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By ARIEL SCHALIT, Associated Press

EILAT, Israel (AP) — Harnaaz Sandhu of India was crowned the 70th Miss Universe on Sunday, topping a field of some 80 contestants in a pageant that was touched by politics and the pandemic.

The previously reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, crowned her successor, a Bollywood actress, in the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat. The pageant Skechers Shoes was held in the middle of the night, wrapping up at 5 a.m. local time (10 p.m. EST) to accommodate the primetime schedule in the U.S.

Sandhu said she was feeling “overwhelmed because it’s been 21 years since India got Miss Universe crown and it’s happening right now.”

The pageant included traditional displays of national costumes, swimwear and a series of interview questions to test contestants’ public speaking skills. The top 10 showed off intricately bedazzled full-length gowns in either gold, silver or bronze. The Philippines’ Beatrice Luigi Gomez wore an asymmetrical cut dress with one sleeve, highlighting a new tattoo she said “celebrates her womanhood.”

But the contest also drew attention in recent weeks for other reasons.

A grassroots Palestinian-led boycott had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

In the end, only Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with close ties to the Palestinians, did not send a representative, citing the global COVID-19 situation. The South African government, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, withdrew support for the country’s representative over her participation.

In an interview last month, Meza urged contestants to leave politics out of the pageant, saying the gathering was meant to bring together women from different Skechers Womens Outlet backgrounds. “When you are in there you forget about politics, about your religion,” she told The Associated Press at the time.

Sara Salansky, an official with the Israeli Tourism Ministry, said the country was selected to host the contest earlier this year because of Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.

The contest suffered a last-minute hiccup with the arrival of the omicron variant, which forced Israel to close its borders to foreign tourists late last month.

Most of the Miss Universe contestants were already in the country before the new regulations came into effect. But those who came afterward were given special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.

Throughout the run-up to Sunday’s contest, all contestants were tested for the coronavirus every 48 hours and required to obey strict mask requirements.

Amid all the safeguards, France’s contestant, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days in quarantine, she was declared virus free last week and allowed to rejoin the competition.

Last year’s pageant was delayed due to the pandemic before Meza was crowned in May for her abbreviated tenure.

Sunday’s contest was hosted by U.S. TV personality Steve Harvey. Organizers said the pageant was expected to reach an estimated 600 million viewers via the FOX network in 172 countries.

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