SAO PAULO — Newly crowned Miss Universe Leila Lopes hopes her victory will allow her to assist her native Angola further escape its history of war and impoverishment and said she plans to focus on combatting HIV around the globe.
Lopes, 25, laughed and smiled as she hugged runner-up Miss Ukraine Olesia Stefanko, then felt a crown placed carefully on her head after dazzling a panel of judges with her beauty and impressing them with her brain.
Speaking in a timid voice early Tuesday shortly after taking the crown in South America's largest city, the 25-year-old Lopes said that "as Miss Angola I've already done a lot to help my people."
"I've worked with various social causes. I work with poor kids, I work in the fight against HIV. I work to protect the elderly and I have to do everything that my country needs," she said. "I think now as Miss Universe I will be able to do much more."
Responding to questions, the business student said that she has never had cosmetic surgery of any kind and that her three tips for beauty were to get a lot of sleep, use sun block even when it's not sunny and to drink lots of water. She said her smile was her best weapon in the competition.
"I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty," she told the judges.
Asked about racism in light of the fact that she's one of the few blacks ever crowned Miss Universe, Lopes said that "any racist needs to seek help. It's not normal in the 21st century to think in that way."
Sequins and feathers
Lopes is Angola's first winner. She beat out 88 other competitors to win the title during the 60th anniversary of the world's biggest beauty pageant. She replaces last year's winner, Ximena Navarrete of Mexico.
Lopes had worn a bright bikini, then paraded around the stage with poise in a form-fitting evening gown colored in gold and silver sequins and feathers.
In fan voting, Lopes tallied only a 3.6 score for the swimsuit but earned a 7.2 for her evening gown. Fan voting, however, did not count in the final tallies from nine judges.Slideshow: Beauty queen scandals (on this page)
Lopes deftly handled the interview question that is asked of the top five contestants. She was questioned about what physical trait she would change if she could.
"Thank God I'm very satisfied with the way God created me and I wouldn't change a thing," Lopes said. "I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I intend to follow these for the rest of my life."
The first runner-up was the 23-year-old Stefanko and the second runner-up was Priscila Machado of Brazil. The third was Miss Philippines and the fourth Miss China.
Contestants spent the past three weeks in Sao Paulo, trying to learn samba dance steps, visiting impoverished children and kicking a football around for cameras as the Miss Universe pageant came to Brazil for the first time.
Despite battling against a home country favorite, Lopes won over the audience, speaking in the shared language of Portuguese. Angola, like Brazil, is a former Portuguese colony.
"She captivated the crowd and we were all behind her," said Brazilian Natalie Bursztyn, 20, who was in the crowd inside Credicard Hall where the event took place. "It was great that the judges also saw what the fans saw and gave her the crown. Her dress was beautiful and she knew exactly what to say when they asked her the question about her looks."
Another fan in the audience, Carolina Rocha, said Lopes' win was "well deserved, we were cheering for her all along. Her smile and her friendliness was what set her apart from the others. She also answered her question very well, that likely helped her a lot."
The panelists, who included race car driver Helio Castroneves to actress Vivica A. Fox and journalist Connie Chung, scored the women on each contest, narrowing from a group of 16 down to a final five.
'These women are not just objects'
Speaking before the event, Chung said that she was taking the contest seriously.
"I know my job and I'll be tough, but fair," Chung said. "You have to keep in mind that these women are not objects just to be looked at. They're to be taken seriously. I want to choose somebody I take seriously and the world takes seriously, too."
The contestants must never have been married or had children and must be at least 18 years of age and under 27 years of age by Feb. 1 of the competition year.
The pageant, hosted by TODAY anchor Natalie Morales and the Bravo network's Andy Cohen, was broadcast live on NBC and distributed to about 170 countries. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.) The contest is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, and the celebrity judges included Chung and two prominent Brazilians, supermodel Isabeli Fontana and Indy race car driver Helio Castroneves.
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Morales, who is half Brazilian, said that "what's most important is for the women to be beautiful inside and out."
There have been no headline-grabbing gaffes going into this year's competition, as opposed to past years that have seen controversies of various stripes. The show itself went off without a hitch.
Some of the contestants have complained to the local news media about the size of bikinis used in some photo shoots, with Miss Mexico Karin Ontiveros saying they were "very small."
That was enough to draw chuckles in Brazil, where women from all walks of life, not just beauty queens, sport barely there swimwear on beaches throughout the country.
Miss USA Alyssa Campanella, from California, failed to end a long losing spell for the U.S. in the competition. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.
The pageant started as a local bathing suit revue in Long Beach, California, organized by a swimwear company.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.