the most impact during the tough Top 3 round, giving a powerful and convincing answer to the final question “What advice would you give young women watching on how to deal with the pressures they face today?”
“I think the biggest pressure the youth is facing today is to believe in themselves. The youth need to know that they are unique and loved for these make them stronger,” the Chandigarh native started.
Malacanang commended Gomez for bringing joy to the Filipino people and honor to the country for being one of the top 5 finalists at the 70th Miss Universe competition in Israel.
Cabinet Secretary and acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said Gomez’s participation in the Miss Universe allowed the world to witness the exceptional qualities of Filipino women
Nograles described Gomez as an “inspiring figure” for her accomplishments even before joining the international beauty pageant.
“A member of our armed forces, an athlete, and a youth advocate, Ms. Gomez is an inspiring figure whose participation in Miss Universe allowed the world to see what we in the country witness every day: the strength, grace, and beauty of the Filipino woman,” he added.
South Africa’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts had urged its contestant to stay away from Eilat, citing “atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians.”
The call echoed Palestinian groups who pleaded with contestants to avoid the event.
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 majority Muslim nations normalized ties with Israel last year.
In an interview in Jerusalem late last month, the outgoing Miss Universe Andrea Meza, of Mexico, said the pageant should steer clear of politics.
“Miss Universe isn’t a political movement, nor a religious one. It’s about women and what they can offer.”
Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, have not sent contestants but both cited complications related to the pandemic, not Israel’s rights record.
The United Arab Emirates, which also normalized ties with Israel last year and where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a historic visit 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 Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez tweeted was a “Day in the life of a Bedouin.”
The Bedouin are a traditionally nomadic people who belong to the community of Palestinian citizens of Israel. They have long complained of discrimination in housing and education.
“Colonialism, racism, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, whitewashing, all in one place,” tweeted Ines Abdel Razek of the advocacy group the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy.
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 may never have married or had a child.
According to organizers, the coronation ceremony will be watched by 600 million viewers in 172 countries.