Surprised Miss Australia crowned Miss Universe

QUITO, Ecuador: A 20-year-old, blue-eyed Australian who said she never expected to win wasnamed Miss Universe 2004 in a two-hour pageant in this Andean capital watched by hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world. Jennifer Hawkins, 5-feet-11-inches tall, smiled as the outgoing titleholder, Amelia Vega of the Dominican Republic, slipped the crown on her head Tuesday night at a convention centre on the northern outskirts of Quito.

Miss USA, Shandi Finnessey, was first runner-up in the field of 80 beauty queens who represented their respective countries. Some 7,500 spectators who paid hundreds of dollars for seats cheered as Hawkins walked down the runway, smiling, waving and looking stunned by her victory. At a news conference afterward, she arrived with Donald Trump, owner of the Miss Universe parent organisation. “I want to present to you the new Miss Universe. She’s spectacular,” Trump said. “Jennifer is the most beautiful Miss Universe I have seen in many, many years.”

Hawkins, appearing nervous, said she “had no idea this was going to happen to me. It was completely beyond my imagination. I have a lot to learn about being Miss Universe, but I’m going to give it my all,” she said. Besides Miss USA, the three other finalists were Miss Puerto Rico Alba Reyes, second runner-up; Miss Paraguay Yanina Gonzalez, third runner-up, and Miss Trinidad & Tobago Danielle Jones, fourth runner-up. Reyes also was chosen Miss Photogenic Tuesday night. Hawkins is involved in modeling and dancing and said she choreographs a dance team that tours Australia. She said her interests are surfing, wakeboarding, camping with family, watching football with her father, reading, movies and going to see the Australian ballet.

The finalists were announced after 10 semifinalists paraded in swimsuits before the crowd. Before the pageant began, singer Gloria Estefan defended the contest from critics who consider such events frivolous. “A beautiful woman has very great powers to convince, and we have seen many misses who have done a great job,” said the Cuban-American singer, who performed at the Miss Universe finals Tuesday night. “The new Miss Universe should do a spectacular job helping the needy.”

The two-hour finals were broadcast live around the world. Organisers expected the pageant to be seen by 1.5 billion television viewers in 180 countries. All 80 contestants participated in the finals. Fifteen semifinalists were chosen — but not announced — in a preliminary bathing suit and evening gown showdown on Thursday. That group was reduced to 10 before the five finalists were named. The panel of judges included musician Emilio Estefan, actress Bo Derek and supermodel Petra Nemcova. Kwame Jackson, who was runner-up on the US reality show ‘The Apprentice’, was dropped as a judge at the beauty event. Jackson was disqualified Monday by pageant organisers for greeting beauty queens he bumped into in the lobby of their hotel.

Vega, the 2003 winner, a 19-year-old from Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, plans to launch a career as a singer, following in the footsteps of her uncle, Juan Luis Guerra, Latin America’s king of merengue music. Ecuadoreans were hoping the two-hour show would showcase the beauty of their country and attract tourists to this small Andean nation.Ten minutes of the programme spotlighted the country’s attractions — ranging from the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands to snowcapped volcanoes, highland Indian communities and the lush vegetation of its Amazon jungle. “Ecuador is going to shine for what it is, an unforgettable place, when you see the videos we have made for the show,” said. Daisy Fuentes, who hosted the programme along with Billy Bush. — AP