LAS VEGAS (AP) — Women from around the world squared off Wednesday night for the right to be called Miss Universe, as celebrity judges descended on the red carpet and brought some extra sparkle to the Las Vegas Strip.
Beauty queens from 89 countries prepared to don evening gowns, show their interview skills and strut in swimsuits as the two-hour competition at the Planet Hollywood casino got under way.
The women wore tight, pleated mini-dresses with glittering sequin bodices and sky high platform shoes as they strutted the stage to the hit "Live While We're Young," by English-Irish boy band One Direction.
The 61st annual Miss Universe show will feature performances by the band Train and Australian singer Timomatic.
Andy Cohen and Giuliana Rancic returned to host the pageant, which is back in Las Vegas after being held in Sao Paulo last year.
The panel of 10 judges includes singer Cee Lo Green, "Iron Chef" star Masaharu Morimoto and Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants.
Asked whether he found playing in the World Series or judging the beauty pageant to be more difficult, Sandoval said both were hard.
Miss Universe 2011, Leila Lopes of Angola, said she expected this night to be the worst part of her year. She offered some advice to the women vying for her crown.
"Be calm and smile," she said. "Smiling helps a lot. Even though they are not relaxed, the judges will think that they are."
The group of contestants from six continents was cut to 16 soon after the start of the show based on preliminary competitions.
Miss USA Olivia Culpo was one of those who advanced to the finals. The 20-year-old from Cranston, R.I., is a sophomore at Boston University and a self-described "cellist-nerd." She was the first Miss USA winner from Rhode Island when she took the national crown in Las Vegas in June.
Organizers had considered holding the contest in the popular Dominican Republic tourist city of Punta Cana, but Miss Universe Organization President Paula Shugart said that country's financial crisis proved to be too much of an obstacle.
The diverse group of contestants spent the past two weeks in Las Vegas, where they posed in hardhats at a hotel groundbreaking, took a painting lesson, and pranked hotel guests by hiding in their rooms.
"I've seen them and they are absolutely gorgeous," said Donald Trump, a co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization. "They're very nervous and they should be. It's a billion people (watching)."
On the eve of the pageant, the organization announced it had won a defamation suit against a woman who claimed this year's Miss USA contest, also owned by Trump, was fixed.
The winner of the Miss USA crown goes on to represent her country in the Miss Universe contest.
Contestants cannot have been married or have children. They must be younger than 27 and older than 18 by Feb. 1 of the competition year.
The pageant started as a local revue in Long Beach, Calif., organized by Catalina Swimwear. It is not affiliated with the Miss America pageant.