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Si! Miss Puerto Rico crowned Miss Universe

18-year-old Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza takes tiara; Miss Japan is runner-up
/ Source: The Associated Press

An 18-year-old from Puerto Rico who hopes to someday star in U.S. and Latin American films was crowned Sunday night as Miss Universe 2006.

Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza shared a nervous emotional hug with first runner-up, Kurara Chibana of Japan, moments before the winner was announced, then clasped her hands to her mouth in amazement as her name was called. She beamed as the crown was placed on her head.

“I always had faith and confidence in myself, but I never knew I was going to win,” Rivera, speaking in Spanish from the stage, said in her first remarks as Miss Universe.

The winner, who is from coastal town of Salinas, said she would continue the pageant’s mission of promoting awareness and education about AIDS and HIV.

“I want to tell those people there’s always problems in life, but there’s always possibilities to improve things,” she said.

Miss USA Tara Conner was the contest’s fourth runner-up. Also finishing in the top five were second runner-up Lauriane Gillieron of Switzerland and third runner-up Lourdes Arevalos of Paraguay.

In her pageant biography, Rivera explained what made her different from the other contestants.

“Physically, I have been told by modeling agencies and friends that I represent the consummate Latino look,” she said. “Everything in my face expresses our heritage, our music and the wonderful mixes of races that we are.”

Rivera is the first winner from Puerto Rico since Denise Quinones in 2001, and the fifth overall in the pageant’s 55-year history.

Conner was vying to become the first U.S. winner since Brook Lee in 1997. The Kentucky native wore a red-white-and-blue jockey outfit and cracked a whip during the opening parade of nations. Several of the contestants sported costumes featuring colorful native dress, including feathers, sequins, fur, massive headpieces and, in the case of Miss Japan, a Samurai sword.

Lia Andrea Ramos of Philippines was chosen most photogenic in an online vote by the public. Angela Asare of Ghana won the congeniality award in a vote by all 86 contestants. Chibana, who carried the impressive looking Samurai sword, won the award for best national costume.

“They were probably afraid not to pick Miss Japan or she would use that sword,” quipped Carson Kressley of TV’s “Queer Eye,” who provided commentary along with 2004 Miss USA Shandi Finnessey. Opera singer Vittorio Grigolo and Latin singer Chelo provided musical performances.

The pageant began with the top 20 finalists’ names being announced early in the show. Then their scores were discarded and competition began again, with the field gradually narrowed throughout the night.

As soon as the final 20 had been selected, they immediately strutted across the stage in skimpy two-piece bikinis for the swimsuit competition.

After being narrowed to the final 10, the competition moved to evening gowns, with the smiling contestants walking across the stage to music provided by Grigolo.

The field of 86 was actually narrowed to 20 last week during preliminary judging in the contest’s swimsuit, evening gown and interview categories, but finalists weren’t announced until Sunday’s show was under way, allowing all 86 to be introduced to the television audience.

The winner travels the world for a year on behalf of charities and pageant sponsors.

Last year’s winner, Natalie Glebova of Canada crowned Rivera with a diamond-and-pearl-studded headpiece valued at $250,000.

“My year as Miss Universe has meant more to me than I can express,” said Glebova, who began her reign with a trip to South Africa where she publicly took an HIV test.

“I have traveled the world on behalf of various HIV/AIDS organizations, promoting education, research and legislation, and I walk away from this experience feeling like I truly made an impact.”

“Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell and actor-singer Carlos Ponce were emcees of the 55th annual pageant, broadcast live on NBC.

The celebrity judging panel included actor James Lesure of “Las Vegas”; “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry; actress Bridgette Wilson Sampras; Sean Yazbeck, newest winner of “The Apprentice”; former Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith; anchor Maria Celeste Arraras of Telemundo’s “Al Rojo Vivo”; Claudia Jordan, briefcase model on “Deal or No Deal”; fashion photographer Patrick McMullan, and 2003 Miss Universe Amelia Vega.

The pageant was last held in the United States in 1998, when the show originated from Honolulu.