Harnaaz Sandhu of India has been crowned the 70th Miss Universe, leading a field of some 80 contestants in a pageant that was touched by politics and the pandemic.
Formerly reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, crowned her successor, a 21-year-old model, early Monday in the Israeli resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea.
The contest was held in the middle of the night and concluded at 5am (0300 GMT) on Monday to accommodate prime time in the United States.
The pageant featured displays of traditional national costumes, swimsuits, and a series of interview questions to test the contestants’ public speaking skills. The top 10 wore intricately dazzled maxi dresses in gold, silver or bronze.
Beatrice Luigi Gomez from the Philippines wore an asymmetrical cut dress with one sleeve, highlighting a new tattoo that she said “celebrates her womanhood.”
Before Sandhu, two Indian women won the Miss Universe title: Bollywood actresses Sushmita Sen in 1994 and Lara Dutta in 2000.
The contest also garnered attention in recent weeks for other reasons, with several contestants defying pressure to boycott in support of the Palestinians.
A Palestinian-led grassroots boycott movement had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel wrote: “We urge all participants to withdraw, to avoid complicity with 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 normalized 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 for her participation, citing “the atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians.”
The United Arab Emirates, which also normalized 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.
The pageant contestants landed in Israel late last month and have visited sites ever since, sometimes being criticized for cultural insensitivity.
At a stop in the Bedouin town 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 Bedouins are traditionally nomadic Palestinians who have long complained about discrimination in housing and education by the Israeli government.
“Colonialism, racism, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, laundering, all in one place,” tweeted Ines Abdel Razek of the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy, an advocacy group.
In an interview last month, Meza urged contestants to leave politics out of the contest, saying the meeting was meant to bring together women of different backgrounds.
“When you’re there, you forget about politics, about your religion,” he told The Associated Press news agency at the time.
Sara Salansky, an official with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, said the country was selected to host the contest earlier this year due to Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.
The contest suffered a last-minute setback 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 went into effect. But those who came later received special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.
During the run-up to Sunday’s contest, all contestants were screened for coronavirus every 48 hours and required to obey strict mask requirements.
Amid all the safeguards, French contestant Clemence Botino tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days in quarantine, it was declared virus-free last week and allowed to rejoin the competition.
Last year’s contest was delayed due to the pandemic before Meza was crowned in May this year for her shortened term.
Contestants, who co-owned Donald Trump before he became president of the United States, must be between 18 and 28 years old and must not be married or have children.