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The Ultimate Fairytale:
Miss Universe 2003 Amelia Vega

18-year-old Amelia Vega, Miss Dominican Republic, wasn't far from her childhood fantasies in early June when she realized her dream.
Amelia in the opening numberThere is a fairy tale that millions of little girls enjoy when they are very young: To ascend a throne as the most beautiful and admired queen in the entire universe. Though many of these girls leave the fantasy behind as they mature, a fair majority of them nurture the possibility that, perhaps for them, the fairy tale could possibly come true. For one lucky girl each year, this fantasy does, indeed, become reality. The road to the throne is tough; many who travel its path come away with only fond memories. But for one of them each year, the night of decision is like a wonderful dream, and when she awakens the next day, she is, for all the world, not just a princess but a full-fledged queen, respected and loved throughout the world. She wears a $250,000 crown, is given an exquisite wardrobe and dazzling jewelry to wear, and travels in sleek jets and stretch limousines. For an entire year, she is lavished with attention while attending glamorous events around the globe. She is Miss Universe, an international role model and a symbol of independence and personal excellence for women.
For 51 years, the Miss Universe Organization has had a hand in turning this fantasy into reality, and thus has fulfilled the hopes and dreams of 51 of the loveliest women the world has ever seen. This year, like others before, the pageant would pluck one beauty from anonymity and propel her to international recognition. On June 3, 2003, 71 "Ambassadors of Beauty" introduced themselves, from a promenade alongside the Panama Canal Village Convention Center, to over 600 million viewers in 134 countries. Before the evening would end, 70 of the young women would surround the one among them who, for the next year and the rest of her life, would be known as the most beautiful and outstanding young woman in the Universe for 2003.
However, earning the right to be called Miss Universe is no cakewalk. Before the winner can be determined, the future Miss Universe has to demonstrate her exceptional natural attributes and skills: beauty of face and figure in a swimsuit competition; style and grace in an elegant evening gown presentation; and public speaking in extemporaneous personal interviews. Every young woman who arrived in Panama City had already proven her excellence in these areas by winning titles in her region, state and nation. Now, though, came the ultimate test: a contest that pits the best woman each country has to offer, in a series of eliminations that, in the end, leaves only one remaining. The Miss Universe competition is truly more of a "World Series" than that well-known namesake.
The majestic beauty of Panama held its own with the much-admired delegates who assembled there to compete for the ultimate beauty title. This year's pageant was held at a refurbished canal-side military base, formerly Fort Amador, which was left by America when it turned over control of the Panama Canal administration to that country's government in 1999. Hotels, restaurants, and a marina, as well as a $10 million convention center, now make up part of the country's hospitable and burgeoning tourism industry -- an activity which last year brought in $678 million, surpassing for the first time the annual income from operating the Panama Canal. Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro presented the keys to the city to Donald Trump, who is co-owner of the Miss Universe parent organization. "Panama is a great country," Trump was quoted, "and I'm going to come back."
"Welcome to my country!"
This year's world-class event kicked off with personal introductions from each contestant, who stated her name, age, and the country she represented. After the 71st delegate finished, Miss Universe 2002 Justine Pasek, a native of Panama, appeared and greeted the worldwide audience, saying, "Welcome to my country!" Hosts Billy Bush and Daisy Fuentes also welcomed the celebrity-dotted international audience, as they roared in appreciation and anticipation. Recording artist Cheyenne and the sensational female string quartet known as Bond, whose members could easily be mistaken for beauty contestants, provided entertainment throughout the event.
The first order of business was the announcement of this year's semifinalists. In a departure from the recent past, 15 semifinalists were called forward to continue in their quest. The last time 15 appeared in the semis was in 1970 in the pageant won by Puerto Rico's Marisol Malaret. This update allowed more hopefuls to compete before the worldwide audience.
The Miss Universe semifinalists this year were as follows: Cindy Nell of South Africa, as polished and well-spoken as they come; Faye Alibocus, the exotic Trinidad & Tobago entrant whose country produced winners in 1977 and 1998; Mariangel Ruiz Torrealba of Venezuela, whose possible non-participation in the event made worldwide headlines; Marietta Chrousala of Greece, seeking the first Miss Universe title for her country since Corinna Tsopei won in 1964; Stephanie de Roux of Panama, trying to keep the crown in Panama for a second year; Ndapewa Alfons of Namibia, trying to repeat the success of 1999 winner Mpule Kwelagobe; Leanne Cecile of Canada, attempting to join 1982 Canadian winner Karen Baldwin; Gislaine Ferreira of Brazil, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Brazilian titleholders Ieda Maria Vargas (1963) and Martha Vasconcellos 1968; Susie Castillo of the United States, hoping to repeat her experience at Miss USA; Miyako Miyazaki of Japan, hoping to emulate that country's last winner, Akiko Kojima, in 1959; Claudia Ortiz de Zevallos of Peru, hoping to match Gladys Zender's feat in 1957; and first-timers Katerina Smrzova of Czech Republic, Sanja Papic of Serbia & Montenegro, Ana Jose Sebastiao of Angola, and Amelia Vega of Dominican Republic.
The evening gown competition came next. This year, the gowns were spectacularly diverse and unique. Some of the classical gowns ranged from soft-hued designs worn by the candidates from South Africa, Canada, USA, and Greece, to the vibrantly colored gowns modeled by Venezuela and Panama. White continued its dominance as the top color of choice, with white gowns modeled by contestants from Brazil, Namibia, Angola, Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago, and Peru. Miss Czech Republic's black ensemble and Miss Serbia & Montenegro's unique gown were both interesting choices as well. By far the most daring and anticipated gown was that chosen by Miss Japan -- it featured a bead-encrusted bra with bare mid-drift and a mid-length beaded and feathered skirt.
Only the Strongest 10 Survive
Then the 10 delegates who left the strongest imprint in the judges' minds and made it into the official Top 10 list were announced: Miss Czech Republic Katerina Smrzova, Miss Brazil Gislaine Ferreira, Miss Trinidad and Tobago Faye Alibocus, Miss Namibia Ndapewa Alfons, Miss Canada Leanne Marie Cecile, Miss South Africa Cindy Nell, Miss Serbia and Montenegro Sanja Papic, Miss Japan Miyako Miyazaki, Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega, and Miss Venezuela Mariangel Ruiz Torrealba. Making their exits at this time were the delegates from Panama, Peru, Greece, Angola, and USA.
All 71 delegates participated in a dance routine featuring red-hot swimsuits, while sets of cascading waterfalls (water features, it is now becoming clear, are a signature of pageant production gurus Richard Guy and Rex Holt) added to the aquatic theme inspired by the Panama Canal. With swimsuit completed, once again it was time for the judges to narrow down the field of hopefuls. Left behind were the candidates of Trinidad and Tobago, Czech Republic, Namibia, Canada, and, Brazil. Introduced as the Top 5 finalists were Miss Serbia and Montenegro Sanja Papic, Miss Japan Miyako Miyazaki, Miss Venezuela Mariangel Ruiz Torrealba, Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega, and Miss South Africa Cindy Nell.
The Top 5 at Miss Universe

THE TOP FIVE Miss Venezuela, Miss Japan, Miss South Africa, Miss Dominican Republic, and Miss Serbia & Montenegro feel the excitement build as they await the judges panel's final decision

From a world full of beautiful fairy-tale princesses, now only five remained in the dream. It all came down to one final nail-biting hurdle: the question-and-answer segment. As in this year's Miss USA pageant, the final questions for each of the Top 5 were composed by the finalists themselves or the reigning queen -- in this case, Miss Universe Justine Pasek.
Five Face One Final Question
Benefiting the television audience, excellent camerawork revealed the faces of the contestants whose question was being read, and then cut to close-ups of the finalists as they delivered their responses. Miss Venezuela answered a question about what she would change in history. Miss Japan's question dealt with hypothetically having to choose only one of the five senses. Miss South Africa was asked to reveal the most important thing in her life. Miss Serbia & Montenegro was given the most philosophical question (submitted by Miss Dominican Republic) about choosing to be fire or water. Miss Dominican Republic was asked to describe the most precious gift that she has given to someone. Each of their answers were as varied as the contestants were.
Amelia Vega Miss Universe 2003

CROWNING MOMENT Amelia fights back tears as she accepts the Miss Universe crown and cheers from the audience.

The Top 5 finalist appeared center stage in order to give the judges and the audience one final chance to reflect on the monumental decision that would place the $250,000 Mikimoto-designed pearl-and-diamond-studded crown on the head of the next Miss Universe. Before the hosts revealed the ultimate decision of the judges, they presented the winners in several special award categories. The Best National Costume award was given to finalist and Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega. The Congeniality prize was awarded to Miss Antigua & Barbuda Kai Davis. The Photogenic award, determined by Internet voters, went to Carla Tricoli, the third Miss Puerto Rico in a row to take the prize and the fourth win for a Puerto Rican candidate in the last five years.
After the special awards were completed, the five anxious finalists awaited their fates. Fourth Runner-up was Miss Japan Miyako Miyazaki; Third Runner-up was Miss Serbia & Montenegro Sanja Papic; and Second Runner-up was Miss South Africa Cindy Nell. With those three awakened from this fantasy, looks of wonderment swept over the faces of the two who remained, at least for an extended moment, still in the dream: Miss Venezuela Mariangel Ruiz Torrealba and Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega. They clasped hands and waited expectantly for the next-to-last name called -- that of the First Runner-up. It was Miss Venezuela!
At that moment, that look-- the kind that only someone who has just been named the 52nd Miss Universe can have -- lit up the beautiful face of the 6-foot-1-inch, 18-year-old Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega. As the Miss Universe crown was placed atop her head, Amelia fought back tears and let the world see her strength, gratitude, and pure joy. Thus begins the fulfillment of many a young woman's fantasies. Amelia Vega's victory is the latest proof that a little girl's fairy tale can become a reality, if one works hard, has persistence, and continues to believe.
Category Winner Country
Photogenic Carla Tricoli Puerto Rico
Congeniality Kai Davis Antigua & Barbuda
Costume Amelia Vega Dominican Republic
All photos courtesy of Miss Universe L.P., LLLP

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