The Universe has a new queen whose victory caught everyone by surprise. On Monday, Iris Mittenaere, the doll-faced dentistry student from France, was crowned as the 65th Miss Universe in a pageant held in Manila.
The 24-year-old earned the title after beating 85 other candidates, including Philippine bet Maxine Medina, in a grand production staged before a sold-out crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
“I am very surprised. You know, I am always touching the crown and saying ‘Oh my God, I have a crown on my head.’ It was a big surprise, every step was a big surprise and I wanted to cry at every step. I am very proud and I feel blessed, really blessed,” gushed the new Miss Universe at her very first news conference shortly after the coronation.
Besides winning the crown, Mittenaere was hailed for ending France’s 64-year drought in the pageant after Christiane Martel’s 1953 win. Moreover, Mittenaere is also the first beauty queen to win Miss Universe from Europe since 2000.
For these two records alone, Miss Universe 2016 is excited to go home with the good news.
“I think France and Europe really need [to win]Miss Universe because it has been a long time since we won,” Mittenaere admitted. “Actually a lot of French people love beauty pageants but they don’t really know Miss Universe because our country never wins. But this year, a lot of people from my country, and I think from Europe too, will love Miss Universe more. I am very proud to bring this crown to Europe.”
A native of Lille, France, Mittenaere—admittedly not the strongest contender according to pageant experts who predicted Southeast Asian and Latin American beauties to dominate this year—first caught the judges’ attention during her strong performance on Thursday’s Preliminary Competition in the same venue.
Her performance in the preliminary swimsuit and long gown competitions landed her a spot in the Top 13 finalists—the eleventh candidate to be called—along with Miss Kenya Scarlet Were, Miss Indonesia Kezia Warow, Miss USA Deshauna Barber, Miss Mexico Kristal Silva, Miss Peru Valeria Piazza, Miss Panama Kety Drennan, Miss Colombia Andrea Tovar, Philippines’ Medina, Miss Canada Siera Bearchell and Miss Brazil Raissa Santana, Miss Haiti Raquel Pelissier and online voting winner Miss Thailand Chalita Suansane.
As scores were reset, Mittenaere strutted confidently in her chosen Yamamaya swimsuit and proceeded to the Top 9, together with Misses USA, Thailand, France, Mexico, Kenya, Colombia, Canada, Haiti and Philippines.
She advanced further to the Top 6—leaving behind eliminated candidates from USA, Canada and Mexico—to face the first round of Question and Answer.
Right to open, close borders
In recent years, Miss Universe had earned the reputation of being a beauty contest attuned to current affairs, therefore asking questions that test the candidates’ understanding of global events.
This year was different most especially for Miss France who was asked, “Given today’s worldwide refugee crisis, do countries have the obligation to accept refugees or do they have the right to close their doors?”
Her reply, which secured her spot in the final Top 3 was, “The country should have the right to open or close their borders… In Europe we have opened borders. In France we want to have the most globalization that we can; we want to have the biggest exchange of people that we can, and someday that might change, but for now we have open borders. Having open borders allows us to travel and find out more what’s out there in the world.”
Joining her in the final round were Miss Haiti Pelissier, who was asked for which rights she would be willing to march following the huge women’s march in Washington on January 21; and Miss Colombia Tovar who articulately answered the question why violence is so prevalent in the world and what can people do to stop it.
The Philippines’ Medina, who was in her element during the swimsuit and long gown rounds, was suddenly out of her zone when asked for the most significant change she had seen in the world in the last 10 years.
With a stand-by interpreter who translated the question in Filipino, Medina replied in English, only managing a nervously composed answer: “In the last 10 years of being here in the world is that I saw all the people bringing in one event like this in Miss Universe and it’s something big to us that we are one, as one nation, we are all together.”
Whether nerves got to her—she was first to be called among the Top 6—or she failed to understand the question—that marked the end of Medina’s Miss Universe journey.
During the final Q&A—with Misses Colombia, Haiti and France all visions in golden gowns—the Top 3 were asked to name something that happened over the course of their life in which they failed, and share what lesson they learned from that experience.
Through an interpreter, Mittenaere, who later made her answer clearer during her news conference, talked about having thought that she failed her first year in medical school. “When you fail, you have to be elevated, you have to try again and keep going. And if tonight I am not the winner, I still have the great honor of being one of the three finalists.”
Her answer and final walk stood out for the panel of judges which included former Miss Universe titleholders Dayanara Torres (1993), Sushmita Sen (1994) and Leila Lopes (2010), model and entrepreneur Cynthia Bailey, Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman and social entrepreneur Francine LeFrak.
With the crown on her head, the dentistry student said her advocacies would focus on good oral health for children and education for all, especially for young women.
PH in the spotlight
Despite the failed back-to-back win for the Philippines, the country is poised to win from the Miss Universe in a different aspect: tourism.
Almost losing its bid to host the 65th edition of the pageant, former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis Chavit Singson pursued the cause to boost tourism by enjoining the country’s top businessmen to raise the hefty price tag of $12.9 million and mount the contest here.
And effectively during the show, which, according to Solar Entertainment president and CEO Wilson Tieng was beamed live to 190 countries, the Philippines was put on the spotlight with clips of its best tourist destinations presented in several videos documenting the candidates’ two-week long pre-pageant activities across Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.
Among the sites captured on camera were Baguio, the Unesco World Heritage Site Vigan, Batangas, Cebu, Iloilo and Davao. Backstage host Ashley Graham also showed a special clip from Bohol with then reigning Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach as her tour guide.
He got it right
Overall, the 65th Miss Universe coronation night was a seamless production, even hailed by Miss Universe Organization President Paula Shugart as the “best show we ever had.”
The stage setup was a mix of elegance and modernity with entertainment value provided by the concert-worthy performances of American rapper Flo Rida during the opening, and four-time Grammy Award-winning R&B group Boyz 2 Men, who serenaded the Top 3 finalists just before Miss France was crowned.
Emmy-Award winning host Steve Harvey—who last year was abhorred by Filipinos for his mistake in announcing Miss Colombia’s Ariada Gutierrez instead of Pia Wurtzbach—won both love and admiration as he generously and profusely apologized to Wurtzbach and the rest of the country.
While never actually uttering the word “sorry,” Harvey repeatedly made fun of himself throughout the production, gracious in receiving ribbing even from Wurtzbach who thanked him for making her “the most famous Miss Universe.”
“Every time I read off a card, I just pucker up a little bit,” was one of the 60-year old’s jests throughout the night.
But perhaps out of all his comedic acts, the best one came at the very end with Wurtzbach handing him a pair of reading glasses just before he announced the new Miss Universe.
Convinced he had made his comeback, Harvey bid farewell to the audience and said, “I’m Steve Harvey and I got it right!”