“I was very surprised I won. I feel blessed,” said newly crowned Miss Universe Iris Mittenaere of France, a dental surgery student.
“Miss Universe was a dream. Every girl wants to be Miss Universe,” she said.
Mittenaere, 23, from the small town of Lille in northern France, bested 85 other aspirants from around the world in the 65th Miss Universe competition, hosted for the third time by the Philippines.
Mittenaere said in reply to a final question from pageant host Steve Harvey that she would be honored if she just landed among the three finalists, but was visibly stunned when she was announced the winner.
She was speechless and put her hands on her face as the outgoing winner from the Philippines, Pia Wurtzbach, crowned her as the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
In her profile, she said she would “advocate for dental and oral hygiene” if she won.
The new Miss Universe found the Filipino people’s hospitality remarkable. “Thank you to all the Filipinos. You are exceptional,” Mittenaere said in her first press conference at the media center near SM Mall of Asia Arena by Manila Bay minutes after her coronation.
“You are so lovely with us. All the girls in the pageant love you,” she said.
Miss Haiti Raquel Pelissier was the first runner-up while Miss Colombia Andrea Tovar was second runner-up. Miss Philippines Maxine Medina landed in the Top 6.
Failed several times
In the final question to the top three finalists, the candidates were asked to cite a failure in their life and explain what they learned from the debacle.
“I’ve failed several times in my life,” Mittenaere said without elaborating but added that “when you fail, you have to be elevated and you have to try again and keep going … I have failed before but for me this is the great first opportunity.”
In reply to the same question, Pelissier said, “I survived the earthquake,” citing the quake the Haiti government estimated to have killed more than 300,000 people and displaced more than 1.5 million others.
“I felt I was failing myself because I was not living my dreams … But I chose to be a very positive person and learned a great lesson from it because if I am here today, it is because I am living my dreams,” Pelissier said.
Title drought broken
Mittenaere is just the second French beauty queen to be crowned Miss Universe. Her proclamation broke a 63-year title drought for the European nation.
France’s first Miss Universe was Christiane Martel, the winner in the global tilt’s second edition.
Like the Philippines, France is enjoying a successful streak in the Miss Universe pageant recently.
Mittenaere’s predecessor finished in the Top 5 in 2015. Except for 2013, the country also appeared in the semifinals from 2009 to 2014.
She credits her two coaches for her success in the Miss Universe pageant.
“I did not change my training (from the previous Misses France). We have a very good training. Maybe now we’ll have more Miss Universe winners,” Mittenaere said.
President Duterte’s spokesperson said Mittenaere’s victory was a proud moment for her country. “Iris brought tremendous joy to her people by representing France well on the international stage with her winning grace, regal bearing and inspiring answer,” Ernesto Abella said in a statement.
The Department of Tourism also congratulated Mittenaere for her triumph, noting that the pageant’s success was also a victory for the Philippines.
“The Philippines is the runaway winner in this prestigious international event. Our islands, food and the biggest smiles of our people are all over the news and social media these past few weeks,” Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo said in a statement.
The staging of the pageant in the Philippines is expected to boost the country’s bid to attract more tourists, she said.
“I invite the world, come to the Philippines so you can affirm that when you are with Filipinos, you are with family,” Teo said.
The Philippines agreed to host the pageant as part of efforts to draw not only tourists but also investors.
Beauty pageants are also hugely popular in the Philippines, particularly among the tens of millions of poor who see the contests as a chance for their beautiful compatriots to live a life of fame and luxury.
But allowing the Philippines to host has proved controversial, with critics claiming the pageant would whitewash Mr. Duterte’s brutal drug war, which has left more than 6,000 people dead.
Environmentalists also hit out at pageant organizers for letting the bikini-clad contestants swim last month with endangered whale sharks.
Despite the controversies, excited fans from across the globe lined up before dawn to watch the pageant, which was held in the morning Manila time for the coveted prime American evening viewing audiences.
Fans dressed in evening gowns with a sash took selfies outside the seaside arena where the competition was held while others organized viewing parties in hotels and restaurants in the capital. —WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS, ERIKA SAULER, AFP AND AP