Japan's Mori wins troubled Miss Universe contest

MEXICO CITY Tue May 29, 2007 8:56am EDT

1 of 11. Miss Japan Riyo Mori reacts as she is named Miss Universe 2007 as 2006 Miss Universe Zuleyka Riveralooks on during the pageant in Mexico City, May 28, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A raven-haired Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, was crowned Miss Universe 2007 on Monday in a contest marked by protests, a banned dress and the withdrawal of one beauty queen on the ground the pageant degrades women.

Mori, 20, the 56th winner of the title, was given her $250,000 diamond-and-pearl crown by last year's winner, Zuleyka Rivera of Puerto Rico, watched by a live audience of 10,000 and some 600 million television viewers worldwide.

A lifelong ballet dancer from a village near Mount Fuji, Mori wore a striking black gown with colored lapels for the final. Winning surpassed the ambition of her grandmother, who told her as a child she wanted her to be Miss Japan one day.

"My mind went blank," she said of the winning moment.

During the evening gown parade, Miss USA, Rachel Smith, slipped on the runway and landed on her bottom, although the slip didn't stop her earning fifth place.

This year's contest was marked by controversy, with a handful of Mexicans booing Smith in the run-up to the finals because of what they saw as U.S. unfriendliness toward illegal immigrants.

Miss Sweden, Isabel Lestapier Winqvist, unexpectedly pulled out of the event because of complaints in her country that it degrades women. Sweden has won the Miss Universe crown three times in the past.

In another hitch, Miss Mexico was made to change her outfit for the regional dress contest after her original dress, decorated with brutal images of rebels in a 1920s religious uprising being hanged or shot, drew accusations of poor taste.

DREADLOCKS

The annual Miss Universe pageant -- which tries to present itself as something more meaningful than a swimwear parade -- was first held in Long Beach, California, in 1952. The event was taken over in 1996 by U.S. real estate mogul Donald Trump.

This year, it attracted protesters wearing white dresses splashed with fake blood and sashes proclaiming "Miss Juarez", "Miss Atenco" and "Miss Michoacan" in reference to places in Mexico made infamous by killings or sexual abuse of women.

In another quirk for 2007, the long, twisted dreadlocks of Miss Jamaica, the contest's first ever Rastafarian participant, and the close-shaved head of Miss Tanzania stood out from the lacquered manes of the other contestants.

Last year's Miss Universe event in Los Angeles also made its mark when winner Rivera caused gasps by slumping to the ground in a faint during a post-pageant news conference.

As well as strutting in cocktail dresses and bikinis, the 77 contestants from nations ranging from Albania to Zambia traveled in Mexico in the lead-up to the event, visiting Mayan ruins and learning about endangered animals.

They also had to answer questions to put their personalities and public speaking ability to the test.

This was the fourth time the pageant was held in Mexico, which in 1991 won the crown with beauty queen Lupita Jones.

Mori -- the second Japanese woman to win the Miss Universe title -- will spend her year-long reign traveling the world to speak out on humanitarian issues like poverty and disease.