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Miss Universe hopefuls overcome odds, from cancer to racial barriers

Today
Miss Bulgaria Veneta Krasteva, Miss Israel Titi Yitayish Ayanaw, and Miss Myanmar Moe Set Wine are among the 86 women vying for the Miss Universe 2013 title.

From a beauty who battled breast cancer to an orphan breaking racial and religious barriers, some Miss Universe contestants bring with them heart-wrenching — yet inspiring — stories. They are among the 86 women from around the world competing for the 2013 crown in Moscow Saturday.

For Miss Bulgaria Veneta Krasteva, the road to Moscow has been a difficult one. Just over two years ago, at the age of 18, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"They found my tumor early because I would go to the gynecologist for regular check-ups,” Krasteva told TODAY.com via email. “I started to notice that one of my breasts was aching and I felt a lump."

Krasteva, who hails from Sofia, Bulgaria, was the first person in her family to fight the illness. "It was terrible news. I never thought it would happen to me," she said.

She underwent two years of aggressive treatment, and was forced to put off college so she could focus on her health.

Now, at 21, Krasteva is cancer-free. "My recovery took a while, but after I fully healed, I was able to start my life again," she said.

The blonde beauty won the Miss Universe Bulgaria 2013 title in September; she hopes if she is crowned the top title this week, she'll be able raise awareness about breast cancer.

"For all women and especially young girls, they should know it could happen to anyone," Krasteva said. "Women must do what they can to keep themselves protected and educate themselves on the symptoms of cancer. Just knowing your body and staying aware can save your life."

Miss Bulgaria isn't the only one who has faced adversity. Titi Yitayish Ayanaw, Miss Israel, is an Ethiopian-born orphan who moved to the country when she was only 12 years old. The 5’11" beauty was raised by her aunt and now lives with her grandmother, she told TODAY.com.

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    Miss Universe 2013: The National Costume Show

    On Nov. 9, 86 ladies from around the world will vie for the title of Miss Universe in Moscow. Take a look at the contenders all dressed up in dramatic outfits inspired by their home countries for the annual National Costume Show.

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    On Nov. 9, 86 ladies from around the world will vie for the title of Miss Universe in Moscow. Take a look at the contenders all dressed up in dramatic outfits inspired by their home countries for the annual National Costume Show.

    Olivia Wells, Miss Australia 2013, competes in her costume during the 2013 Miss Universe National Costume Show at the cultural and trading center in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Doris Hofmann, Miss Austria 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Stefanie Guillen Evangelista, Miss Aruba 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Brenda Gonzalez, Miss Argentina, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Vaumara Rebelo, Miss Angola 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Tsaone Macheng, Miss Botswana 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Aysel Manafova, Miss Azerbaijan 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Alexia Viruez, Miss Bolivia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Lexi Wilson, Miss Bahamas 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Noemie Happart, Miss Belgium 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Riza Santos, Miss Canada 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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    Jin Ye, Miss China 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Melita Fabecic, Miss Croatia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Lucia Aldana, Miss Colombia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Gabriela Kratochvilova, Miss Czech Republic 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Fabiana Granados, Miss Costa Rica 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Maria-Jesus Matthei, Miss Chile 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Eline de Pool, Miss Curacao 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Sharie de Castro, Miss British Virgin Islands 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Veneta Krasteva, Miss Bulgaria 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Jakelyne Oliveira, Miss Brazil 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Yaritza Reyes, Miss Dominican Republic 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Constanza Baez, Miss Ecuador 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Jennifer Ondo, Miss Gabon 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Hinarani de Longeaux, Miss France 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Lotta Hintsa, Miss Finland 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Maheder Tigabe, Miss Ethiopia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Alba Delgado, Miss El Salvador 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Kristina Karjalainen, Miss Estonia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Cecilia Iftikhar, Miss Denmark 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Hanniel Jamin, Miss Ghana 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Paulette Samayoa, Miss Guatemala 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Anne Julia Hagen, Miss Germany 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Alixes Scott, Miss Guam 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Anastasia Sidiropoulou, Miss Greece 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Amy Willerton, Miss Great Britain 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Katherina Roshana, Miss Guyana 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Diana Schoutsen, Miss Honduras 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Rebeka Karpati, Miss Hungary 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Mondiana Pierre, Miss Haiti 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Manasi Moghe, Miss India 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Whulandary, Miss Indonesia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Titi Yitayish Ayanaw, Miss Israel 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Luna Voce, Miss Italy 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Kerrie Baylis, Miss Jamaica 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Yukimi Matsuo, Miss Japan 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Aygerim Kozhakanova, Miss Kazakhstan 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Simona Burbaite, Miss Lithuania 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Karen Ghrawi, Miss Lebanon 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Yumi Kim, Miss Korea 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Stephanie Tency, Miss Netherlands 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Cindy Mejia, Miss Peru 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Cynthia Duque, Miss Mexico 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Diya Beeltah, Miss Mauritius 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Carolina Brid, Miss Panama 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Nina Durdevic, Miss Slovenia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Shi Lim, Miss Singapore 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Amanda Ratnayake, Miss Sri Lanka 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Alexandra Friberg, Miss Sweden 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Roxana Andrei, Miss Romania 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Jeanette Borhyova, Miss Slovak Republic 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Marilyn Ramos, Miss South Africa 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Ana Vrcelj, Miss Serbia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Dominique Rinderknecht, Miss Switzerland 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Patricia Yurena Rodriguez, Miss Spain 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Truong Thi May, Miss Vietnam 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Elmira Abdrazakova, Miss Russia 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Snwazna Adams, Miss Turks & Caicos 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Olga Storozhenko, Miss Ukraine 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Chalita Yaemwannang, Miss Thailand 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Betty Omara, Miss Tanzania 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Catherine Miller, Miss Trinidad & Tobago 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 3.

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    Erin Brady, Miss USA 2013, competes in the National Costume Show in Moscow on Nov. 3.

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She attended school and went on to be an officer in the Israeli army, but held on to the dream of being a model. A friend entered her in a beauty pageant, and from there, Ayanaw, 22, went on to become the first black Miss Israel.

Ayanaw hopes winning the Miss Universe title will help her be a role model for young girls in her community.

"My community is very proud of me, I'm the first beauty queen,” she said. “I think the girls, they see my picture and it's the first time an Ethiopian Jew is on [magazine] covers and in photos. They're so excited, the young girls start to believe in themselves, that they can do it also. If I win here, it's going to be like history."

As for other history-makers, 25-year-old Moe Set Wine is the first Miss Universe contestant to represent the historically war-torn nation of Myanmar in 53 years. Wine hopes her participation in the competition will educate the world about her oft-overlooked home country – but feels she does have some disadvantages.

"Because we are (inexperienced), I do feel a little bit unprepared," Wine admitted to TODAY.com. "But I know this is my chance to put my country on the world stage so people know about Myanmar. It's an honor…”

Wine, who studied business management at California Lutheran University, said most of the American students she was friends with didn't know much about Myanmar. "I don't like that," she said. "If I win Miss Universe, the world will know what Myanmar is. I can do something for my country."

DARREN DECKER / Today
Lotta Hintsa, Miss Finland 2013, competes in the swimsuit competition during the preliminary competition at Crocus City Hall in Moscow.

The pageant isn't just about overcoming adversity; it also boasts a few quirky and talented characters, too. Lotta Hintsa, the 25-year-old contestant representing Finland, once ran a marathon with only five minutes notice. Hintsa, a former competitive cheerleader, wanted to make the 26.2 mile run to show up a male college classmate.

"A boy in my class said that small girls don't run marathons," she told TODAY.com. That weekend, a spot in a race opened up just a few minutes before it started, and Hintsa got a chance to prove him wrong. "It wasn't really hard,” she said. “I could have run it faster. After I finished I felt like I could have run another one," she said. As for the naysaying classmate, "I was very excited to go back to school on Monday and tell him what I did over the weekend," she said.

The final leg of the Miss Universe competition, hosted by the Trump Organization, will air on NBC on at 9 p.m. ET Sat., Nov. 9. The pageant, held in Russia for the first time at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall event venue, has already seen its share of controversy, thanks to Russia's anti-gay laws. Openly gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts is among the pageant's hosts, and he has had to respond to critics who say he should boycott the country.

"I think the most important thing is visibility and the LGBT community has the right to be outraged," Roberts told TODAY.com. "But it’s not the time to shy away, it’s the time to show up. And it’s the time to make sure that you show up and that you’re visible, and that you’re respected, on an equal footing."

Roberts will be joined by other hosts including style expert Jeannie Mai, current Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, Nick Templitz of sports website The Fumble and former Spice Girl Mel B. Celebrity judges include Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith, Olympic figure skater Tara Lipinski and famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. 

Vidya Rao contributed to this report.

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