Coping with COVID, Miss Universe descends on Eilat

POP CULTURE AFFAIRS: While Americans enjoyed the pageant after dinner in prime time, the gathered live audience had to pull an all-nighter to see and support their favorite contestants.

 MISS INDIA, Harnaaz Sandhu, is crowned the 70th Miss Universe early Monday morning in Eilat.  (photo credit: Zippy Jason)
MISS INDIA, Harnaaz Sandhu, is crowned the 70th Miss Universe early Monday morning in Eilat.
(photo credit: Zippy Jason)

At 2 a.m. in December amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Eilat was, as expected, desolate. Most residents and any tourists who were in town on Sunday night were fast asleep.

However, in a local 4,000-seat tented stadium, an unusual mix of people gathered to watch the Miss Universe pageant take place as it was broadcast live around the world.

While Americans enjoyed the pageant after dinner in prime time, the gathered live audience had to pull an all-nighter to see and support their favorite contestants.

Stifling yawns, the audience included contestants’ family and friends, a large number of the Filipino community in Israel (who displayed unrivaled support for Miss Philippines), members of the press and employees from various hotels in the Red Sea resort town, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Tickets weren’t cheap, with the lowest price being around NIS 650.

 Miss Universe winner Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu poses after being declared winner of the Miss Universe pageant in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Israel December 13, 2021 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) Miss Universe winner Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu poses after being declared winner of the Miss Universe pageant in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Israel December 13, 2021 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Those who stayed until the 5 a.m. bitter end were rewarded by seeing Miss India, Harnaaz Sandhu, crowned the 70th Miss Universe, topping a field of some 80 contestants.

She received the title and crown from the previously reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, a Bollywood actress. Meza came out in an enormous stunning red gown, crown in hand. Miss Paraguay, Nadia Ferreira, placed as the runner-up, and Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, was the judges’ third choice.

The glitzy affair – the first Miss Universe pageant held in Israel – was the culmination of months of nonstop efforts by the Tourism Ministry and government bodies, together with the international Miss Universe organizers. Adding to the logistic challenges were the COVID-19 restrictions, including quarantines for the contestants, and the usual Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against holding the event in Israel.

Inside the tent, those obstacles were forgotten, but the late hour seemed to sap much of the enthusiasm from the crowd.

The pageant’s host, American TV and radio presenter Steve Harvey, asked the crowd more than twice to bring more energy and applause to the show and to cheer for the queens on stage.

Brad Michel, originally from South Africa, works in a local hotel, where he was offered a special pass to attend the event. While he referred to the show as being “terrific,” he commented that there were some factors preventing audience members from being fully present at the show.

“I would have preferred if it was at somewhat of a reasonable hour,” Michel said. “I think it was a little more subdued for a number of reasons. Firstly, there weren’t many people laughing, and Steve Harvey made a number of jokes. For someone who is not a native English-speaker, they probably didn’t pick up on it. The stadium was relatively empty, so I thought there would be more of a crowd, more energy and everything else.”

Despite the hour, Harvey did his best in his introduction to warm up the audience with tender words about Israel and praise for the production’s high quality. He donned a glitzy jacket covered with an illustration of what looked like Israel’s ancient architecture and palm trees.

During the show, Harvey pointed out that the pageant’s 70th anniversary was taking place in Israel.

“We are in the beautiful country of Israel. This country has so much history,” Harvey said. “This is one of the nicest stages I’ve ever been on – and I’ve been on a lot of stages.”

Another shout-out took place when Miss Philippines, Beatrice Luigi Gomez, received massive cheers from her countrymen in the audience when she advanced to the top 16, the top 10 and then the top 5, where she finished. 

“I thought we were in Israel,” commented Harvey.

DESPITE BRINGING enticing stars to the stage like pop star sensation Noa Kirel, who opened the show, and the Holy Land having its own Miss Israel contender, Noa Cochva, an entire section of the stadium lay empty during the live Fox TV broadcast of the three-hour event.

Kirel stormed the stage with an exuberant backup dance crew and stunned viewers with a NIS 500,000 dance routine that included sharp moves and swinging pony tails as she sang her latest song release, “Bad Little Thing.” Kirel’s team doled out the cash for the production. She told Channel 12 that with millions of viewers, she wasn’t willing to compromise on quality.

In addition to Kirel, the show was filled with other international talent. The judges for the competition brought major star power with the likes of Victoria’s Secret longest-running model Adriana Lima of Brazil, Lori Harvey, Steve Harvey’s model/actress daughter, who owns her own skincare line and has 3.9 million followers on Instagram, model and former Miss Universe 2016 Iris Mittenaere of France, American actress Rena Sofer, Indian Bollywood actress and former pageant queen Urvashi Rautela, Filipina actress Marian Rivera and Puerto Rican actress Adamari López.

American singer JoJo performed multiple times during the second half of the show and played her hit “Little Too Late,” a song that an American audience likely would have sang along to, but was lost over this international crowd.

THE 80 pageant contestants were likely exhausted by showtime. For the three weeks prior, they traversed the country, met with various dignitaries and politicians and tried to prepare themselves for the competition. They got it all in, ranging from touring the Old City of Jerusalem to swimming with dolphins in Eilat. Wake-up time was 3 a.m., and bedtime often came late at night.

Cochva, Israel’s contestant, fainted to the floor during a preshow rehearsal Sunday evening. Crew members ran to her aid, and she recuperated before kickoff at 2 a.m. early Monday morning.

COVID-19 created difficulties for family and crew members who wanted to enter Israel. On November 29, the country closed the door to noncitizens. Many pageant contestants worked without their full teams and without household support.

Miss Jamaica’s persistent sister, Sade Powell, worked until she found herself what she called an “extraordinary favor” that helped her get into the country. She says support is key for pageant success.

“We were meant for relationships, and being able to support her is really important to me, and I hope she appreciates it, too,” Powell said. “I was really impressed with the stage. I have never seen a show of this caliber before – in Jamaica or even in the US.”

Powell also commented on what she called the “mind-blowing hospitality” of Israeli people who opened their arms to her during the pandemic. She said Israel was amazing to her and that the people had been so warm and accommodating.

Miss El Salvador spoke with similar praise before the competition, saying her experience in Israel had been better than she expected.

“I grew up in a Catholic family, Catholic school, Catholic everything. So I know all the history of the 12 tribes, and for me this was oh my God! This is where everything happened. Seeing it for myself was an incredible and spiritual experience. It was full of peace,” Alejandra Gavidia said.

The pageant was a first for Miss British Virgin Islands, Xaria Penn, who beat out the competition on her island at the age of 18. Despite not being a finalist, she told The Jerusalem Post she feels she did well for her first time.

“It has been amazing in Israel. The Miss Universe organization made sure we had a wonderful time, numerous activities, yachts, ATVs; we visited various hotels that treated us like royalty,” said Penn. “I love how one side is the desert and the other side is the sea. I will definitely come again.”

If nothing else, the pageant created 80 new ambassadors for Israel, who have gone back home with what Israeli officials and locals hope are only good things to report about their time spent in the country.

And for the thousands of Eilat residents who slept through the entire event, they could wake up knowing that the city they live in was, for one night, the focus of the universe.