The contest to be the next Miss Universe was narrowed to 10 women Monday night, including surprise choice Miss Portugal, who only made the first cut because of winning an online fan vote.
Favorites Miss China and Miss Australia also made the top 10, along with home crowd contestant Miss Brazil. Miss USA and a host of Latin American candidates did not make the cut, with only Miss Costa Rica and Miss Panama advancing.
Contestants from 89 nations on six continents 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 globe's biggest beauty contest is held in Brazil for the first time.
Before the contest began, judges offered little insight into who they thought might win.
"I know my job and I'll be tough, but fair," said pageant judge and journalist Connie Chung. "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."
Miss Universe 2010 Ximena Navarrete arrived at the Credicard Center in a royal blue, full length, one shoulder gown.
She said the best part of being Miss Universe for the past year was "representing my country, Mexico, and working for different causes. But the main cause of Miss Universe is working with people with HIV. I also like just traveling and knowing about cultures and different things."
Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe organization, was hyped for the night.
"It's our 60th anniversary, it's a very big show," she said. "We're anticipating close to a billion viewers from around the world."
Shugart said it was fitting the globe's biggest beauty pageant be held in Brazil at this time, as the nation prepares to host some major events in the coming years.
"I don't think there is any doubt in the rest of the world's mind that Brazil is the place, between hosting the Olympics and hosting the World Cup," she said. "I love the fact we're going to kick it off. I always say we're the 'World Cup' of beauty."
The contestants, who must never have been married or had children and who 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 NBC "Today" anchor Natalie Morales and the Bravo network's Andy Cohen, will air live on NBC and be distributed to about 170 countries. The contest is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, and will be judged by celebrities including Connie Chung, supermodel Isabeli Fontana and Indy race car driver Helio Castroneves.
Morales, who is half Brazilian, said that "what's most important is for the women to be beautiful inside and out."
She quickly added that as a Latina herself, she had no doubt "they're the most beautiful women in the world."
For Cohen, the task of hosting is an easy one.
"It's a fun job. All I have to do is stand there, smile and scream the names of countries," he said.
Cohen said after the big event he would be taking advantage of Sao Paulo's noted nightlife.
"I'm going to party hard tonight. That's what you do in Sao Paulo. We're going to see the sunrise tonight," he said. "I'm going to samba ... and then I'm going to samba some more."
Sharply dressed women and men were jostling for chances to have their photos taken with stars on the red carpet. Some traveled from across the globe to support contestants.
Jehona Dreshaj, 17, arrived from Kosovo to cheer on her sister, Aferdita Dreshaj, who is representing the European country.
"It doesn't really matter the outcome, she is already a winner in our eye and we are so proud of her," she said. "This has been an incredible experience for her and for all of us. It's great for her to be representing our country in an event like this"
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.
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, will be trying 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 revue in Long Beach, California, organized by a swimwear company.
Associated Press writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.