NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Miss Venezuela was the fairest of them all once again, winning the 2009 Miss Universe crown for the second year straight and the sixth time since the pageant's creation.
Dressed in a flowing red gown, 18-year-old Stefania Fernandez hugged the runner-up from the Dominican Republic and danced in joy as her victory was announced Sunday.
The crown briefly fell to the floor as it passed from one Venezuelan beauty to the next.
But Fernandez said there was time for outgoing Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza to whisper in her ear that she must have worked hard for Venezuela to win consecutive crowns.
"What do we Venezuelans have?" Fernandez, an international relations student, told reporters after the pageant. "That we are ourselves."
The other top-five finalists were runner-up Ada Aimee de la Cruz, followed by Miss Kosovo, Droga Ganusha; Miss Australia, Rachael Finch; and Miss Puerto Rico, Mayra Matos Perez.
During a question-and-answer segment with the five top finalists, Fernandez said she believed women have overcome obstacles such as hitting the proverbial glass ceiling.
"I feel we have reached the level that men are at," she said.
When asked later how she thought beauty contests promoted equality between men and women, Fernandez said they provided exposure.
"We have quite a following worldwide," she said. "We are models to follow."
The new Miss Universe is from the city of Merida in the west of a beauty-obsessed South American country where hard-fought pageants are something of a national sport, with contestants widely dissected by the public and the media.
Fernandez said she did not know whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would receive her. He did not meet with Mendoza when she won and made no public statements at the time.
But Fernandez said he might change his mind.
"We'll see, because we are making history," she said.
The top 15 Miss Universe finalists appeared in bathing suits before the final 10 were chosen for the evening gown segment.
Pageant co-owner Donald Trump told reporters, "I think this is the most beautiful group of women I've ever seen."
The televised event included musical performances by Flo Rida, Heidi Montag, David Guetta and Kelly Rowland.
Montag gave her first live performance, singing "Body Language" from her debut album.
Fans cheered on the blond star of MTV's "The Hills," although NBC, which broadcast the event in the Bahamas live, blocked out more than half of her performance as they introduced the 15 finalists.
"It's my first performance live and it's in front of a billion eyes," Montag said.
The on-stage hosts were Billy Bush, co-anchor of "Access Hollywood," and Claudia Jordan, a former Miss Rhode Island USA who has appeared on several TV shows. Judges included actor Dean Cain and supermodel Valeria Mazza.
Miss China, Wang Jingyao, was named Miss Congeniality and Miss Thailand, Chutima Durongdej, won Miss Photogenic.
Many contestants have suffered from dehydration in recent weeks, and Jewel Selver, Miss Turks and Caicos, went home Saturday to recuperate, said Esther Swan, Miss Universe spokeswoman.