Dayana Mendoza put a promising modeling career on hold to go for — and win — the Miss Universe crown.
"Being a model is just great. You show a brand, a beautiful dress," said the 22-year-old Venezuelan. "But being Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe, you have the opportunity to go all over the world and have contact with the people and show yourself, and that's what I really wanted."
After years of strutting along catwalks and learning to speak three languages, Mendoza's savvy in front of cameras and an audience paid off at last week's pageant.
"I had been working as a model since I was 15, traveling in various countries around the world, but I felt I needed more," Mendoza said.
She spoke with The Associated Press this week in New York, where for the next year she'll share an apartment with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, and be the public face of a global campaign against HIV and AIDS.
Since winning, she said, "I still don't have my feet on the ground. It's like I'm floating on emotion."
Mendoza is the fifth Miss Universe from Venezuela, where beauty competitions are something of a national sport — the pageants hard-fought, and the contestants widely dissected by the public and the media. (The last winner from the South American nation, Alicia Machado in 1996, found herself in a swirl of controversy soon after when she put on a few pounds).
Mendoza said she has no dietary secret for keeping a pageant-winning figure because she never had to worry about what she eats.
"I have an accelerated metabolism, thank God. And thanks to my mother, from whom I inherited it," she said. "Just drink a lot of water, go to the gym and eat healthy. That's the best thing."
As for plastic surgery, which is common in Venezuela and said to be a fixture on the beauty pageant circuit there, Mendoza said that's a personal decision.
"The problem is when you start to have surgeries to look like someone else," she said.
Did she go undergo surgery in preparation for the contest?
"Asking me that is like asking a woman her age," Mendoza said.