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Miss Venezuela takes Miss Universe crown

Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela was named the winner at this year's pageant held in Nha Trang, Vietnam, while for the second year in a row, Miss USA fell down during the evening gown competition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela has been crowned Miss Universe 2008. Mendoza and three other Latin American women made the final five at Sunday's contest. The four other finalists were runner-up Miss Colombia Tailana Vargas, Miss Dominican Republic Marianne Cruz Gonzalez, Miss Mexico Elisa Najera, and Miss Russia Vera Krasova.

An elated Dayana Mendoza received the crown from her predecessor, Riyo Mori of Japan, and then prepared to meet a gaggle of reporters. Miss Venezuela, 22, was once kidnapped in her homeland and says the experience taught her to remain poised under pressure. Tension got under the skin of Crystle Stewart of Texas, the second Miss USA in a row to fall down during the the evening gown competition at the Miss Universe pageant. She was in the top 10 but tripped on the train of her bejeweled evening gown as she made her entrance.

During the 2007 Miss Universe contest in Mexico City, Miss USA Rachel Smith also tumbled during the evening gown competition and became an unintended star on You Tube, where the video was shown over and over again.

Like Smith, Stewart quickly stood up after her fall and continued on as if nothing had happened.

Her mishap occurred just after the judges had narrowed the field of 80 to the final 10: Miss USA, Miss Kosovo, Miss Australia, Miss Spain, Miss Mexico, Miss Colombia, Miss USA, Miss Dominican Republic, Miss Russia, Miss Italy and Miss Venezuela.

A new queenAt a news conference after this year's event, a beaming Mendoza said she wasn't yet sure where her upcoming year of whirlwind appearances would take her. But after a quick stop in New York, she wants to see her family again, enjoy some of her mom's home cooking and give everyone hugs. "When I go back to Venezuela I will jump on my family and they will jump on me," said Mendoza. In the meantime, Mendoza said, she is simply looking forward to taking off her high-heeled shoes and massaging her feet. She declined to discuss her kidnapping, which occurred a year and a half ago, but took advantage of the occasion to call for global peace. "I want to raise my voice and tell the world that violence is not the answer," she said. Mendoza, 22, is a 5-foot, 10-inch, green-eyed beauty who enjoys learning languages and photography. She appeared at the news conference in the flowing yellow dress and dangling turquoise earrings that she wore during the evening gown competition in which Stewart took her spill.

Crystle Stewart, Miss USA, falls down during the evening gowns segment of the Miss Universe 2008 beauty pageant in Nha Trang, Vietnam, Monday, July 14, 2008. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)Vincent Yu / AP

Stewart, 26, is a motivational speaker and former track and field star who is working on a book called "Waiting to Win." The Houston native plans to open a character-development school for young children and has worked with students with autism in the Texas schools. During a weekend interview with the Associated Press, Stewart said she felt very confident going into the show and couldn't imagine experiencing the same calamity as her predecessor. "All I can offer to the world and to America is to do my best," Stewart said. "Nerves don't play a part in this."
A tough competition
Miss Thailand won the prize for best national costume and Miss El Salvador was chosen by her peers as Miss Congeniality. The NBC show was hosted by talk show star Jerry Springer and Spice Girl Melanie Brown and broadcast live to hundreds of millions of viewers in 170 countries. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) The tuxedoed Springer made a grand entrance on a motorbike — the vehicle of choice in Vietnam, where the streets are teeming with millions of the speeding two-wheelers. Eighty contestants gathered in the seaside city of Nha Trang, Vietnam, vying to succeed previous Miss Universe Riyo Mori of Japan. Sporting yellow, green and orange bikinis, the 15 semifinalists strutted across the stage during the swimsuit competition to the sounds of Lady Gaga, who belted out the pulsating "Just Dance" in a platinum blond wig. Miss Vietnam, Lam Thuy Nguyen, was greeted with a roar from the Vietnamese audience. The final 10 then competed in the evening gown event. They performed in front of a panel of judges that included international fashion experts and Donald Trump Jr., whose father, the real estate magnate and TV star, co-owns the pageant with NBC. This year's contestants spanned a wide range of experiences and aspirations. Miss Albania was a professional basketball player. Miss Argentina says she has paranormal experiences. Miss Antigua & Barbuda is fascinated by snakes. Miss Angola was in a plane crash while trying to escape a conflict during her country's civil war.