Indian Harnaaz Sandhu crowned Miss Universe amid Omicron’s arrival in Israel

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Miss Universe winner Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu reacts during the Miss Universe pageant in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, Israel, on December 13, 2021.RONEN ZVULUN / Reuters

Harnaaz Sandhu of India was crowned 70th Miss Universe on Sunday, overtaking a group of some 80 female contestants in a contest that has been hit by politics and the pandemic.

Former Miss Universe Andrea Meza of Mexico crowned her successor, a Bollywood actress, in the Israeli resort of Eilat on the Red Sea. The contest took place in the middle of the night and ended at 5:00 a.m. local time (10:00 p.m. EST) to accommodate prime time in the United States.

The competition included traditional displays of national costumes, swimwear, and a series of interview questions to test contestants’ public speaking skills. The top 10 showed intricately dazzling maxi dresses in gold, silver or bronze. Filipina Beatrice Luigi Gomez wore an asymmetrically cut dress with one sleeve, highlighting a new tattoo that she says “celebrates her femininity.”

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

A popular Palestinian-led boycott urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of 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 The South African government, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, has withdrawn its support for the country’s representative for her participation.

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

Sara Salansky, an official with Israel’s Tourism Ministry, said the country was selected to host the competition earlier this year due to the success of Israel’s coronavirus vaccination program.

The competition suffered a last-minute setback 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 candidates were already in the country before the new regulations came into effect. But those who came later were given special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.

Throughout the preparation for Sunday’s competition, all contestants were tested for the coronavirus every 48 hours and had to obey strict mask requirements.

Amid all the guarantees, French candidate Clémence Botino tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days of quarantine, she was declared virus-free last week and allowed to join the competition.

Last year’s competition was delayed due to the pandemic before Meza was crowned in May for her shortened term.

Sunday’s contest was hosted by American TV personality Steve Harvey. Organizers said the contest is expected to reach around 600 million viewers via the FOX network in 172 countries.

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