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Image: Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza
Fadil Berisha  /  Courtesy of the Miss Universe Organization
This cropped photo of Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza shows part of an image that appears in the September edition of Maxim magazine. The provider of that image? The Miss Universe Organization.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 8/13/2009 4:38:04 PM ET 2009-08-13T20:38:04

The typical story involving beauty queens and nude photos goes something like this:

Steamy pictures of fill-in-the-blank (Carrie Prejean, Katie Rees, Danielle Lloyd, Vanessa Williams) are leaked to the public. Caught on the defensive, pageant officials react to the scandal at press conferences and in written statements, announcing their plans to stand by their woman or strip her of her crown.

Now hold on to your hats, because here is a story that deviates from the usual script. In a first for any U.S.-based pageant organization, the Miss Universe Organization has taken the unusual step of releasing topless photos of its outgoing Miss Universe, Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela, to Maxim for the magazine’s September issue.

Technically, the photos will be available to be devoured by the public before Mendoza, 23, relinquishes her crown at the next Miss Universe pageant in the Bahamas on Aug. 23. The images can be seen on Maxim’s Web site now and will appear in print on newsstands starting Aug. 18.

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Pageant officials note that Mendoza is simply appearing in Maxim, after all — not Playboy or Penthouse — and you can’t really see anything in the photos. In both of them, her arm strategically covers her breasts.

Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, said the images contain “nothing salacious.”

“They’re just beautiful,” Shugart said.

Getting Trump’s blessing
But how did the Miss Universe Organization come to be in the business of releasing topless photos to the media instead of reacting to them? Here’s how it happened:

All winners of the Miss Universe competition are given the opportunity to be photographed by some of the top fashion photographers in New York. Any racy photos that may get shot during that time typically end up in a beauty queen’s personal modeling portfolio to help her with her future modeling career; they don’t get published anywhere.

Slideshow: Beauty queen scandals In this case, though, photographer Fadil Berisha captured “one of those magical photo shoots” with Mendoza in the Bahamas, Shugart said. When Mendoza saw the images, she was ecstatic.

“She just loved the way they turned out and she really wanted to be able to share them,” Shugart said. “If she had taken these photos and sent them to a magazine, that would be a different issue. But she handled this so appropriately. She came to us and said, ‘I understand I’m Miss Universe and I have this title, but as Dayana Mendoza, I’d like to share these photos.’ ”

Pageant officials — including Donald Trump, who owns the Miss Universe Organization along with NBC Universal — discussed the matter and decided it would be fine for Mendoza to share the photos near the end of her reign. And because the Miss Universe Organization owns the images, the Miss Universe Organization released them.

(TODAYshow.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

An alternate reality
The whole experience of releasing the photos is far different from what happened last August, when Miss Universe officials had to scramble to defend Mendoza over the issue of — surprise! — racy photos. Shortly after she donned her tiara, a nearly nude photo of Mendoza — shot for a jewelry ad when she was 15 — surfaced and threatened to rob her of her crown.

At that time, officials took a similar stance about the jewelry-ad photo that they’re taking with the photos given to Maxim. “We embrace and respect her success as a model and the artistic beauty captured in these photographs,” Shugart said in a statement last August. “They are artistic in nature and don’t have an ounce of pornographic content to them.”

Image: Donald Trump
Timothy A. Clary  /  AFP - Getty Images
The Donald's response to beauty queens' risqué modeling photos? You're not fired.
Trump made statements along the same lines when partially nude photos of Miss California USA Carrie Prejean surfaced earlier this year. (The Miss Universe Organization produces the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA competitions.)

“We have determined that the pictures taken [of Prejean] are fine,” Trump said at a press conference in May. “We are in the 21st century ... and the pageants have been updated tremendously. ... They were actually lovely pictures and in some cases they were modeling pictures.”

Prejean eventually lost her crown in June. Pageant officials said they based their decision on Prejean’s unwillingness to make appearances and other contract violations — violations that did not include the leak of the steamy photos.

A new era for beauty queens?
Do the statements of support for risqué images of pageant winners mean that today’s beauty queens are being held to a new and different standard?

Yes, Shugart said — in a sense, and within reason.

“We’ve been in existence for 58 years, so we always change with the times,” she said. “The envelope does get pushed a little bit.”

She explained that she and other pageant officials don’t want to be surprised by scandalous photos and behavior on the part of their beauty queens. But they don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to expect absolute perfection, either.

Take the case of Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner, who made headlines when she received treatment for alcohol and drug use during her reign. Trump decided to let her keep her crown after she got help in rehab.

“He gave her a second chance,” Shugart said. “In some circles he was reviled for it, but it was the right decision.”

‘Hard high heels to fill’
Dayana Mendoza’s role as Miss Universe has kept her jet-setting all over the world, raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis, meeting with schoolchildren and giving countless speeches. She is fluent in Spanish, English and Italian.

Throughout the past year, Mendoza has detailed her travels and experiences in her blog on the Miss Universe Web site. One blog entry in particular about her trip to one of the most controversial spots on the planet — Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — caused a media uproar because of its blithe tone. In it, Mendoza described Guantanamo Bay as a “relaxing, calm, beautiful place” with an “unbelievable” beach. “It was a loooot of fun!” she wrote.

Image: Cover of Maxim Magazine
Maxim
Dayana Mendoza's interview and photos appear in the September issue of Maxim magazine.
Pageant officials defended the entry, explaining that Mendoza was simply describing her part in a United Service Organizations [USO] tour to support the morale of U.S. troops.

“I think it’s very unfortunate because I knew what she meant,” Shugart said.

Despite the Gitmo flap, Mendoza’s reign has been an unmitigated success, Shugart said.

“I am so sad to see her leaving,” she said, adding that the new Miss Universe will have “hard high heels to fill.”

In her interview with Maxim, Mendoza said many people may not realize that holding the title of Miss Universe constitutes a real job — a job that can be exhausting.

“You don’t just go to countries and wave and smile at people,” she said. “It’s a very serious job. And you’re very young and giving speeches while the whole world is looking at you on television.”

Mendoza also told Maxim that she’s especially looking forward to getting some much-needed rest after her whirlwind year.

“I really, really, really want to sleep,” she said. “Sleep and turn off my phone.”

The preliminary Miss Universe competition will stream live on the Web on Aug. 16 on NBC.com and the Miss Universe Web site; the Miss Universe pageant will air on NBC on Aug. 23.

To read Dayana Mendoza’s interview with Maxim magazine and see her photos, visit Maxim.com.

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