Miss Universe 2021: eight contestants to watch, from Bahrain to Morocco

The 70th annual beauty pageant will take place in Israel this year

Contestants of the Miss Universe 2021 pageant take a selfie during a visit to the Tower of David Museum in the ancient citadel of Jerusalem near the Jaffa Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, on November 30, 2021. AFP
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On December 12, reigning Miss Universe, Mexico's Andrea Meza, will crown her successor at the annual beauty pageant, to be held this year in the resort town of Eilat, Israel.

Beauty queens representing about 80 countries will compete for the crown this year, the event's 70th. The UAE, too, is meant to send a representative for the first time, despite the cancellation of a planned coronation night earlier in November "due to time constraints".

The Miss Universe Organisation, which organises the pageant, describes itself as "a global, inclusive organisation that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realise their goals through experiences that build self-confidence and create opportunities for success".

Contestants have begun arriving despite a ban on entry for foreigners as authorities try to control the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from the Miss Universe 2020 pageant:

The three-hour event finale, to be hosted by pageant veteran Steve Harvey, will feature competitions in several categories, including personal statement, swimsuit, evening gown and interview, before Meza crowns her successor.

“Being the only Miss Universe crowned during the Covid-19 pandemic has made my reign unforgettable,” said Meza. “I hope that the world takes the vaccine as soon as it is available so that, come December, as many people as possible can join the 70th-anniversary celebration in Israel.”

The show will be broadcast in 160 countries and territories across the globe, organisers said.

Ahead of the crowning, fans around the world can also vote online for contestants they'd like to move on to the semi-finals.

Here are some of the Miss Universe 2021 contestants to watch out for:

1. Miss Bahrain: Manar Nadeem Deyani

The fashion design student was named on November 29 as her country's first representative at the long-running pageant. A Dubai resident who dreams of running her own label, Deyani, 25, told The National she was "excited for this opportunity".

"I cannot wait to represent Bahraini women in a platform that empowers women and promotes global understanding," she said.

The American University in the Emirates student, who suffers from a disorder that causes anxiety and depression, says she will use her title and the global platform to raise awareness about the negative stigmas associated with mental health.

"A lot of people are suffering from it in their daily lives, but are ashamed of asking help just because they do not want to be identified as someone ‘insane’. This has to change, we need to normalise the discussion about mental health. It is a disease that doesn’t show any symptoms," she said.

"I am currently using my social media platform to connect with people who suffer from the same challenges and I hope with my new title as Miss Universe Bahrain, I will be able to expand my reach and impact to create a world that truly understands the mental health issues."

2. Miss Morocco: Kawtar Benhalima

Morocco's journey to the Miss Universe 2021 pageant – it's first participation in 40 years – has been nothing short of dramatic. Fatima-Zahra Khayat was crowned Miss Morocco at the country's pageant on November 7, but three days later, organisers announced she would be renouncing her title "by medical dispensation due to an accident".

Benhalima, 22, a jewellery designer and business student, was named as the country's representative on November 16.

"Kawtar Benhalima is an avid philanthropist, creative, and entrepreneur. She earned a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration from ESSEC Business School in Paris and has been involved in the world of expression and celebration of identity since the age of 7," the Miss Universe website says.

"Kawtar seeks to represent the beauty and diversity of Moroccan culture through a borderless lens all the while sharing with Morocco the potential it holds for the future."

3. Miss India: Harnaaz Sandhu

This student and actress from Punjab says she began to advocate body positivity after she was bullied throughout her teenage years for being too skinny.

Crowned in October at the Miss Diva pageant, which sends India's representative to Miss Universe, Sandhu has often been quoted naming former Miss World Priyanka Chopra Jonas as one of her biggest inspirations.

India has won the Miss Universe crown twice – Sushmita Sen in 1994 and Lara Dutta in 2000 – and it's up to Sandhu to clinch the title once more.

"My name Harnaaz means 'god's pride'. I want to make India proud by bringing home the crown," she told rediff.com.

4. Miss Philippines: Beatrice Luigi Gomez

Hailing from a beauty pageant-obsessed country, the pressure is on for Gomez, but the mass communication student and volleyball player, 26, says she's unfazed.

“I actually love the pressure that I’m having right now because this motivates me to work really hard to look at my goal every day,” she told the OneNews website.

The Philippines has won four Miss Universe crowns in the past – Gloria Diaz in 1969, Margie Moran in 1973, Pia Wurtzbach in 2015 and Catriona Gray in 2018.

“I cannot promise to bring home the crown because other countries have gorgeous and beautiful candidates as well, but I can assure you that I will be giving my all into the trainings, in representing our country; not just represent our country but serve you as well," she said. "I will do the best that I can. I know I have a lot to work on and whatever it is, I will give it my all."

5. Miss Mexico: Debora Hallal

Could Miss Mexico create history and become only the second in Miss Universe history to win the crown back-to-back? In 2009, reigning title-holder Dayana Mendoza passed on the crown to Miss Venezuela, Stefania Fernandez, becoming the first beauty queens to win subsequent crowns for their country.

Hallal has all the pedigree. A former Miss Teen Mexico winner in 2016, she placed second in the Miss Mexico pageant in 2019, right behind current Miss Universe Meza. The Mexicana Universal organisation, which selects Mexico's representative, chose her as their delegate earlier this year.

A social worker who runs her own charity organisation, Hallal, 24, is fluent in English and Spanish. If she brings home the crown, she will be the fourth Miss Mexico to win the Miss Universe title.

6. Miss Singapore: Nandita Banna

Born in Singapore to Indian parents, Banna has spoken about the backlash she's received online following her crowning, with many claiming she is "not Singaporean enough".

But this model and passionate environmentalist has learnt to take it all in her stride, telling AsiaOne website: "Because I know who I am. And I know that I've lived in Singapore my whole life, and I respect this country so much."

Banna, 21, is a business management and information systems student and, besides English, is fluent in Hindi and her native Telugu.

Valerie Lim, the national director of Miss Universe Singapore, told AsiaOne that Banna was a "positive force for good" and said she "stood out by showcasing what it means to be an empowered Singaporean woman in this modern day and age".

7. Miss Venezuela: Luiseth Materan

Hailing from another beauty pageant powerhouse, Miss Venezuela Materan is an aspiring actress currently working as a communications professional.

According to the Miss Universe website, she's the youngest of seven siblings and is passionate about advocating for the rights of people with Down syndrome, a condition one of her brothers was born with.

Venezuela has the second-highest haul of Miss Universe crowns, right after the US, with seven wins. Gabriela Isler last won the crown in 2013.

8. Miss USA: Elle Smith

Representing the country with the most Miss Universe wins – eight in total – all eyes will be on Smith, who was crowned Miss USA 2021 on November 29.

A broadcast journalist with WHAS11 Louisville, Smith is a Miss Kentucky title-holder who had never participated in a pageant before she signed up for the state competition. She is the second beauty queen from Kentucky to win the Miss USA title.

According to WHAS11, Smith was among 50 contestants vying for the crown and stood out when her response to how businesses can be more environmentally conscious got a roaring applause from the audience.

"I think we've got to look at it from a macro level and also a micro level. So at a macro level, countries need to switch to green energy. I think that's something we can all agree on. But then at the micro level, we all know how to reduce, reuse, recycle. Those are things we can implement in our daily lives," she said.

On the debate about the relevance of beauty pageants, she told WHAS11 "there's always going to be people who think pageants exploit people, that they only show brainless beauties".

"When I'm walking in a swimsuit, I'm showing the hard work that I do every single day to have a healthy body and a healthy lifestyle," she said. "I would disagree with anyone who says you can't be professional and wear a swimsuit."

– This article was first published on November 23, 2021

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from auditions for Miss Universe UAE:

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Meet the first Miss Universe Bahrain: Manar Nadeem Deyani

Updated: December 13, 2021, 5:04 AM