Miss Universe is India’s Harnaaz Sandhu, 70th winner

South Africa's Lalela Mswane, from left, India's Harnaaz Sandhu and Paraguay's Nadia Ferreira advance to the top 3 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
The Philippines' Beatrice Luigi Gomez, from left, Columbia's Valeria Ayos, Paraguay's Nadia Ferreira, South Africa's Lalela Mswane, and India's Harnaaz Sandhu pose as the top 5 contestants during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Host Steve Harvey, left, speaks with Nigeria's Maristella Okpala during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
France's Clemence Botino participates in the evening gown stage of the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Columbia's Valeria Ayos participates in the evening gown stage of the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
The Philippines' Beatrice Luigi Gomez participates in the evening gown stage of the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Israel's Noa Cochva takes part in the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
South Africa's Lalela Mswane, left, and India's Harnaaz Sandhu advance to the top 3 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Host Steve Harvey speaks during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Host Steve Harvey, left, appears with Miss Universe 2020, Andrea Meza during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
South Africa's Lalela Mswane poses during the final round of the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
India's Harnaaz Sandhu smiles as she takes part in the National Costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
India's Harnaaz Sandhu participates in the swimsuit stage of the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
India's Harnaaz Sandhu performs as she takes part in the National Costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
India's Harnaaz Sandhu waves after being crowned Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Miss Universe 2020 Andrea Meza, right, crowns India's Harnaaz Sandhu as Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
India's Harnaaz Sandhu is announced as the new Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
France's Clemence Botino smiles as she takes part in the National Costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
Newly crowned Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu appears during a press conference following the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
Newly crowned Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu appears during a press conference following the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel.
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EILAT, Israel (AP) — Harnaaz Sandhu of India was crowned the 70th Miss Universe on Sunday, topping a field of some 80 contestants in a pageant that was touched by politics and the pandemic.

The previously reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, crowned her successor, a Bollywood actress, in the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat. The pageant was held in the middle of the night, wrapping up at 5 a.m. local time (10 p.m. EST) to accommodate the primetime schedule in the U.S.

Sandhu said she was feeling “overwhelmed because it’s been 21 years since India got Miss Universe crown and it’s happening right now.”

The pageant included traditional displays of national costumes, swimwear and a series of interview questions to test contestants’ public speaking skills. The top 10 showed off intricately bedazzled full-length gowns in either gold, silver or bronze. The Philippines’ Beatrice Luigi Gomez wore an asymmetrical cut dress with one sleeve, highlighting a new tattoo she said “celebrates her womanhood.”

But the contest also drew attention in recent weeks for other reasons.

A grassroots Palestinian-led boycott had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

In the end, 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 an interview last month, Meza urged contestants to leave politics out of the pageant, saying the gathering was meant to bring together women from different backgrounds. “When you are in there you forget about politics, about your religion,” she told The Associated Press at the time.

Sara Salansky, an official with the Israeli Tourism Ministry, said the country was selected to host the contest earlier this year because of Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.

The contest suffered a last-minute hiccup with the arrival of the omicron variant, which forced Israel to close its borders to foreign tourists late last month.

Most of the Miss Universe contestants were already in the country before the new regulations came into effect. But those who came afterward were given special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.

Throughout the run-up to Sunday’s contest, all contestants were tested for the coronavirus every 48 hours and required to obey strict mask requirements.

Amid all the safeguards, France’s contestant, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days in quarantine, she was declared virus free last week and allowed to rejoin the competition.

Last year’s pageant was delayed due to the pandemic before Meza was crowned in May for her abbreviated tenure.

Sunday’s contest was hosted by U.S. TV personality Steve Harvey. Organizers said the pageant was expected to reach an estimated 600 million viewers via the FOX network in 172 countries.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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