By Nehru Odeh
Harnaaz Sandhu, Miss India and Bollywood star, has won the 70th Miss Universe. The 21-year- old beat 79 other contestants to clinch the crown in the pageant that held at the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat on Sunday 12 December.
Sandhu’s emergence as Miss Universe is no mean feat, as she won it 21 years after another Indian, Lara Dutta, won it in 2000. She was crowned by the previous reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico.
However, this year’s pageant was one with a difference. Not only was it plagued by politics, the global pandemic did not help matters too. The beauty pageant was almost stalled by a grassroots Palestinian-led boycott urging contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Still, the boycott campaign did not carry weight as only Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with close ties to the Palestinians, did not send a representative, citing the global COVID-19 situation. The South African government, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, withdrew support for the country’s representative over her participation.
In the build up to the pageant, Meza, the then reigning Miss Universe urged contestants to not think about politics and to focus on the pageant. ‘When you are in there you forget about politics, about your religion,’ she told AP last month.
According to Sara Salansky, an official with the Israeli Tourism Ministry, Israel was chosen to host the pageant because of the country’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.
The emergence of the omicron variant forced Israel to close its borders to foreign tourists late last month. But by then, most of the contestants were already in the country. Those who came afterwards were given special permission to enter but were forced into a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.
At one point France´s contestant, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel, but after 10 days in quarantine, she was declared virus free and allowed to rejoin the competition.
Still, one remarkable thing about the pageant was that Miss Kentucky who represented the United States and was placed top 10 is a news reporter.
The pageant, hosted by U.S. TV personality Steve Harvey, featured the traditional displays of national costumes, swimwear and a series of interview questions to test contestants’ public speaking skills.