Miss Dominican Republic, Amelia Vega, won the 2003 Miss Universe title Tuesday night, topping 70 other contestants.
Outgoing titleholder Justine Pasek of Panama slipped the crown on the head of the winner, who smiled widely and waved to the crowd. Vega, 18, is the niece of famed merengue singer Juan Luis Guerra and the daughter of her country's representative in the 1980 Miss Universe pageant.
The first runner up was Miss Venezuela, the Cinderella of the contest: the 22-year-old almost couldn't come to the competition, because of financial problems in her home country. A donor finally turned up to meet the costs of her trip.
Second-runner up was South Africa's Cindy Nell, 21, a tourism promoter.
Miss Serbia and Montenegro, Sanja Papic, was third runner up and Miss Japan, Miyako Miyzaki, was fourth.
Dropping out after reaching the top 10 were women from Trinidad and Tobago, the Czech Republic, Namibia, Canada and Brazil. An earlier cut took out Misses USA, Greece, Panama, Angola and Peru. A local favorite who dropped out earlier was Miss Colombia, Diana Mantilla, who had released a record of her songs here. Kai Davis of Antigua and Barbuda was named Miss Congeniality. Miss Puerto Rico, Carla Tricoli, was named Miss Photogenic. The event gave Panama a few minutes of prime time to promote itself as a new tourist destination after decades of living under the shadow of the U.S. military that long protected the Panama Canal.
On December 31, 1999, the United States took its last soldiers home and handed Panama the canal administration.
"I am excited and anxious. I have been preparing for this for ten months," Vega before the contest. "It is partly because of confidence and the personal pride of representing your country." Tuesday's finals were hosted by television personalities Daisy Fuentes and Billy Bush. Puerto Rican Pop singer Chayanne and Bond performed.
This year's pageant was held at a refurbished canal-side base abandoned by the Americans.
Hotels, restaurants and a marina, as well as a US$10 million convention center now adorn what once was U.S. Fort Amador.
Panama wants to show the world it is a changed country since last hosting the pageant in 1986 under the military dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega and with U.S. troops guarding the Panama Canal. Last year, for the first time, Panama's annual income from tourism - US$678 million - surpassed revenues from the canal. The government has done all it could to ensure a smooth pageant - and avoid protests. It suspended classes in the national university and the National Technical Institute to discourage demonstrators such as those who caused traffic chaos last Thursday. On Tuesday, Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro presented the keys to the city to real estate developer and investor Donald Trump, the half-owner of the Miss Universe parent organization. "Panama is a great country, and I'm going to come back," said Trump.