Miss Universe to be crowned in Russia for first time

MOSCOW - Women representing 86 countries will vie for the Miss Universe crown Saturday at the final of the 61-year-old beauty contest, which is being held in Russia for the first time.

But the decision to stage the show in Moscow has sparked a fresh debate over Russia's new law banning "homosexual propaganda", a measure that prompted the original US co-host to pull out.

The glitzy contest will be held at a concert hall on the edge of Moscow and beamed around the world's television screens to an audience of around two billion people.

The show, which starts at 10:00 pm Moscow time (1800 GMT), will begin with judges whittling down the 86 contestants to a final 16. The women will then face an interview round.

Finally last year's winner, Olivia Culpo of the United States, will crown her successor.

Among those widely tipped to take the crown are Miss Philippines, 24-year-old chemistry graduate Ariella Arida, and Miss Spain, 23-year-old actress and model Patricia Rodriguez.

The final will be judged by a panel including rock singer Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Former Spice Girls singer Melanie Brown will host the event with US television presenter Thomas Roberts.

The contest, whose slogan is "confidently beautiful," was first held in 1952 in Palm Beach in the United States. It still requires the women not to be married or pregnant.

Complete with a swimsuit round, the contest remains hugely popular, particularly in Central and South America.

'People like me deserve equal rights'

The choice of Moscow as the venue has prompted a new debate over Russia's disregard for gay rights.

The original co-host, Andy Cohen, who is gay, refused to come in protest at a controversial law banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors that President Vladimir Putin signed in the summer.

On the other hand, his replacement Roberts, who is also openly gay, has justified his attendance while condemning Russia's homophobic legislation, saying he hopes to be a positive example to the gay community.

"I think I'm here to promote that people like me deserve equal rights, because we are no different than anyone else," Roberts told AFP.


The owner of the show's organisation, outspoken US property magnate Donald Trump, at a news conference on Saturday acknowledged concerns about holding the contest in Russia due to the gay rights situation.

"Certainly as you know it has been an issue and it was not taken very lightly. I talked to a lot of people," Trump said.

But Trump said the show's participants had all wanted to come and he praised Roberts.

"As you know, Thomas is gay. He's very proud to be here. And he's going to do a fantastic job." Trump said earlier that he has issued an invitation to Putin, but it remains unclear whether the Russian leader will show up.

Trump also warned the security leaker Edward Snowden, who has received asylum in Russia after revealing details of massive surveillance operations, that he was barred.

"Message to Edward Snowden, you're banned from @MissUniverse. Unless you want me to take you back home to face justice!" he wrote.

Snowden is believed to be living in or near Moscow after leaving its Sheremetyevo airport for a secret address in August.

Performing at the show will be pop singer Emin Agalarov, whose family company built the venue. He has made a video with the current Miss Universe, Culpo.

The singer, known as Emin, is also the son-in-law of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and performed at the Eurovision song contest when it was held in Baku last year.

Russia won Miss Universe in 2002, but the policewoman Oksana Fyodorova was dethroned after US shock jock Howard Stern provoked her into chatting about her sex life. She now presents a children's television show.