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Panama gets ready to crown new Miss Universe

Fifteen finalists end more than two weeks of hectic preparations tonight as they go before the judges.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2003 08:10 IST

Fifteen finalists end more than two weeks of hectic preparations tonight as they go before the judges and an estimated 600 million television viewers for the 2003 Miss Universe title.

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.

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.

All 71 contestants will parade Tuesday night, though the 15 finalists were chosen - but not announced - during a preliminary show on Thursday.

"It has been very hectic," Miss Chinese Taipei Szu Yu Chen said on Monday.

"We are all very tired, but excited and happy that it is over. After tomorrow, I am free again," she said with a laugh.

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

Tuesday's finals start at 9 p.m. local time, and will be hosted by television personalities Daisy Fuentes and Billy Bush. Puerto Rican Pop singer Chayanne and Bond, a female quartet, will perform.

Szu Yu Chen was not happy with the "Chinese Taipei" written on her sash - a bow to organizers' sensitivity to the mainland Chinese government's claim to Taiwan.

But she said there are no hard feelings: she has sometimes helped interpret for Miss China, Wei Wu, who does not speak English. Miss Dominican Republic, Amelia Vega, who is studying to be a model, said she was ready for finals. "I am excited and anxious. I have been preparing for this for ten months. It is partly because of confidence and the personal pride of representing your country." Vega called the contest a show of "external and internal" beauty.

Miss Colombia, Diana Lucia 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." For Panama, it was a different kind of contest: 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. 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 now adorn what once was U.S. Fort Amador. "This is a golden opportunity to show the world we are a safe, attractive country," said Panama Tourism Institute manager Liriola Pitti.

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.

First Published: Jun 03, 2003 18:11 IST