The stage is set for the crowning of the next Miss Universe, despite the threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant and murmurs of boycotts against the host country Israel.
On Sunday, reigning Miss Universe Andrea Meza will crown her successor from among 80 contestants, following two weeks of intense interviews, grooming and rehearsals.
First-time participants this year includes Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani, who made a statement at the preliminary competition on Friday. The first televised event, which also featured contestants in their national costumes as well as evening gowns, was a precursor to Sunday's coronation night where contestants will be subsequently eliminated as the number of finalists are narrowed down, before an eventual winner is crowned.
Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from the national costume round of Miss Universe 2021:
Following the postponement of the 2020 event, which was eventually held earlier in 2021 owing to the Covid-19 pandemic – which also cut short Meza's reign as Miss Universe – this year's event also faced a potential delay with the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
But last month, Israel's Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said the global contest would 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."
Briefing a parliamentary committee, senior health ministry official Sharon Alroy-Preis said earlier this month that Israel was putting together a safety plan for the event and could limit admission to the pageant from countries deemed to be high-risk.
Earlier in August, Miss Malaysia organisers cited coronavirus restrictions as their reason for not participating.
No politics, please
Pressure has also been mounting on some contestants participating in the pageant to drop out in solidarity with Palestinians.
Last month, 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 AP. "It’s just about embracing other women."
Scroll through the gallery below for images of Andrea Meza touring Jerusalem's Old City:
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.
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, in November, 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."
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 landed in Israel on November 27, 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.
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.
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”.
Sitting on the judging table this year are beauty entrepreneur and model Lori Harvey, whose father Steve Harvey is also hosting the pageant, supermodel Adriana Lima, Puerto Rican actress Adamari Lopez, Miss Universe 2016 Iris Mittenaere, Filipino actress Marian Rivera, The Bold and the Beautiful star Rena Sofer and Bollywood actress Urvashi Rautela, who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in 2015.
Israeli pop star Noa Kirel and American singer-songwriter JoJo will perform on stage.
The Miss Universe crown is designed by Lebanese jewellery house Mouawad. The family-run jewellery and watchmaker was established in Beirut in the early 1900s, and has partnered with Miss Universe Organisation to create three crowns for Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.
The Mouawad Power Of Unity crown is a symbol of strength in diversity and of the power of women, Miss Universe said.
"Motifs of interwoven petals, leaves and vines, crafted in 18-karat gold and set with white diamonds, symbolise community bonds. The central magnificent shield-cut golden canary diamond weighing 62.83 carats denotes power, while two golden canary diamonds on either side create a sense of harmony. The sun-like warmth of these three diamonds represents the new golden age of women," reads a description on the pageant's website.
– This story was first published on November 23, 2021. Additional reporting by AP and Reuters
Scroll through the gallery below for more pictures from the preliminary round of the Miss Universe 2021 pageant: