India’s Harnaaz Sandhu wins the 2021 Miss Universe competition in Israel

Indian Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned the 70th Miss Universe on Sunday after a pageant filled with beads, sequins and swimsuits that was also hit by the pandemic and politics.

Sandhu, an actress studying for a master’s degree in public administration, received the jeweled crown from last year’s winner, Andrea Meza of Mexico, when she wiped her tears on stage.

Sandhu said she felt “overwhelmed because it has been 21 years since India received the Miss Universe crown and it just happened”.

The pageant was held in Eilat, Israel, in the middle of the night so it could accommodate the prime broadcast schedule in the US, where it aired late Sunday on FOX.

India’s Harnaaz Sandhu waves after being crowned Miss Universe 2021.Ariel Schalit / AP

In addition to the usual beauty pageants, participants from 80 countries also answered questions about vaccination regulations and whether a person’s social media story should be brought against them years later.

Harnaaz, who will be moving to New York City in the New Year, will use her time as Miss Universe to advocate menstrual justice, according to the pageant organization.

While the pageant itself seemed to go smoothly, the preparation didn’t go quite as smoothly.

A grassroots Palestinian boycott organization urged countries not to attend the event to protest the host country’s treatment of the Palestinians.

And the South African government, which has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, has withdrawn its support for Miss South Africa because of her participation in the pageant in the Israeli resort on the Red Sea.

Others, however, spoke out against the politicization of the competition, which was moderated by the US TV personality Steve Harvey.

South Africa’s pageant organizer said in November that the competition is not a political event and that Lalela Mswane, who is also a model and dancer, is fulfilling her childhood dream by participating.

“In a strange way I was driven by the pressure and every time I saw negative comment it gave me so much fuel and made me want to finish in the top three,” said Mswane, who was responsible for the Contest finished third, told NBC News Monday.

“The emotional trauma was a lot.”

South African Lalela Mswane takes part in the swimsuit phase of the 70th Miss Universe competition in Eilat, Israel.Ariel Schalit / AP

Meza urged attendees to leave such topics out of the competition and said last month that the event is designed to bring together women from diverse backgrounds. “When you’re in there, forget about politics, your religion,” she told the Associated Press.

Only Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with close ties to the Palestinians, ultimately did not send a representative, citing the global Covid-19 situation.

According to Sara Salansky, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Israel was asked by the Miss Universe organization in May to host the pageant in Eilat because of its high vaccination rate and low Covid-19 levels. But just as the participants arrived, Israel introduced new travel restrictions due to the Omicron variant.

“We understand that these are not normal times,” said Salansky. “We supported housing and travel in Israel for candidates from 80 different countries. And now, after seeing the country – not just Eilat, they visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the north, Nazareth, Akko and of course the Dead Sea – we have 80 new ambassadors for Israel. “

Two other participants from the region also took part in this year’s competition, Miss United Arab Emirates and Miss Morocco. It was the first time the United Arab Emirates had participated in the pageant and the first time in 40 years that Morocco had participated.

Despite the health precautions in place, France’s candidate Clemence Botino tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days of quarantine, she was declared virus-free last week and was allowed to participate in the competition again.

Miss USA Elle Smith was in the top 10 but didn’t make it into the top 5.

The Associated Press contributed.