Venezuelan Mendoza crowned Miss Universe

NHA TRANG CITY, Vietnam (Reuters) - Miss Venezuela, Dayana Mendoza, was crowned Miss Universe 2008 in Vietnam’s resort city of Nha Trang on Monday.

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The 22-year-old brunette was given her crown, made of white and yellow gold and precious stones, by last year’s winner, Riyo Mori of Japan, at the pageant finale watched by nearly a billion television viewers worldwide.

“I am excited. I cried a lot. I am really glad I made it,” Mendoza, the 57th winner of the title, later told reporters.

The professional model has said her “express kidnapping” in Venezuela a year and a half ago taught her to remain calm in stressful situations.

“It is something that happens in my country and that’s why I want to raise my voice and say violence is not the answer,” she said when asked about the incident.

Mendoza, an aspiring interior designer, was among four finalists from Latin America, including first runner-up Taliana Vargas, 20, from Colombia.

The rest of the top five were from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Russia.

This year’s event went more smoothly than the 2007 pageant in Mexico, which was marked by protests, a banned dress and the withdrawal of Miss Sweden after critics at home complained the contest degraded women.

However, misfortune befell Miss USA for a second straight year. During the evening gown parade, Crystle Stewart of Texas slipped on the runway. She finished in the top 10.

A year ago in Mexico, Rachel Smith also lost her footing and landed on her bottom. She finished fifth.

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.

Communist-led Vietnam spent nearly $20 million on the event, including $7 million on a new resort and convention centre to host the pageant, in a bid to promote tourism to the Southeast Asian nation.

After celebrating at home with her family, Mendoza will spend her year-long reign traveling the world to speak out on humanitarian issues.

“I think I will jump on my family and they will jump on me. I want to have my mum’s food,” she said.

Writing by Nguyen Nhat Lam; editing by Darren Schuettler