Miss Universe 2021 in Israel: everything to know, from Omicron travel bans to politics

Authorities say the beauty pageant will go ahead as planned, even as a ban on foreigners comes into effect to control the spread of the new coronavirus variant

Beauty queens from around the world have arrived at the Red Sea hotel in Eilat, Israel, for the Miss Universe 2021 pageant despite a travel ban on foreigners, which was imposed on Saturday in an effort to stave off the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said on Sunday that the December 12 global contest will go ahead as planned and participants would be granted waivers while possibly undergoing PCR testing every 48 hours, along with other precautionary measures.

"This is an event that will be broadcast in 174 countries, a very important event, an event that Eilat, too, is very much in need of," he told reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting, where ministers were due to vote on the anti-Omicron measures. "We will know how to manage this event. So, by using the waivers committee, we will have events like this, to which the country already committed itself and cannot cancel."

More than 70 contestants will vie for the Miss Universe crown at the pageant, which is celebrating its 70th year. But a few countries, such as Russia, Australia and Hungary, are yet to name their delegates, while Miss USA is scheduled to be crowned on Monday.

Morocco and the UAE were expected to send representatives this year, but a planned coronation for Miss Universe UAE earlier this month was cancelled "due to time constraints". More than 15,000 hopefuls had applied for the historic first event, open to women of all nationalities who've lived in the UAE for at least three years.

Pressure has also been mounting on some contestants participating in the pageant to drop out in solidarity with Palestinians.

Last week, during a tour of Jerusalem's Old City, reigning Miss Universe Andrea Meza called for contestants to separate politics from the long-running beauty pageant.

"Everyone with different beliefs, with different backgrounds, with different cultures, they all come together and when you are in there, you forget about politics, about your religion," Meza, who was crowned Miss Mexico last year, told The Associated Press. "It’s just about embracing other women."

Scroll through the gallery below for images of Andrea Meza touring Jerusalem's Old City:

Meza's comments come following the withdrawal of Miss Greece Rafaela Plastira in October.

"I will not be attending Miss Universe this year. The reason for that is the country. I am absolutely not disrespecting the country. I love all countries from all over the world but my heart goes to all the people fighting for their lives in Israel & [Palestine]. I can’t go up that stage and act like nothing is happening when people are fighting for [their] lives out there," Plastira posted on Instagram.

Her replacement, Katerina Kouvoutsaki, was swiftly announced, but organisers last week named a new representative, citing "health reasons" for the change, and said Sofia Arapogianni would instead attend the event in Israel.

"As of today, the new Miss Universe Greece 2021 is Sofia Arapogianni. Our beauty queen Katerina Kouvoutsaki will not be able to represent our country, in the crown of the universe, for health reasons, which do not allow her to travel," Star GS Hellas posted on Instagram.

However, on Thursday, the president of Star GS Hellas said Plastira was never Greece's representative for the Miss Universe pageant.

"Regarding the issue of Rafaela Plastira's departure from Miss Universe 2021, in which the Palestinian issue was cited, it is all false," Giorgos Kouvaris posted on Facebook. "Rafaela Plastira is Star Hellas 2019 and [that] is her only title, she never had the official anointing to represent our country in Miss Universe 2021 as Miss Universe Greece.

"I would like to inform all Greeks, that now, the national organisation GS Hellas, is the one who preserves the legal rights and contracts for Greece's representative, but also its participation in Miss Universe 2021. Everything else is false, unsolicited and cunningly alleged misinformation."

On Sunday, Star GS Hellas posted images of Arapogianni in a hotel in Eilat posing with the Greek flag.

Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane was also in the centre of a controversy when her country's ruling party, the African National Congress, urged her to boycott the pageant because of it being held in Israel. “The damage to her reputation will far exceed any glamour that may arise," the party said after withdrawing its support for the event because of local organisers' plans to participate in the contest.

Mswane on Saturday landed in Israel proudly posing with the South African flag.

"Ready as I’ll ever be. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to represent my country on the @missuniverse stage! South Africa! Let’s do this!" she captioned the photo.

On Sunday, she said she met her fellow contestants, whom she called "absolutely phenomenal".

"First day of Miss Universe 2021 and oh how wonderful it was. Cannot wait for what’s to come. Tomorrow is registration day," Mswane posted.

South Africa has had a good run in the Miss Universe pageant in recent years, with Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi winning the Miss Universe crown in 2019 and Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters (now Tebow) winning it in 2017.

But the threat of Covid-19 is looming over the entire pageant.

Briefing a parliamentary committee, senior health ministry official Sharon Alroy-Preis said Israel was putting together a safety plan for the event and could limit admission to the pageant from countries deemed to be high-risk.

Israel has confirmed one Omicron case, she said, in a female tourist from Malawi.

In August, Miss Malaysia organisers cited Covid-19 restrictions as their reason for not participating.

"Unfortunately, due to the worsening Covid-19 situation, which has resulted in limited international and domestic travel, we have been unable to hold our local Miss Universe 2021 pageant," the organisation posted. "We have therefore declined the invitation to this year's pageant. We wish all delegates the best of luck at the international competition and look forward to participating again in the near future."

Paula M Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organisation, had earlier said Israel has been on the shortlist of host countries “due to its rich history, beautiful landscapes, myriad of cultures and appeal as a global tourist destination”.

During her tour of the Old City last week wearing a flowing, full-length dress with flat sandals, Meza meandered through the mostly empty cobblestoned alleyways of Old City, stopping to peek into shops as a media scrum followed. Vendors, unaccustomed to seeing throngs since the onset of the pandemic, stared and wondered aloud about the attention Meza was drawing.

Meza, who is a software engineer, said she was “just a girl” from a small town in Mexico who was not a “perfect and flawless” beauty queen. She said she had worked hard to become Miss Universe and that the competition wasn't only about parading women in bikinis, but also about testing their intelligence.

Asked if she could offer a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, she said she didn't believe in violence and that communication was key.

“People have to make compromises and I really hope that we can make this through talking and conversation,” she said.

– This story was first published on November 23, 2021. Additional reporting by AP and Reuters

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

Updated: November 29th 2021, 11:45 AM