India’s Harnaaz Sandhu is crowned Miss Universe 2021

India’s Harnaz Sandu was crowned Miss Universe 2021 on Sunday, at the conclusion of a controversial beauty pageant hosted this year in southern Israel.

Speaking on stage during the competition, Sandhu urged young people to “know that you are unique and that’s what makes you beautiful, and stop comparing yourself to others.

“I believed in myself and that’s why I’m standing here today,” she added, to loud applause from the audience.

The competition was held in the resort city of Eilat, where 80 women from all over the world competed for the crown. Sunday night was the last day of the competition, with the eliminations trimming the number of finalists until the last two remained.

Nadia Ferreira of Paraguay and Lalila Mesouane of South Africa took first and second places, respectively.

The competition was hosted by comedian Steve Harvey, who once asked Sandow, “I hear you do some good animal acting, let’s hear your best.”

Harvey was later criticized online for single out what many suggested was an inappropriate question.

“Oh my God, Steve, I wasn’t expecting to do this on the world stage. I have to do this, I have no other choice. Brace yourselves, everyone,” she said in astonishment, before showing a little meow.

In a subsequent question-and-answer session, when Sandhu reached the top five, she took the opportunity to spread the word about climate change. “This is the time to take action and talk less,” she said. “Prevention and prevention are better than repentance and reform.”

After her victory was announced, she celebrated with other contestants on stage, shouting in front of the camera, “Chak de Phatte India,” a Punjabi exclamation similar in meaning to “Let’s do this, India!”

This year’s contest marks the second Miss Universe contest in the era of COVID. Israel’s borders were to be opened to vaccinated tourists ahead of this year’s main event, which would have allowed thousands of fans to attend.

But with the emergence of the new alternative to Omicron, the Israeli government closed its borders to foreigners two weeks before the competition, creating chaos in travel plans and preparations. One of the contestants, Miss France, tested positive for the virus upon landing in Israel and was forced to quarantine – getting out in time for Friday’s preliminary competition.

The competition also covered another layer of political controversy, with some critics and countries calling for a boycott – as with previous international events hosted by Israel.

The South African government withdrew its support and called on Mswan to withdraw, citing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, calling it “apartheid”, a charge that Israel vehemently denied. But Mswan – with the support of the Miss South Africa Organization – chose to travel to Israel and compete.

Other personalities, including Miss Israel Noua Kochva, responded with a common refrain heard by pageant organizers and contestants: Miss Universe shouldn’t be about politics.

Israel was one of the first countries to begin vaccinating its residents and reached a high vaccination rate by May of this year, when the country was approached about hosting the December competition, according to a spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

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