New Miss Universe set to be crowned in Brazil

September 12, 2011 - 8:10 PM
Brazil Miss Universe

FILE- In this Aug. 26, 2011 file photo, Miss USA Alyssa Campanella poses for a picture during a visit to a samba school in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Miss Universe contestants from six continents spent the last three weeks in South America's largest city, trying to learn samba dance steps, visiting impoverished kids and kicking a football around for cameras as the globe's biggest beauty contest is held in Brazil for the first time. Campanella from California will be trying to end a long losing spell for the U.S. in the competition. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

SAO PAULO (AP) — A group of 89 beauty queens squared off for the right to be called Miss Universe Monday night, as celebrity judges descended on the red carpet and lit up South America's largest city.

Contestants from six continents have spent the past three weeks in Sao Paulo, trying to learn samba dance steps, visiting impoverished children and kicking a football around for cameras as the globe's biggest beauty contest is held in Brazil for the first time.

"I know my job and I'll be tough, but fair," said pageant judge and journalist Connie Chung. "You have to keep in mind that these women are not objects just to be looked at. They're to be taken seriously. I want to choose somebody I take seriously and the world takes seriously, too."

Miss Universe 2010 Ximena Navarrete arrived at the Credicard Center in a royal blue, full length, one shoulder gown.

She said the best part of being Miss Universe for the past year was "representing my country, Mexico, and working for different causes. But the main cause of Miss Universe is working with people with HIV. I also like just traveling and knowing about cultures and different things."

Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe organization, was hyped for the night.

"It's our 60th anniversary, it's a very big show," she said. "We're anticipating close to a billion viewers from around the world."

Shugart said it was fitting the globe's biggest beauty pageant be held in Brazil at this time, as the nation prepares to host some major events in the coming years.

"I don't think there is any doubt in the rest of the world's mind that Brazil is the place, between hosting the Olympics and hosting the World Cup," she said. "I love the fact we're going to kick it off. I always say we're the 'World Cup' of beauty."

The contestants, who must never have been married or had children and who must be at least 18 years of age and under 27 years of age by Feb. 1 of the competition year.

The pageant, hosted by NBC "Today" anchor Natalie Morales and the Bravo network's Andy Cohen, will air live on NBC and be distributed to about 170 countries. The contest is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, and will be judged by celebrities including Connie Chung, supermodel Isabeli Fontana and Indy race car driver Helio Castroneves.

Morales, who is half Brazilian, said that "what's most important is for the women to be beautiful inside and out."

For Cohen, the task of hosting is an easy one.

"It's a fun job. All I have to do is stand there, smile and scream the names of countries," he said.

Cohen said after the big event he would be taking advantage of Sao Paulo's noted nightlife.

"I'm going to party hard tonight. That's what you do in Sao Paulo. We're going to see the sunrise tonight," he said. "I'm going to samba ... and then I'm going to samba some more."

Sharply dressed women and men were jostling for chances to have their photos taken with stars on the red carpet. Some traveled from across the globe to support contestants.

Jehona Dreshaj, 17, arrived from Kosovo to cheer on her sister, Aferdita Dreshaj, who is representing the European country.

"It doesn't really matter the outcome, she is already a winner in our eye and we are so proud of her," she said. "This has been an incredible experience for her and for all of us. It's great for her to be representing our country in an event like this"

There have been no headline-grabbing gaffes going into this year's competition, as opposed to past years that have seen controversies of various stripes.

Some of the contestants have complained to the local news media about the size of bikinis used in some photo shoots, with Miss Mexico Karin Ontiveros saying they were "very small."

That was enough to draw chuckles in Brazil, where women from all walks of life, not just beauty queens, sport barely there swimwear on beaches throughout the country.

Miss Cayman Islands Cristin Alexander seemed to side with local custom, however, stating in a video posted on the Miss Universe website that she thinks "the body is a beautiful thing and I think it's great we get to celebrate that by wearing little bikinis."

Miss USA Alyssa Campanella, from California, will be trying to end a long losing spell for the U.S. in the competition. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.

The pageant started as a local bathing revue in Long Beach, California, organized by a swimwear company.

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Associated Press writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.