As I previously mentioned, the Final Five, alongside CANADA, were competing at a stratified level compared to the rest.  Each have distinctive personas and compelling stories that made them front-runners.  In other editions if they are not pitted against each other, each of them could make a play for the title.  Since last year, the Top Five interview is basically about general topical events mainly about US issues, instead of issues specifically of the country of the finalist like in 2015-2016.  I wish they revert back to the 2015-2016 format as not always are delegates aware of US issues.

VIETNAM – H’Hien Nie.  She always makes a striking impression with her short hair and confident vibe, and she has a compelling story bucking the tradition of her heritage (she is from the Rade minority).  When called into the Top 20, Steve noted one of her favorite hobbies is grocery chopping and asked  wondered why.  She confirmed, “Yes, exactly.  That is my happy day, I get up early, go buy foods [sic] for cooking at the local market.  Yes, very nice, thank you.”   Even if her English is obviously limited, she also delivered her 15-second address in English: “I am an ethnic minority. I’m just to get married at 14 but no I chose education and from nothing — here I am. I can do it, you can do it.”  It’s obvious she’ll make the Top 10 and she made a smashing impact in swimsuit and evening gown, channelling Halle Berry (and Jamaica’s Kaci Fennell back in 2014) in swimsuit, and shimmering in a long-sleeved silver-lined evening gown.  She changed gowns from the preliminary competition, and many pageant fans and pundits felt she would’ve made a more standout impact if she stuck with her yellow preliminaries gown.  I have to agree as it turned out she blended with the pack and as good as her gown was, it made her part of a meme (more on that later…).

After making the Final Five, she was given this question: “The #MeToo movement has sparked a global conversation. In response, some have said that the world has become too politically correct. Do you think the #MeToo movement has gone too far?”  She gave this solid answer in Vietnamese:  “I don’t think that it has gone too far. Protecting women and women’s rights is the right thing to do. Women need protection and rights. Thank you.

Halle Berry in Die Another Day (image courtesy of MGM/20th Century Fox)

PUERTO RICO – Kiara Ortega.  I’ve previously noted that I noticed this lady looks like Miss World 2013 Megan Young.  But I also observed with her dusky complexion and her proportions she evokes the exotic vibe of Miss World 1975 Wilnelia Merced.  She may not have Wilnelia’s height but her proportions gave me the impression that she’s taller than she actually is.  Anyway, when called into the Top 20 by Steve Harvey, he asked her noting that since her father is stated to be her biggest fan, what would he be saying her right now.  Kiara noted that her father was actually in the audience and gave a message of “Dad, I love you, and I’m going to enjoy this experience for the rest of my life.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.” to her father (he’s at the bleachers, it seems).   It’s interesting that even if she seems to be fluent enough in English, she preferred to speak in Spanish for the rest of the evening.  So she gave her 15-second address in Spanish, thusly:  “I’ve been a fighter and believer and I haven’t had a very easy life. Even though many doors have closed for me, I have never lost my faith and I never stopped believing in me. That’s why wherever I go I always deliver a message of hope. I want to inspire and motivate people to achieve their dreams whatever those may be.”  She kept things sleek and simple for both swimsuit and evening gown rounds.  She didn’t change her gown from the preliminaries but she changed her styling–instead of putting her hair up she just let it be slicked back, and I think it’s a better look for her.

It’s no surprise she advanced to the Top Five.  For the Q&A”Hundreds of journalists across the world were jailed this year for writing stories that were critical of their governments. Why is Freedom of the Press important?”  She answered in Spanish:  “The press is there to inform us. Their job is to give us the news about what’s happening to the world right now. They should have total freedom to be able to report exactly what’s happening, without forgetting that they have to have sympathy because there are a lot of people that are suffering from different problems in the world.” I find no fault with her answer and I found it solid, so it was a shock to me that she was shut out of the Final Three.  I don’t know if this is like a poetic parallel to what happened between the PHILIPPINES and this country at Miss World 2016, with this country winning that time and our country out of the Top Three.  It was a shock for me as I thought her answer was Top Three worthy.  But well, to the selection committee’s eyes there was one Latina who just sparkled much more brightly in their opinion…

Miss World 2013 Megan Young and Miss World 1975 Wilnelia Merced

We all know the drill about the Final Three from 2015 onward–basically one question where they deliver their final thoughts.  This year the question is:  “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life, and how would you apply it in your time as Miss Universe?”

After the three finalists deliver their speeches, there is then the Final Look.  Ne-Yo was on-hand again to serenade these three ladies, singing his 2007 hit “Miss Independent“.  It’s indeed a very appropriate song to match Miss Universe’s agenda of showcasing empowered women, but there is a side of me that also want to hear him sing a couple more songs like, say, “Closer” and “Because of You“.

My perfect Final Three scenario was slightly upset as instead of PUERTO RICO, the selection committee felt that the following lady delivered more sparkle…

2ND RUNNER-UP:  VENEZUELA – Sthefany Gutierrez.  It’s interesting that she was chosen as a Wildcard and yet she ranked this high.  I think in this case what happened was she initially didn’t score high with the selection committee with her interview, but made up for it with her strong preliminary competition performance.  When called to the Top 20 by Steve, he asked her about the fact she started college at the young age of 15 and how challenging it might have been for her studying alongside older people.  She acknowledged that indeed it was initially difficult for her to relate to older people and professionals, but by following their example and have responsibility and discipline.  For her speech, she gave this speech in thickly accented English:  “I have learned to be confident, constant and determinated [sic] woman, thanks to the example of my mother who gave me the valor in my family. she fought and beat the cancer In a country where people suffer the consequence who don’t get the medicine [sic]. I am here so proud to shout to the world that we Venezuelans are warriors of love.”  Many people didn’t comprehend the “beat the cancer” and the “medicine” part of her speech, but it seems she was talking about the fact that her mother survived and beat her cancer despite the fact that her country lacks medical supplies.

We have to hand it to Sthefany that she’s a major stage dynamo,  So she cast a major spell in swimsuit and in evening gown.  Interestingly, just like PUERTO RICO she didn’t change her evening gown from the preliminary but besides using the same gown, she also kept the same styling.  It did work well for her, because I think she was channeling a very glamorous celebrity with that look and most likely the judges love that celebrity, too.  More on her later.

For the Top Five Q&A, she was given this question: “What would you say to someone who believes that pageants are archaic and against the feminist movement?”  Wisely, she chose to answer in her native language, Spanish, and this is how her answer was translated: “Nowadays we live in an era in which we have advanced greatly. Beauty pageants are not just about beauty, they are about sensitivity and about having a heart. In beauty pageants, we can show that women like me can achieve any dreams that we may have in the world.”  It is a great answer but one would debate–is it better than the ones delivered by PUERTO RICO and VIETNAM?  It only goes to show how closely fought this contest actually was, especially in this round, and the selection committee decided to cast their votes in her favor.

Now, this is what she delivered (again in Spanish) as her Final Word:  “I grew up in a family filled with women, and each one of them taught me something very important. But what I always remembered is that by working hard in chasing your dreams, and having courage and strength and willingness to achieve these dreams we can achieve anything we want in this lifetime. And tonight, I am proving this. I am here in Miss Universe.”  It’s an otherwise solid answer, but it also feels a tad generic and hence her landing 2nd runner-up is apt and just.

Many fans picked up that her long black straight-hair-parted-in-the-middle style is reminiscent of the Disney version of Pocahontas.  It is also observed that several other delegates also are sporting this hairstyle, like BOLIVIA (Joyce Prado), BRAZIL (Mayra Dias), PANAMA (Rosa Montezuma), PERU (Romina Lozano), and SOUTH AFRICA (Tamaryn Green).  There are also some days that PHILIPPINES (Catriona Gray) also styles her hair this way, like during the preliminary competition.

Inspired by Pocahontas? Top: Bolivia (Joyce Prado), Panama (Rosa Montezuma), Brazil (Mayra Dias). Bottom: South Africa (Tamaryn Green), Venezuela (Sthefany Gutierrez), Peru (Romina Lozano)

But I think the extra-special edge that made Sthefany stand out from her similarly tressed counterparts is that she evokes the glamour of Cher back in the 1970s, especially with that long-sleeved nude gown with sliver linings.  Doesn’t it closely resemble the feathered Bob Mackie creation Cher wore in her Time Magazine cover back in 1975?  Like Cher, she’s not classically pretty but she oozes exotic charisma in spades.  Facially, Sthefany also has a passing resemblance to another, more current celebrity, but I’ll discuss that when we talk about…

Cher in her Time Magazine cover, March 17, 1975

1ST RUNNER-UP:  SOUTH AFRICA – Tamaryn Green.  Ever since she won her national title at the end of May 2018, pageant fans and pundits are hyping that this year’s Miss Universe pageant is a showdown between this lady and the eventual winner.  There were other extremely formidable contenders that emerged out of the woodwork later, but still everyone’s eyes were on these two ladies.  The rivalry heated up further as both ladies set foot in Thailand, and to these two ladies’ credit, they stayed consistently on-point in every public appearance.  Though the two ladies put up a classy, friendly front, it’s almost as if the pageant is going to be packaged as a brutal boxing match between these two, and actually, these ladies did deliver a metaphorically brutal but satisfying battle to the finish.  Everyone seems to know the battle is between these two that they don’t even bother to create suspense in announcing if they made it or not as this lady was the first called into the Top 20 followed by the eventual winner.

After being the first called into the Top 20, Steve asked her if there is any pressure on her delivering a back-to-back win.  Her reply: “Well Steve, I think it’s normal to have a little bit of pressure, but I know that South Africa is supporting me all the way, just like they supported Demi.  I know they’re probably sitting all behind their TV screens right now with a cup of coffee because it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and I would like to say to all of them, thank you so much!” She parlayed her cool, collected demeanor with an overachieving background and human interest angle further with her 15-second speech:  “As a medical student and tuberculosis survivor, a disease that kills many people every year, I’m one of the lucky few to survive and able to tell my story through my hashtag #breakthestigma campaign and I hope I can encourage everyone out there facing any adversity or any challenge to speak up about their story.

Well, it’s a cinch that she made the next round to the Top 10 and was fierce in both swimsuit and evening gown rounds.  Sure it was noted in the evening gown round, she basically hobbled in her silver strapless gown as her heels got caught in the hem, but it’s just a minor quibble as she still managed to carry herself with collected poise, that her Final Five spot remained secure.  She was asked this question:  “Many countries across the world are experiencing an increase in immigration. Do you think countries should limit the number of refugees allowed across their borders?”  In her unflappable poise she delivered this:  “I think that every country should have their own rules and regulations. But for a thriving society and for all of us to stand together, we have to understand that we are all human. And we are all more alike than we are not, so we should be open to loving each other, accepting each other, it doesn’t matter where we come from.”  If we base it solely on the Top Five Q&A she gave the strongest answer so her making the Final Three was well-earned.

This is what she delivered as her Final word:  “Throughout my life, I’ve been exposed to those who are privileged and under-privileged. What I’ve learned is that we are all human. We all want to be loved, we all want to belong, and we all want to be seen, so we should treat each other that way. Thank you.”  In other years, the caliber of this answer would guarantee a win.  However, someone delivered a brilliantly eloquent answer with a more specific, tanglible, concrete example that there is no way she could win in the end.  Still we have to salute her for consistently brining the fireworks and keeping the eventual winner up to her toes.  Both, in the end, gave their all, and even if there can only be one winner, much love and respect to this worthy opponent.

Before I proceed to discuss the winner, we do have to note that the way Tamaryn styled her hair in a long ponytail during the evening gown round generated numerous memes comparing her to singer Ariana Grande.  It also made many meme-meisters observe that VENEZUELA has a passing resemblance to rapper Nicki Minaj and it’s interesting these two ladies collaborate frequently, like in smash hit songs like “Bang Bang” (with Jessie J), “Side to Side“, and “Bed“.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj (image courtesy of Vibe Magazine).