Miss Universe shines spotlight on South Florida

Miss Great Britain Grace Levy introduces herself to the audience at the Miss Universe preliminary competition on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.
Miss Great Britain Grace Levy introduces herself to the audience at the Miss Universe preliminary competition on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Draped in elaborate costumes representing their native lands — including a hockey tribute from Miss Canada complete with sticks and scoreboard — the 88 Miss Universe contestants gave a glimpse this week of Sunday’s pageant, to be broadcast live from Florida International University.

The preliminary competition Wednesday night at FIU’s arena, which featured the women modeling evening gowns and hot pink bikinis, highlighted what Miss Universe promotes: beauty, a coming together of nations and exposure to the host city.

Nicole Abuchaibe, 20, a Miami Dade College student watching the pageantry, pronounced Miss Universe in Miami-Dade a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

At the top of Sunday’s three-hour show, airing at 8 p.m. on NBC6 and Telemundo51, more than half a billion viewers around the world will hear the phrase, “Live from Doral-Miami.”

Trump National Doral Miami is the host hotel for the contestants and will be the site of the pageant’s red carpet festivities, which start at 4 p.m. Sunday. Miss Universe co-owner Donald Trump, celebrity guests and judges, including telenovela star William Levy, are expected.

Key Biscayne, Aventura, Miami Beach, North Miami, downtown Miami and Lantana in Palm Beach County have hosted the contestants for cocktail receptions, a visit with pop artist Romero Britto and a charity dinner to benefit Best Buddies International.

The pageant “underlines the point that Miami has evolved into a global community — and this is a global event,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Pageants are a major draw in many of our international markets like Latin America. Brazil. Venezuela. Colombia. These are feeder markets for us. So, for these key markets, Greater Miami will be billed as the home of Miss Universe and the images that will be telecast Sunday are advertising space that we couldn’t afford to purchase.”

While last year’s Miss Universe pageant, broadcast from Russia, scored only 3.76 million viewers in the United States, according to Nielsen, the numbers swelled to more than 600 million worldwide.

Take Venezuela, which has won seven Miss Universe titles since its first in 1979 — the most of any country in the past 35 years. The reigning Miss Universe is Venezuela’s Gabriela Isler.

“We love beauty. For us, beauty is a very important thing and it’s about who we are as a society,” said Maria Fernanda Briceño, a contestant in the Miss Venezuela pageant in 1992.

Briceño, now a Disney TV producer for Latin American content, said one reason for Venezuela’s success is its mix of cultures. “We’re not pure at all. We have an Indian culture, a black culture and people from all over the world. In my country, to participate in the pageant is phenomenal. Venevisión sells the show like the Super Bowl.”

The contestants’ ride to the top is not easy. They often wake up at 3 a.m. to be ready for an 8 a.m. event, Briceño recalled. Days are filled with presentations, classes and can stretch to midnight for the two weeks contestants are in town. Winners are expected to serve as ambassadors for the Miss Universe brand, performing humanitarian works.

There is a downside to all that glitz, Briceño said.

“Miss Venezuela works wonders for show business careers but does the contrary for a more, let’s say, intellectual path. Going to college or university is like being bullied in middle school. God forbid that you raise your hand to answer a question. You can hear phrases like, ‘Is she supposed to talk too?’”

The path to the tiara in Miami-Dade has been a bit bumpy.

A group selfie, taken in Wynwood, set off a Middle East controversy when Miss Israel and Miss Lebanonappeared in the same Instagram picture. Doral’s decision to spend $2.5 million to land the event, which city officials hope to offset through sponsorships, incensed some residents. FIU, which will host the main event Sunday because a suitable site in Doral could not be found, faced complaints from staff and students over costs and image.

Additionally, critics complain the pageant reinforces female stereotypes.

Sandra Faulkner, director of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, argues that beauty pageants objectify women. “The focus is on youth and looking good and, in many ways, these are impossible standards. They reinforce comfortable notions on what being feminine and what being a woman should be all about.”

Contestants are judged on swimsuits, evening gowns and interviews.

On Wednesday, a handful of FIU students from the university’s National Organization for Women chapter, gathered for an open discussion dubbed, “The F-Word: What’s Wrong with Miss Universe?”

Said Senior Tyler Allen: “FIU is an educational institution. I think there are better ways to find value in our school.”

Representatives from Miss Universe declined to comment for this article.

At Wednesday’s competition, the mood was more celebratory.

“I see flags from all over the world here,” gushed host Roxanne Vargas, an NBC6 entertainment reporter. “I am so excited about the fact the Miss Universe is being held here in Miami.”

Judges narrowed the 88 contestants to 15 finalists for Sunday’s show. Hector Pico, 41, and his mother Carolina Pico, 65, were at Wednesday’s prelims and were excited to see a Miss Universe presentation.

“My mom has been a lifelong fan,” said Hector, a fan of Miss Venezuela. “It is a completely different experience to actually be here instead of watching it on TV.”

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To watch

‘The 63rd annual Miss Universe Pageant’ airs live from Florida International University at 8-11 p.m. Sunday on NBC6 and in Spanish on Telemundo 51.

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