India’s Harnaaz Sandhu is crowned Miss Universe 2021

Harnaaz Sandhu of India was crowned Miss Universe 2021 on Sunday, marking the end of a controversial pageant organized this year in southern Israel.

In a speech on stage during the pageant, Sandhu urged young people to “know that you are unique and that is what makes you beautiful, stop comparing yourself to others.”

“I believed in myself, and that’s why I’m here today,” she added, to loud applause from the audience.

The pageant was held in the resort city of Eilat, with 80 women from around the world vying for the crown. Sunday night was the last day of the competition, with eliminations reducing the number of finalists until the last two were left.

Nadia Ferreira from Paraguay and Lalela Mswane from South Africa were the first and second runners-up, respectively.

The competition was hosted by comedian Steve Harvey, who at one point in the night asked Sandhu, “I heard you do some pretty good animal impersonations, let’s hear your best.”

Harvey was later criticized online for pointing her out with what many have suggested was an inappropriate question.

“Oh my gosh Steve, I wasn’t expecting to do this on the world stage. I have to do this, I have no choice. Brace yourselves, everyone,” she said in surprise, before showing off some meows.

In a question and answer session afterwards, when Sandhu reached the top 5, he took the opportunity to spread a message about climate change. “This is the time to act and talk less,” he said. “Preventing and protecting is better than repenting and repairing.”

After his victory was announced, he celebrated with other contestants on stage, yelling at a camera, “Chak de Phatte India”, a Punjabi exclamation similar in meaning to “Let’s do this, India!”

This year’s competition marks the second Miss Universe pageant of the Covid era. Israel’s borders were set to be opened to vaccinated tourists before this year’s main event, which would have allowed thousands of fans to attend.

But with the appearance of the new variant of Omicron, the Israeli government closed its borders to foreigners two weeks before the competition, throwing travel plans and preparations into chaos. One contestant, Miss France, tested positive for the virus upon landing in Israel and had to self-quarantine, leaving just in time for preliminary competition on Friday.

The contest was also engulfed in another layer of political controversy, with some critics and countries calling for boycotts, as with previous international events staged in Israel.

The South African government withdrew its support and called on Mswane to leave it, citing the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, calling it “apartheid”, a charge that Israel has vehemently denied. But Mswane, with the backing of the Miss South Africa organization, chose to travel to Israel and compete.

Other figures, including Miss Israel, Noa Cochva, responded with a common refrain heard from the pageant’s organizers and contestants: Miss Universe shouldn’t be about politics.

Israel was one of the first countries to start vaccinating its population and had achieved a high vaccination rate in May this year, when it approached the country to host the December competition, according to a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.


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