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At Miss Universe, Contestants Mix Pageantry With Political Messages

Left to right: Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos, Miss Universe Myanmar Ma Thuzar Wint Lwin and Miss Universe Bernadette Belle Ong during the National Costume segment of Miss Universe 2021
Left to right: Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos, Miss Universe Myanmar Ma Thuzar Wint Lwin and Miss Universe Bernadette Belle Ong during the National Costume segment of Miss Universe 2021

Thuzar Wint Lwin strode down the runway at the Miss Universe pageant in a costume that represented her Chin people in northwestern Myanmar.

When she got to the end, she took a bow and unfurled a scroll she'd been carrying.

"Pray for Myanmar," it read.

It was a powerful message from Myanmar's Miss Universe contestant — and a reference to the ongoing bloodshed in her country since the military junta seized power in February.

Miss Myanmar Thuzar Wint Lwin appears onstage at the Miss Universe 2021 - National Costume Show at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 13, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida.
Rodrigo Varela / Getty Images
Miss Myanmar Thuzar Wint Lwin appears onstage at the Miss Universe 2021 National Costume Show at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 13 in Hollywood, Fla.

There was a time when pageants were dismissed in some quarters for superficiality peppered with some mealymouthed appeals for world peace. But in recent years, participants have openly embraced the platform that such contests offer — and in turn have used them to bring attention to issues dear to them.

At the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., on Sunday night, Thuzar Wint Lwin wasn't the only one whose costume sent a colorful social message.

Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Ong appears onstage at the Miss Universe 2021.
Rodrigo Varela / Getty Images
Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Ong.

Miss Universe Singapore, Bernadette Belle Ong, walked the runway in a costume that bore the colors of her country's national flag. When she turned around, the back of her dress made an undeniable impression. "Stop Asian Hate," the hand-painted sign read.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans, ranging from verbal abuse to violent attacks, increased in several cities in the U.S. in 2020 from the previous year. And six Asian American women were killed on March 16 in spa shootings in Atlanta.

"What is this platform for if I can't use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence!" she posted on Instagram.

Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos appears onstage at the Miss Universe 2021.
Rodrigo Varela / Getty Images
Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos.

Miss Universe Uruguay also sent a message of understanding. Lola de los Santos' rainbow skirt alluded to the violence and indignities that members of the LGBTQ community face and read: "No more hate, violence, rejection, discrimination."

The weekend's pageant was the 69th in Miss Universe history. It was delayed last year due to the pandemic. Seventy four contestants took part.

In the end, Miss Mexico Andrea Meza was crowned Miss Universe. "MÉXICO ESTO ES PARA TI," Meza posted on Instagram. Translated, it reads:"Mexico this is for you."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miss Mexico Andrea Meza has been crowned Miss Universe 2020. Here, she appears onstage at the Miss Universe 2021 - National Costume Show at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 13, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida.
Rodrigo Varela / Getty Images
Miss Mexico Andrea Meza was crowned Miss Universe 2020. Here, she appears onstage during the competition.