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Nikita fails to make it the final 15

Nikita Anand, Miss India 2003, did not figure on the list of 15 finalists announced at the Miss Universe Contest in Panama.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2003 08:34 IST

Nikita Anand, Miss India 2003, did not figure on the list of 15 finalists announced at the Miss Universe Contest in Panama.

Five Latin American contestants were among the final group competing Tuesday before judges and an estimated 600 million television viewers for the 2003 Miss Universe title.

Among the favorites chosen from the field of 71 contestants were representatives of South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

The winner will replace Justine Pasek of Panama, the first runner up last year who took the crown after the Russian winner surrendered the title voluntarily.

Many here are already betting on Miss Dominican Republic, a tall aspiring singer named Amelia Vega, 18, whose uncle is well-known merengue singer Juan Luis Guerra.

Vega is following in the family footsteps in more than one way: her mother represented her country in the 1980 Miss Universe pageant.

Miss Venezuela, Mariangel Ruiz, is 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.

Cindy Nell, 21, is a bit of a departure among the favorites; a refined South African tourism promoter in a field dominated by Latin Americans.

The top 15, announced just before the ceremony, also included Miss USA, Susie Castillo, and women from Trinidad and Tobago, Greece, Panama, the Czech Republic, Namibia, Canada, Brazil, Serbia and Montenegro, Angola, Japan and Peru.

One local favorite who did not make it was Miss Colombia, Diana Mantilla, who had released a record of her songs here. It's also showtime for Panama, which will have 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.

The women arrived on May 15 and have visited schools and hospitals amid rehearsals for the finals.

"I am excited and anxious. I have been preparing for this for ten months," said Vega. "It is partly because of confidence and the personal pride of representing your country." Mantilla said the contest also has a social purpose, noting that the winner promotes the fight against AIDS. "It is not just a search for a pretty woman."

Tuesday's finals were to be hosted by television personalities Daisy Fuentes and Billy Bush. Puerto Rican Pop singer Chayanne and Bond, were to perform.

This year's pageant is being 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 US 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.

Here are the 15 finalists selected at the Miss Universe contest Tuesday night:

Miss South Africa, Cindy Nell
Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Faye Alibocus
Miss Venezuela, Mariangel Ruiz
Miss Greece, Marieta Chrousala
Miss Panama, Stephanie de Roux
Miss Czech Republic, Katerina Smrzova
Miss Namibia, Ndapewa Alfons
Miss Canada, Leanne Marie Cecile
Miss Brazil, Gislaine Ferreira
Miss Serbia and Montenegro, Sanja Papic
Miss USA, Susie Castillo
Miss Angola, Ana Sebastiao
Miss Japan, Miyako Miyazaki
Miss Dominican Republic, Amelia Vega
Miss Peru, Claudia Ortiz de Zevallos

First Published: Jun 04, 2003 08:09 IST