Beauty pageants have always meant more than just girls parading themselves around a stage with fancy dresses and unnatural spray tans. Beauty pageants allow confident women to show the world that women can be respected as both a symbol of elegance and wisdom. On Sunday, Nov. 26, the 66th annual Miss Universe Pageant took place at The AXIS at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Nev., where 92 countries competed for the ultimate crown. These women compete in categories that judge everything from beauty and poise to the competitors’ ability to think quickly and express the intellectual ability to make a difference in the world. Miss Universe has always served as an inspiration for young women to be both beautiful and educated, and this year’s winner is no exception.

This year’s Miss Universe Pageant was hosted by Steve Harvey, who announced the wrong winner during his last hosting of the Miss Universe Pageant in 2015, after which he made a point to call out Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who presented the best motion picture to “La La Land” when it was supposed to go to “Moonlight” at the 2017 Oscars. Harvey added a light-hearted and entertaining element to the intense night.

One country that was present during the competition for its first time in 45 years was Iraq. Sarah Idan was the Miss Iraq representative. Idan comes from Baghdad, where she was born during the same year as the Gulf War. Since an early age, Idan has been surrounded by the sound of bombs, and she witnessed the entire city of Baghdad being destroyed. “I know many people are against the pageant. They think it’s against Islam and they don’t think it’s an appropriate time for Iraq to have a Beauty Pageant right now,” said Idan. “I am a Muslim, but I want to represent Christians, Jews, Kurdish and everyone in Iraq.”

The evening’s competition began by announcing the top 16 finalists who conquered the daunting preliminary competition. The women were divided into three groups, the Americas, Europe and Africa & Asia Pacific. Four women from each group were chosen to continue on in the competition, and the last four remaining spots were referred to as “wild cards” where the contestants moving on could come from any of the three groups. Unfortunately, Idan did not make the top 16. Countries that were fortunate enough to compete in the live broadcast of the  Miss Universe Pageant include: Thailand, Sri lanka, Ghana, South Africa, Spain, Ireland, Croatia, Great Britain, Columbia, USA, Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, Venezuela, Philippines and China. The evening consisted of three rounds: swimwear, evening gown and a Q&A.

Given the difficult caliber of competition, Kara McCullough represented the USA well. Not only is she Miss USA, but she also works as a physical scientist at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She advocates for all women to educate themselves with STEM ideals, as science is all around us. “I encourage young girls to find a passion for science and a passion for discovery,” said McCullough. McCullough placed in the top 10 at the Miss Universe Pageant. A fun fact is that McCullough chose to compete with natural hair, due to her support for the natural hair movement. Her long curly black hair looked beautiful and bold coming down the runway.

Another contestant that caught my eye was Davina Bennett who represented Miss Jamaica, and came in third place for Miss Universe. During the swimwear round she wore a teal bathing suit that complimented her dark skin tone perfectly and accentuated her ensemble with a yellow wrap around her bathing suit bottom. Her beauty was further shown during the evening gown competition. She wore a beautiful sheer-yellow, mermaid gown with a flowing cape that started at the tip of her shoulders and flowed downward like wings. Her most outstanding quality is her eloquent communication and her dedication to building a sign language app, aiming to break the barriers of communication between deaf and hearing people.

Despite the uniqueness, beauty and unwavering drive in these 92 women, only one was able to take the crown. Demi-Leigh Nel Peters, representing Miss South Africa, won the title of Miss Universe 2017. One month after being crowned Miss South Africa, Nel Peters was hijacked and held at gunpoint. She explained that she put her hands up, got out of the car, gave her attackers her keys and phone, and tried to run away. One guy pulled her back and pushed her into the car and said, “get in, you’re going with us.” Nel Peters was able to grab hold of his gun and punched it into his throat. She then managed to escape. Since her attack, Nel Peters has started ‘Unbreakable,’ an organization dedicated to giving women the skills and knowledge to empower themselves in a life-threatening situation. “This was a traumatic experience and it was really, really bad,” said Nel Peters. “I will not allow myself to be a victim.”

For the bathing suit competition, Nel Peters took the stage in a sun-yellow, spaghetti-strap swimsuit with a cross embellishment in the middle and added a blue wrap around her suit bottom, which she confidently shed as she strutted down the runway. After making it through the bathing suit competition, she got ready for the evening gown portion of the night. Nel Peters chose to do an up-do bun and wore a tight-fitting, skin-toned dress with sheer arms that had sparkled scattered throughout. On the left side, her gown had a high slit, showing off her beautifully long legs.

“It’s about being comfortable in who you are. I’ve worked hard to be fit and to be healthy, and that is what I love to do,” said Nel Peters. “That is what I love to be, and I’ve always been a sporty person, and I’m happy with who I am. That’s what makes me go out there and just own the stage.”

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