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Israel’s beauty on full display as India takes the crown at Miss Universe in Eilat

‘Tonight we are in the beautiful country of Israel,’ host Steve Harvey tells hundreds of millions of viewers in 172 countries who tuned in for live TV broadcast from Eilat

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

India's Harnaaz Sandhu waves after being crowned Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
India's Harnaaz Sandhu waves after being crowned Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned the new Miss Universe in a glitzy ceremony in the Red Sea port of Eilat in the early hours of Monday morning, marking the 70th anniversary of the beauty competition.

Sandhu advanced to the finals out of 80 contestants from all corners of the world, and then just edged out Miss Paraguay Nadia Ferreira and Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane in the final three to take over the crown from the reigning Miss Universe, Miss Mexico Andrea Meza.

But while Sandhu took the top prize in the three-hour live competition, which wrapped up at 5 a.m. local time so it could air live in primetime in North, Central and South America, there was another beauty prominently on display to an audience of hundreds of millions of people — Israel.

“Tonight we are in the beautiful country of Israel,” said host Steve Harvey as he opened the telecast. “This is a country with so much rich culture and history.”

Israeli artists also took top billing at the glitzy event, with the evening opening with a performance by Israeli pop singer Noa Kirel, who performed her English-language single “Bad Little Thing.”

Meg Omecene, the communications director for Miss Universe, said the organization was excited about having Kirel open the competition.

“They really wanted to lift up a young female artist, and the platform that Noa Kirel is stepping into tonight — she could be seen by as many as 600 million people across the globe,” said Omecene.

“That’s a really special platform for an artist, and I know that they wanted to bring a local flavor to the competition as well. And I know the ladies have been loving dancing to her music.”

Assaf Blecher, an executive producer on the Israeli side of the production, said Miss Universe was thrilled to have Noa Kirel perform to audiences around the globe.

Noa Kirel performs on stage during the 70th Miss Universe Competition on December 13, 2021 in Eilat. (Benjamin Askinas/Miss Universe)

“I think she’s amazing, I think she’s going to be very successful in the US, I think she’s on the cusp between being local to being international,” said Blecher on Sunday, adding that he had to work to convince the American organizers of Miss Universe to come on board. “She’s not known, she’s semi-known now, and Fox fell in love with her, and we got approval, but I really believed in her opening the show — having an Israeli act open.”

Well-known pop singer Harel Skaat — whose husband is Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll — also performed at the show, singing a Hebrew, Arabic and English-language cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with Valerie Hamaty, a Christian Arab Israeli singer who became famous on this year’s season of Israel’s “Rising Star,” and religious Jewish Israeli performer Narkis.

South Africa’s Lalela Mswane, from left, India’s Harnaaz Sandhu and Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira advance to the top 3 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

With the Omicron COVID variant shutting down air travel and limiting entry into Israel, the local audience was thin, with the 4,000-seat hall more than half empty by the end of the show. Sandhu told reporters following her win that her family was unable to be with her at the competition due to the restrictions.

A considerable portion of the audience was made up of fans from the Philippines — who make up a large percentage of foreign workers in Israel — who cheered raucously as Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez advanced to the top 16, the top 10 and then the top 3. Host Harvey appeared somewhat bemused, commenting: “I thought we were in Israel.”

The sparse local attendance in the hall hosting the 70th Miss Universe competition in Eilat on December 13, 2021. (Amy Spiro)

Israel’s own competitor, Noa Cochva — who fell ill shortly before the live broadcast but recovered in time to take part — did not advance to the final 16.

Many contestants were subject to calls to boycott the competition since it was being held in Israel. South Africa withdrew its support from its competitor — who ultimately placed third — over her refusal to pull out of the contest. A handful of nations did not take part in this year’s contest, mostly citing COVID restrictions and the short timing. One of those was Malaysia, which has competed in the competition almost every year for the past six decades. While Malaysia also cited COVID as the reason for canceling its own Miss Malaysia pageant, many observers speculated that the country’s refusal to recognize Israel was the real force behind the decision.

Nevertheless, Israel’s Tourism Ministry views the contest — broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers in 172 countries — as a major win for tourism, PR and Israel’s image around the world.

In addition to the TV viewership, each of the 80 contestants is “posting on social media and posting stories to their social networks,” said Sara Salansky, the director of overseas marketing for the Tourism Ministry. Part of the ministry’s backing of the event, she said, was tied to the request “that we want all the candidates to travel in Israel and to be shooting photos of them traveling and meeting the people and the sites of Israel.”

Contestants of the 2021 Miss Universe pageant enjoy a sunny day on a beach at the Dead Sea on December 1, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Images and video of their travels were incorporated into the live broadcast, showing the women visiting the Western Wall, speaking about their time in Israel and touring around the country.

Omecene said the decision to pick Israel was also tied to its diverse offerings and rich history.

“We look for host sites that provide a rich experience for our contestants,” she said, pointing to the women’s experience at “the Old City of Jerusalem, praying at the Western Wall, getting to bathe in the Dead Sea, going ATVing in the desert or swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea. It’s been a really great experience.”

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