A raven-haired Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, was crowned Miss Universe 2007 on Monday in a contest marked by protests, a banned dress and the withdrawal of one beauty queen on the grounds that the pageant degrades women.
Mori, 20, the 56th winner of the title, was given her $250,000 diamond-and-pearl crown by last yearâ€™s winner, Zuleyka Rivera of Puerto Rico in an event watched by a live audience of 10,000 and 600 million television viewers worldwide.
A lifelong ballet dancer from a village near Mount Fuji, Mori wore a striking black gown with coloured lapels for the final. Winning made her grandmotherâ€™s ambition come true. Moriâ€™s grandmother told her while still a child that she wanted her to be Miss Japan one day.
â€œMy mind went blank,â€ she said of the winning moment. During the evening gown parade, Miss USA, Rachel Smith, slipped on the runway and landed on her bottom, although the slip did not stop her earning fifth place.
This yearâ€™s contest was marked by controversy, with a handful of Mexicans booing Smith in the run-up to the finals because of what they saw as US unfriendliness toward illegal immigrants. Miss Sweden, Isabel Lestapier Winqvist, unexpectedly pulled out of the event because of complaints in her country that it degrades women. Sweden has won the Miss Universe crown three times in the past.
In another hitch, Miss Mexico was made to change her outfit for the regional dress contest after her original dress, decorated with brutal images of rebels in a 1920s religious uprising being hanged or shot, drew accusations of poor taste.
The annual Miss Universe pageant â€“ which tries to present itself as something more meaningful than a swimwear parade â€” was first held in Long Beach, California, in 1952. The event was taken over in 1996 by US real estate mogul Donald Trump.
This year, it attracted protesters wearing white dresses splashed with fake blood and sashes proclaiming â€œMiss Juarez,â€ â€œMiss Atencoâ€ and â€œMiss Michoacanâ€ in reference to places in Mexico made infamous by killings or sexual abuse of women.
In another quirk for 2007, the long, twisted dreadlocks of Miss Jamaica, the contestâ€™s first ever Rastafarian participant, and the close-shaved head of Miss Tanzania, stood out from the lacquered manes of the other contestants.
Last yearâ€™s Miss Universe event in Los Angeles also made its mark when winner Rivera caused gasps by slumping to the ground in a faint during a post-pageant news conference.
As well as strutting in cocktail dresses and bikinis, the 77 contestants, from nations ranging from Albania to Zambia, travelled in Mexico in the lead-up to the event, visiting Mayan ruins and learning about endangered animals.
They also had to answer questions to put their personalities and public speaking ability to the test.
This was the fourth time the pageant was held in Mexico, which in 1991 won the crown with beauty queen Lupita Jones.
Mori â€“ the second Japanese woman to win the Miss Universe title â€“ will spend her year-long reign travelling the world to speak out on humanitarian issues like poverty and disease.
Japanâ€™s Mori wins troubled Miss Universe contest