India's Harnaaz Sandhu wins Miss Universe 2021

Sandhu beat runners-up from Paraguay and South Africa to take the crown

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India’s Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned Miss Universe on Monday in a glitzy final hosted in Israel, closing a competition held despite tightening border controls owing to the coronavirus.

“I feel overwhelmed because it’s been 21 years since India got the Miss Universe crown,” Sandhu said in the southern resort town of Eilat.

The actor beat runners-up from Paraguay and South Africa to take the crown, after the 80 competitors were gradually whittled down during the night.

None of the competitors from the Middle East made it to the shortlist of 16, who paraded in swimwear for hundreds of spectators and a live television audience.

Later rounds saw finalists questioned on issues such as coronavirus vaccine passports, climate change and body shaming.

The audience waved flags and cheered especially loudly for Miss Philippines at the tent venue, which had been constructed at Eilat port on the Red Sea.

For the first time in the competition’s 70-year history, Bahrain was represented with Manar Nadeem Deyani vying for the crown.

During one of the preliminary rounds last week, she made an impression by opting for a full-length outfit rather than bikinis or swimsuits chosen by the other contestants.

The pageant also saw the entry of Morocco, represented by Kawtar Benhalima, for the first time in more than 40 years.

Along with the UAE and Sudan, which did not send contestants to Eilat, Morocco and Bahrain last year agreed to normalise ties with Israel.

The competition went ahead despite Israel closing its borders to visitors last month, after the emergence of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Miss India wins Miss Universe pageant 2021

Miss India wins Miss Universe pageant 2021

Participants who had not already landed in the country were granted special dispensation to travel.

Commenting on the border restrictions, the new Miss Universe said participants were following health measures during the competition.

"I’m really glad that the restrictions are there for our own safety," she told journalists.

One contestant tested positive for coronavirus on arrival in Israel, with France’s Clemence Botino forced to quarantine for 10 days before travelling to Eilat.

“We are living [through] an international crisis,” Botino said on Monday, after making it into the shortlist.

“We have to handle it, now the situation made me stronger,” she told the audience.

Beyond concerns over holding the pageant during a pandemic, the competitors have taken part in a tour which at times has attracted controversy.

They visited the Old City of East Jerusalem, which lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel has occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and its annexation of the territory has not been recognised internationally.

Ahead of her tour around the Old City, Andrea Meza, the outgoing Miss Universe, said the pageant should not be politicised.

“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,” she told AP news agency.

Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, made it into the final three despite losing the support of her government due to Israel hosting the competition.

“Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name,” Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said earlier this month.

Neither the Miss Universe organisers nor the Israeli tourism ministry commented on the criticisms when contacted by The National.

Israel’s tourism minister, Yoel Razvozov, said he was certain the participants will be “excellent ambassadors for us and will share the true Israel with the world.”

Razvozov said he was proud to show them Israel’s “wide variety of cultures”, although an activity in which the contestants dressed up in Bedouin clothes has come under fire.

“While they said they were living ‘the life of a Bedouin’, they neglected to illustrate the actual conditions of Bedouin life,” said Jewish Voice for Peace, a US organisation which supports boycotting Israel.

Many Bedouin communities in southern Israel lack basic services such as running water, while those living in the occupied West Bank have been repeatedly forced from land by the Israeli military.

Asked what advice she would give to a Palestinian girl who wanted to take part in the competition, Sandhu said: "I would like to pat her on the back, because it takes a lot of courage to think about being Miss Universe."

Updated: December 13, 2021, 9:11 AM