Miss Universe 2021: Here’s all you need to know about the history, drama and competitors of the 70th anniversary pageant

·Senior Editor
·8 min read
Miss USA Elle Smith
Miss USA Elle Smith, of Kentucky, will compete for the crown of Miss Universe on Sunday in Eilat, Israel. (Photo courtesy of Miss USA)

The Miss Universe pageant has been through a lot over the decades — from the 21-year Trump-owned era (and his fat-shaming of 1996 winner Alicia Machado, tabloid fodder for the 2016 elections) to host Steve Harvey’s gaffe of announcing the wrong winner in 2015 (making a similar mistake in 2019), causing awkwardness and confusion onstage and off.

And when the 70th Anniversary Miss Universe kicks off this weekend in Eilat, Israel, airing on Sunday evening on Fox and again hosted by Harvey (following the preliminary competition, held on Friday), it will likely not disappoint in the drama department — at least if the weeks leading up to it have offered any indication.

First, what is Miss Universe, anyway?

The pageant, often confused with that of Miss America, is set apart in many ways — including by being a for-profit company (unlike the nonprofit Miss America), founded in 1952 by Catalina Swimsuits as a promotional tool after that year's Miss America, Yolande Betzbeze, refused to appear at events wearing a bathing suit and that organization dropped Catalina as a sponsor. While the pageant organization was formerly owned by Donald Trump (from 1995-2015), it's currently owned by WME.

Rules for the competitors include being between 18 and 28, not being married or divorced, never having given birth and not being any child's legal guardian, not being pregnant and "recognized medically and legally as a female," able to show proof "if your gender or sex designated at birth was not female."

Miss Universe pageant host Bob Barker, left, who was master of ceremonies from 1967 to 1987, with Miss Puerto Rico Marisol Malaret Contreras in 1970 in Miami Beach (Photo: Getty Images)
Miss Universe pageant host Bob Barker, left, who was master of ceremonies from 1967 to 1987, with Miss Puerto Rico Marisol Malaret Contreras in 1970 in Miami Beach (Photo: Getty Images)

While the late Bob Barker was a popular host of the contest (and Miss USA) for 20 years, Harvey is returning for his sixth year, and his 24-year-old daughter, Lori Harvey, is part of the selection committee — along with supermodel Adriana Lima, Miss Universe 2016 Iris Mittenaere, actresses Urvashi Rautela, Marian Rivera, Adamari López and The Bold and the Beautiful's Rena Sofer. Performers are set to include JoJo and Israeli vocalist Noa Kirel.

Who’s competing?

Among the 80 contestants officially called "delegates"— is Miss USA Elle Smith of Kentucky, a TV news reporter for her local WHAS who beat out the rest of the state reps including Miss Nevada Kataluna Enriquez, who made history as the first transgender woman to contend for the Miss USA crown but was eliminated early, telling Yahoo Life, "I think they were just not ready."

Elle, emailing Yahoo Life this week from Eilat, says she's rooming with host country's Miss Israel Noa Cochva, making it "an amazing experience being able to learn about the culture and country directly from a local."

Among the many other notable contestants with unique life experiences include Miss Belgium Kedist Deltour, who, as a child born in Ethiopia, briefly lived on the street after her mother died, until she and her brother were placed in an orphanage and adopted by a Belgian couple. Miss Curacao Shariëngela Cijntje, also the product of childhood resilience, suffered from burns over 80 percent of her body when she was just 3 years old.

Miss Costa Rica Valeria Rees, meanwhile, started a platform called Open Cage on which she speaks honestly about her experience with anorexia, while Miss Turkey Cemrenaz Turhan is a pro-volleyball player. Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez is proudly bisexual and became the first member of the LGBTQ community to win the Miss Universe Philippines title, while Miss El Salvador Alejandra Gavidia is an asexual activist who noted, "Asexuals are invisible, we are the ghosts of the LGBTIQ + community." And Miss Puerto Rico Michelle Marie Colon grabbed Israeli headlines recently when she announced in an Instagram post, alongside a photo of herself visiting the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, that her great-grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.

How COVID is affecting the contest this year

First, this is technically the second Miss Universe of the year, as 2020's competition was caught in a COVID delay, and wound up being postponed to May 2021, when it took place in Hollywood, Fla., crowning Andrea Meza of Mexico the winner.

But the effects of COVID are carrying over into this contest, as well: Detection of the new Omicron variant in Israel occurred just as pageant contestants were arriving from all corners of the globe — barely squeaking into the country as it announced, on Nov. 28, a near-total ban on foreign tourists entering its borders. Miss France, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID upon arrival and was put into solitary quarantine for 10 days, noting on her Instagram, "I have been crying all day."

She now appears to have recovered and be back in the running.

Still, the pandemic now hangs like a cloud over the closely watched event, with Hagai Levine, a professor of public health at Hebrew University who spoke with The Daily Beast, pointing to how the situation of contestants coming from all over the world served to highlight global vaccine inequality. "Miss Universe, specifically, is an event that should be leveraged to show that we’re all in this together," he said. "With the women competing representing most nations on earth, we should acknowledge that we as humanity have failed. At the crucial moment, we didn't display solidarity."

The Omicron variant, Levine added, "should make it very clear that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and it seems a bit in poor taste that some of these women come from nations without access to vaccines."

How Israel as this year's host country is playing out

Though Smith tells Yahoo Life that Israel "is a lovely place" that she plans on visiting again, and that people's "preconceived notions" about other countries tend to "dissipate after learning about the culture and meeting residents," others are apparently more reticent about the event taking place in the country known for its controversial policies — namely now-former Miss Greece Rafaela Plastira.

She's the delegate who reportedly withdrew from the contest in protest, saying in October, "I love all countries from all over the world but my heart goes to all the people fighting for their lives in Israel & Palestina. I can't go up that stage and act like nothing is happening when people are fighting for their lives out there."

But then, strangely adding to the drama, came subsequent, confusing reports that said Plastira was never selected to represent Greece anyway, and that her statement about withdrawing was "false."

According to a statement posted on Facebook by Giorgos Kouvaris, president of Star & Mr GS Hellas, "I would like to inform all Greeks that GS Hellas is the only body that selects the participants in the Miss Universe 2021. Anything else is false and malicious.”

Plastira, he added, "won the Star Hellas 2019 title, and this is the only title she has. She was never supposed to represent our country in the Miss Universe pageant." He said that the Greek representative for the official Miss Universe pageant is Sofia Arapogianni — although apparently, Arapogianni came only after Katerina Kouvoutsaki, who was reportedly replacing Plastira until she announced she was withdrawing for "health reasons" which would not allow her to travel.

Beyond the Greece situation, "false" or not, the South African government announced in late November that it was withdrawing its support for the Miss South Africa pageant, due to Miss Universe being held in Israel, where "the atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians are well documented," Minister of Arts, Sport and Culture Nathi Mthethwa said in a statement, according to ABC News. That sparked criticism from the South African Jewish Board of Entities, with national director Wendy Kahn saying through a statement: "South Africa has diplomatic ties and extensive commercial trade relations with Israel. It engages in events such as this one, such as hosting the Israeli Davis Cup team in 2018. The way we influence situations is to engage, not to withdraw."

Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane, a 24-year-old model, ballerina and Zulu woman, appears to have not addressed the controversy, and is indeed in Israel, according to her social media.

This is not the first Israel-based Miss Universe controversy, by the way; in 2015, Miss Lebanon Saly Greige came under fire posing with Miss Israel Doron Matalon and others in a photo that Matalon had posted to social media. Lebanese citizens can be imprisoned for contact with Israelis, as the countries have been at war since 2006, but Greige said at the time, "Since the first day of my arrival to participate I was very cautious to avoid being in any photo or communication with Miss Israel," who, she alleges, "jumped in" to the photo.

Who is favored to win?

While it's anyone's contest at this point, Miss Puerto Rico Michelle Marie Colon is among those favored to land in the top 10 — as is Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez and delegates from Chile, Spain, Colombia and Brazil — according to aficionados including those on pageant message boards, this popular YouTuber and the pageant site Missosology.

As a Missosology story on top picks notes, there is an "astounding number of front-runners," though it is, of course, "still early in the game to make any definite predictions."

Watch Miss Universe on Sunday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. ET on Fox.

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