Puerto Rican Is Miss Universe

Times Staff Writer

An 18-year-old Puerto Rican was crowned Miss Universe on Sunday night at the Shrine Auditorium before a crowd of thousands, including a few hundred partisans of her country, screaming and waving Puerto Rican flags.

Through an interpreter, Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza, a 5-foot, 9-inch dark-haired aspiring actress, spoke during the onstage interview session about how overcoming obstacles makes one stronger.

Mendoza, in a sleek, sparkly gown, burst into tears as the $250,000 Mikimoto-designed pearl and diamond crown was placed on her head.

Soon after, during a post-pageant news conference, Mendoza collapsed and was rushed off stage.

Pageant officials said shortly afterward that she had passed out.

"She's OK. She's fine," said pageant representative Lark-Marie Anton. "She got dizzy. It's very hot up here. Her dress is tight. As you could see, it was beaded and heavy.... She passed out."

By 9:50, she had walked into the coronation ball, makeup perfect, crown in place, to be greeted by Donald Trump and escorted through the ball, all smiles.

Mendoza will fly to New York and be installed in a Trump Place apartment in New York -- where her roommate will be Miss USA -- and begin touring the world. The outgoing Miss Universe, Natalie Glebova of Canada, will live in Thailand, continuing work on behalf of social issues and also working as a spokeswoman for a Thai beer company.

NBC and Trump co-own the Miss Universe organization, which puts on the Miss Universe pageant, as well as Miss USA pageant and Miss Teen USA.

The first runner-up, Miss Japan, was also winner of the best costume award. Kurara Chibana of Japan was the show-stopper last Tuesday night at a preliminary judging show when during the costume portion, she bounded onstage in a sexy samurai costume and drew a sword from her belt.

On Sunday night, in perhaps the only poignant moment during a slick and sleek show, during the interview portion, when Miss Japan's question was being translated into Japanese for her to answer, she suddenly grabbed the microphone and said in tentative but enthusiastic English: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'm on the stage. I can feel you full of energy. I'm so happy."

The show played onstage like a glitzy music video, full of sparkly gowns and thumping dance music. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended and was seated next to Trump.

But the audience -- also glammed up in slinky halter dresses and suits -- treated the pageant like a World Cup final, cheering and waving national flags.

They had to be admonished at the beginning of the evening to not blow their air horns.

"I've been a pageant fan since 1993 when Dayanara Torres won," said Carlos Velez, 38, an accountant from Miami who gathered together a group of 25 and flew to Los Angeles for the pageant. Like other Puerto Rican fans, he can recite statistics. "This is our fifth crown. This is like football for Brazil or Argentina. We have beautiful girls, and we're proud of them."

Miss Philippines had a strong rooting section, but no one could beat the fans supporting Miss Mexico, who waved flags and drowned out the contestant herself when she introduced herself from the stage. Miss Mexico, Priscila Perales, made it as far as the top 10.

"First of all, in L.A.," many of the people are from Mexico, "and also our Miss Mexico used to live in San Diego," said Juan Tapia, 26, an engineer from Detroit who came with his wife, Carolina Salinas, herself a former beauty contestant.

"It's nice to see one person from your country become so successful," Salinas, 24, said of Miss Mexico, whom she knows.

Miss Sri Lanka, Jackie Fernandez, who embodied the hopes of many Sri Lankans in the Southland, did not make the top 20, although her roommate, Miss India, did.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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