Lara Dutta, 21, Miss India, won the Miss Universe Pageant in Cyprus on May 12, 2000 (May 13 according to Cyprus time). She is the second representative of India to win the crown.
Claudia Moreno, 22, Miss Venezuela, was first runner-up, and Helen Lindes, 18, Miss Spain, was second runner-up.
Other finalists were Kim Yee, 22, representing Canada, and Lynnette Cole, 22, Miss USA.
Other semifinalists were Miss Colombia, Catalina Acosta, 22; Miss Estonia, Evelyn Mikomagi, 19; Miss South Africa, Heather Joy Hamilton, 22; Miss Zimbabwe, Corrinne Crewe, 18; and Miss France, Sonia Rolland, 18.
Tamara Scaroni, 23, Miss Aruba, was chosen Miss Congeniality by a vote of her fellow contestants. Letty Murray, 20, of Mexico won the Clairol Herbal Essence Style Award.
For the next year, when people call out the name of Miss Universe, it is India’s Lara Dutta who will turn around.
Ms. Dutta, 21, a Bangalore native born to an Indian father and a European mother, was crowned as the new queen on the morning of May 13, 2000, following a pageant that began at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. local time in order to be broadcast live in prime time (on May 12) in New York.
Remarking on the innate charisma of a few natural leaders, men like U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the novelist Saul Bellow once wrote that they must dine strictly on organ meats: their skin simply glowed with an inexplicable radiance and vitality.
A quirky explanation, perhaps, but one must wonder similarly about Ms. Dutta: even in the galaxy of exceptionally beautiful women who graced the Nicosia Hilton for the past month, Ms.Dutta stood out almost immediately as the most radiant star.
Others of the 10 semi-finalists Miss Colombia, Catalina Acosta, who was stunning in her blue sequined evening gown; Miss Zimbabwe, Corrine Crewe, whose appearance in a swimsuit would be an asset to any beach; Miss Canada, Kim Yee, who inherited from her Chinese and Ukrainian parents the best elements of both nations’ physiques -- made a deep impression on journalists and members of the audience.
Yet it was Ms. Dutta’s superior self-assurance and her exceptionally articulate answers to the questions of the master of ceremonies, American entertainer Sinbad, that guaranteed her victory.
Judge Christina Altshul, an MTV VJ, told pageant.com after the competition that the panel had been unanimous in its choice of Ms. Dutta.
One interlude that worked in Ms. Dutta’s favor may have been her refusal to demonstrate classical Indian dance for Sinbad, saying she couldn’t perform the necessary squats in her red, low-backed evening gown. Instead, she did a series of brief hand movements that accompany the dance.
Her determined refusal to perform in an atmosphere she considered uncomfortable or even degrading appeared to win support from an audience that appreciated her self-respect.
So, too, with Ms. Dutta’s answer to Sinbad’s questions about the presence of women among Indian leaders. Women politicians are more sensitive than men, Ms. Dutta said, adding that India’s women stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with their men” and are quite capable and educated -- those that are educated, that is. The audience erupted in a wave of applause.
In contrast to Ms. Dutta’s polish, others of the five finalists seemed to stumble in the question-and-answer session. Miss Spain, Helen Lindes did agree to perform a few basic salsa steps, but she demonstrated neither logic nor humor in answer to a question about the architecture of her native Canary Islands. And in another answer she described a dependence on her mother that judges may have considered too immature for a prospective Miss Universe. Miss USA, Lynnette Cole, a substitute teacher from Tennessee, appeared to lose the natural eloquence she had demonstrated throughout the week, becoming flustered and somewhat tongue-tied at her moment in the spotlight.
Miss Venezuela Claudia Moreno was praised by pageant veterans as most closely embodying the love goddess Aphrodite - an ancient Cypriot native, according to local legend, who served as the "patron saint" of this year’s pageant - in her elegant light-blue gown. Yet the towering Ms. Moreno, soon to receive her credentials as a dentist, appeared to make a dreadful tactical error by attempting to answer Sinbad’s questions in her faltering English, rather than in her fluent Spanish. While other finalists had time to answer three or four questions, Ms. Moreno’s rambling, grammatically challenged answer to a question about pediatric dentistry left her with no time for other questions.
The error was compounded when the field narrowed to just Spain, India and Venezuela. Sinbad asked each contestant to comment on the protests held near Eleftheria Stadium by religious conservatives and feminists, who denounced the “evils” of beauty pageants that allegedly exploit women. All three contestants praised the pageants as a vehicle for women to increase their access and influence - but Ms. Dutta’s beautiful speaking voice and fluent command of English, spoken daily by India’s elite, clearly gave her the upper hand.
In contrast to the earlier round of questioning, Spain’s Ms. Lindes wisely chose to answer in her native Spanish - although those who understood her reply in the original instantly realized that the interpreter offered an abbreviated and not altogether faithful rendering in English. Ms. Moreno, however, tried to answer in English and failed to get her message across effectively. When Ms. Dutta put forth a beautifully crafted exposition of the ways in which beauty pageants help women to advance in all fields, the competition was over.
“I sort of predicted what the final question would be, because I had seen [the demonstrators’] banners” after the final dress rehearsal Friday night, Ms. Dutta told journalists after the competition. Pageant veterans said they were astonished that Miss Venezuela passed up the opportunity to express herself fluently in Spanish.
“This was probably the most important question of her life and she doesn’t answer it in her own language,” Guatemala national director Howard Turner said after the competition. “I simply don’t understand it.”
MTV’s Ms. Altshul said the language difficulty for the Spanish-speaking runners-up was understandable, but could not be discounted.
“Of course that affects the judging,” Ms. Altshul said.
As soon as her name was announced, Ms. Dutta grasped Ms. Moreno in an extended embrace and was then crowned by outgoing Miss Universe Mpule Kwelagobe of Botswana. The tiara did not sit well on Ms. Dutta’s slick hair, however, and for a few moments she feared to take her hand off it.
After the pageant, Ms. Dutta was asked what was the first thing she wanted to do following her selection as the most beautiful woman in the universe.
“Eat breakfast,” was her reply.
For Miss India, Lara Dutta, a model who aspires to a career in international business, her victory as Miss Universe was the best birthday present she could possibly offer her father, who turned 60 the same day.
Yet Ms. Dutta’s victory was not altogether unexpected. Four years ago, she was chosen as Miss Intercontinental in a competition in Germany - “with a different nose,” remarked one pageant professional who has watched Ms. Dutta for years. Last year, in India’s national competition, she placed ahead of Yukta Mookhey, who went on to win the crown of Miss World 1999 several months ago.
In the weeks preceding the pageant, while contestants gathered in Cyprus to prepare for Saturday’s two-hour extravaganza, it quickly became clear that Ms. Dutta was on the short list of favorites. The sole criticism offered by some of her peers was that Ms. Dutta held herself somewhat aloof from the other contestants, appearing to focus almost exclusively on the goal of winning rather than on the value of camaraderie.
Guatemala national director Howard Turner said India has one of the most successful pageant industries, locating promising young women early and coaching them closely as they develop. The investment has made India, which by most criteria belongs squarely in the club of developing nations, into something of a world power in the realm of beauty pageants, as this year’s sweep of the Miss World and Miss Universe titles demonstrates.
Venezuela, which provided first runner-up Claudia Moreno, has a similarly efficient pageant industry whose products often challenge for the top prizes, Turner said. Venezuelan officials even provide a plastic surgeon for their promising contestants, according to one journalist preparing a behind-the-scenes article on the Venezuelan pageant scene.
Ms. Dutta alluded to her nation’s success in a brief post-pageant press conference.
“India is producing girls today who are very intelligent and they prepare us well befor they send us” to international competitions, she said. “I have no idea what lies ahead for me, but I think I’m prepared for it.”
While the master of ceremonies, American entertainer Sinbad, opened the competition with the question, “Who will take [Aphrodite’s] place as the most beautiful woman in the universe?” the results showed that the judges did not choose Ms. Dutta solely on the basis of her beauty.
While Ms. Dutta clearly belonged among the top few contestants in nearly every category, an informal survey of journalists and audience members showed that they placed both of the other finalists, Miss Venezuela and Miss Spain, ahead of Ms. Dutta in the swimsuit competition, and placed Miss Venezuela slightly ahead of Ms. Dutta in the evening gown portion.
Yet it was Ms. Dutta’s brains, polish and poise that left no doubt as to the choice of the next Miss Universe. Simply put, it was evident to all who laid eyes on her that she truly was regal.