The sparkling Red Sea has some competition this weekend.
Miss Universe pageant set to start amid controversy
n arrival, the place – the port of Eilat – does not seem as glamorous as the women inside. But step into the specially constructed 4,000-seat tent scene imported from Portugal, and the atmosphere changes quickly.
On the Friday before the Sunday night competition, competitors started the day with dress rehearsals, first in their sequined opening outfits, then in their swimsuits, and finally in their evening gowns. They scurry between the figure-eight stage and empty blanket-strewn seats to keep them warm between rehearsals, many holding platform shoes in one hand and a mask in the other.
Later that evening, they will participate in the preliminary ‘national costume’ event, with costumes ranging from a shiny Canadian policeman with black lace pants and high boots (‘she will make sure to keep us safe The host croons) to a lunar dragon, filled with two dragon heads.
But as the women try to capture the spotlight of the contest scene in preliminaries before Sunday’s main event, politics and the coronavirus push them under a different kind of spotlight.
A crown of the Covid era
Miss Universe contestants arrive at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv, on November 28, 2021. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images
One candidate, Miss France, ClÃ©mence Botino, tested positive for Covid-19 when she landed in the country and was sent to quarantine at a hotel – threatening her participation. Fortunately, she got out just in time for Friday’s preliminary competition.
âThis year being in Israel added new challenges as we needed to stay on top of what vaccines would be accepted, days of travel and quarantine,â said Meg Omecene, director of communications for Miss Universe.
All staff and competitors were to be fully immunized within six months of coming. They are also tested on site every 48 hours in a special tent and must wear masks at all times when not on stage.
âIt’s been a pretty rigorous Covid production but we’re all here and we’re excited for Sunday,â Omecene added.
American Elle Smith takes part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, Israel, on Friday. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Politics threatens to eclipse the pageantry
As with previous international events held in Israel, such as the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, the mere fact that such an important media event is taking place in the country has drawn criticism and calls for a boycott.
The South African government withdrew its support and called on Miss South Africa, Lelela Mswane, to step down, citing Israeli treatment of Palestinians, calling it “apartheid”, a charge Israel has vehemently denied.
“On the contrary, by withdrawing, the reputation and the global position of Miss South Africa will be much more advanced in South Africa and internationally compared to a one-off event which can prove disastrous for her future and her life. public position as a young black woman, âSouth Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, said in a statement last month.
People demonstrate outside Miss South Africa’s headquarters on November 19, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images / Getty Images
But Mswane – with the support of the Miss South Africa organization – did not give in to the pressure, choosing to travel to Israel and compete.
Lalela Mswane of South Africa performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel on Friday, December 10, 2021. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Wearing a sparkling white gown between Friday’s dress rehearsals, Miss Israel Noa Cochva echoed a common refrain heard by Miss Universe organizers and contestants: Miss Universe shouldn’t be talking about politics.
âIt’s about us as humans, as strong women,â Cochva told CNN between rehearsals.
Regardless of that desire, Cochva admitted that she faces the double pressure of competing in her home country, while also having to be essentially Israel’s ambassador – and advocate – for the other 79 contestants.
Joking that her roommate, Miss USA, called her the “best tour guide,” Cochva said she had sought to show fellow candidates a different image of Israel “than what you see on social media.”
Greece’s Sofia Arapogianni performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, on Friday. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Hoping for a tourist boost
With 80 contestants accompanied by legions of social media followers as they roam the country ahead of the competition on Sunday, Israeli tourism officials hope such publicity will help give a much-needed boost to the country’s reopening.
Sara Salansky, spokesperson for Israel’s Tourism Ministry, told CNN they were approached in May to organize the December competition. The demand came as Israel hit a high vaccination rate and appeared poised to reopen, rolling out vaccines faster than most other countries.
âIt’s a very good return on investment for the tourism ministry,â said Salansky. “It’s not something that happens every day; when you have an opportunity you have to take it and that’s what we did.”
Contestants take part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant Friday in Eilat, Israel. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Contributing around 3% a year to Israel’s GDP, the number of tourists before the pandemic was at record levels, Salansky said. About 5 million visitors were expected in 2020 before the pandemic struck, she added.
And even though Israel’s borders are still temporarily closed to foreign nationals for fear of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Salansky said the opportunity to present Israel as a tourist destination to the expected 600 million viewers worldwide would have an impact. long-term.
âA lot of people are skeptical about this type of event, but when we look at it there’s a lot of media out there and people are talking about it,â Salansky said. “So we are looking at the positive, to use this event to show the positive of Israel.”
It involved guiding the 80 competitors across the country, from touring the Old City of Jerusalem to riding ATVs in the desert. Some activities, such as a âBedouin experienceâ day, have been criticized by Palestinian activists.
âWe are here to empower ourselves as women,â Smith said. “We’re just enjoying our time together and I think it really shows the power of women as a whole and that’s what we’re trying to show on December 12th.”