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At Miss Universe 2004...
The Aussie Rules

Jennifer Hawkins, the girl from down under, comes out on top at the 53rd edition of this world-class competition.

Panecillo and Plaza Grande.

QUITO, ECUADOR - Here they were, 80 of the world's most sophisticated, attention-getting women, jetting in from around the globe to "the center of the world." That was the storyline the South American country of Ecuador promoted, based on its geographic position smack dab on the planet's equator separating the northern and southern hemispheres. Although few here would argue with the fact that this small South American country goes largely unnoticed on today's tumultuous world stage, for Ecuador, becoming the sponsoring country of the 52nd edition of the Miss Universe Pageant — the world's premier beauty showcase — proved to be a grand, pleasing, and (thankfully) out-of-the-ordinary diversion from a world facing the daily threats of terrorism.

Gloria Estefan

Ecuador and the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) certainly made for a positive, feel-good partnership, and allowed pageant co-owners MUO and NBC to serve up a major dose of South American and Hispanic culture and hospitality in the live June 1st finals presentation. The show's soundtrack alone, comprising mostly Latin beats, delivered enough energy to light up half of Quito, as the rhythm drove the action during many of the show's segments in the course of the two-hour finals. Also on hand was pop star Gloria Estefan, with a newly released CD out, who appeared twice on-stage as a celebrity entertainer, singing both a medley of her hits and one cut from the new album.
All that pageantry was well appreciated... and yet, the award for "the most-valued sites to behold" on this night nonetheless would have to be reserved for the 2004 Miss Universe Pageant delegates themselves. In the weeks leading up to the telecast, all of Ecuador rolled out the red carpet for the lovely women — "the 80 wonders of the world" — who had already been declared winners back home in the nations vying for the Miss Universe 2004 title. Now, all that was left was to determine which one of these crowd-pleasers would conquer the greatest number of competition categories, take the title by the reigns, and handle the responsibilities of the premier world pageant title.

Miss Photogenic: Miss Puerto Rico Alba Giselle Reyes Santos

Given the daunting task of paring down 80 contestants to 15, then to 10, then 5, and finally to a single young winner were "the gatekeepers of the crown," a panel of celebrity judges comprised of actress Bo Derek, The Apprentice's Bill Rancic, NBC's newly anointed domestic doyenne Katie Pritz, Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam, Trump Model Management President Jon Tutollo, Proctor & Gamble Cosmetics VP Anne Martin, tennis pro Monique Menniken, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Petra Nemcova, Ecuador's speed walking Olympic-gold-medal winner Jefferson Perez, and record producer Emilio Estefan.
It would then come time to reveal the results of the preliminaries, wherein a different set of judges delivered Evening Gown, Swimsuit, and Interview scores used to eliminate 65 women from contention. After a procession of all contestants in colorful asymmetric dresses with ruffled, bias-cut skirts, co-hosts Daisy Fuentes and Billy Bush called out the countries of the women who would advance toward the title of Miss Universe: Puerto Rico, Norway, Trinidad & Tobago, Ecuador, India, Australia, Angola, Jamaica, Colombia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Chile, USA, Paraguay, and Mexico.

Best National Costume: Miss Panama Jessica Rodriguez

Miss Congeniality: Miss Italy Laia Manetti

Following interviews that showcased the personal views of several delegates, and with anticipation bubbling up from the convention center audience of nearly 8,000, word went out: "Come on down for Evening Gown!" This round provided the judges with a full measure of each woman's confidence, elegance, and sophisticated sense of style, while also proving that, Miss Universe candidates (ranging from 5 ft. 7 in. to 6 ft. tall) are a fashion designer's dream.
After judges evaluated the Evening Gown presentations, Billy and Daisy were back to introduce the lucky Top 10, who were the candidates representing Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, USA, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Paraguay, Ecuador, Australia, India, and Colombia. Providing everyone watching with a chance to become better familiar with each Top 10 semifinalist, Miss Universe producer Phil Gurin and MUO President Paula Shugart scheduled pre-taped profiles that would reveal inside tidbits on each woman's personality and lifestyle. We learned, for instance, that horse-lover Miss Trinidad & Tobago believed that "You can't win unless you kick up some dirt," Miss Australia thought of herself as a vivacious beach-lover, Miss Paraguay loved to skydive, and Miss India revered her close family ties.
Back live for the next competition category, the Top 10 would raise a perennial rhetorical question: What would a beauty pageant be without Swimsuit competition? As this Miss Universe Swimsuit segment once again demonstrated, reality TV doesn't get much more effective that this at generating wholesome TV heat, with these not-to-be-missed physical-fitness role models promenading in high heels and knockout bikini swimsuit styles. Case closed.
With the two hours of air time winding down, award announcements were quickly followed by a Top 5 list.
     • Best National Costume: Miss Panama Jessica Rodriguez
     • Miss Congeniality: Miss Italy Laia Manetti
     • Miss Photogenic: Miss Puerto Rico Alba Giselle Reyes Santos
     • Top 5: Miss Paraguay Yanina Gonzalez,
        Miss USA Shandi Finnessey,
        Miss Trinidad & Tobago Danielle A. Jones,
        Miss Puerto Rico Alba Giselle Reyes Santos, and
        Miss Australia Jennifer Hawkins.

Susana Rivadeneira, Miss Ecuador Universe 2004; Tanushree Dutta, Miss India Universe 2004; Catherine Daza Manchola, Miss Colombia Universe 2004; Jennifer Hawkins, Miss Australia Universe 2004; and Yanina Gonzalez, Miss Paraguay Universe 2004, compete in an evening gown of their choice.

With Miss Costa Rica Nancy Soto, Miss Jamaica Christine Straw, Miss Ecuador Susana Rivadeneira, Miss India Tanushree Dutta, and Miss Colombia Catherine Daza Manchola leaving the spotlight, and with excitement around the world rising higher than Ecuador's Andes snowcapped mountains, one final question from a fellow finalist or Amelia Vega and then a judges' inspection preceded their decision on the order of finish: 4th Runner-up, Miss Trinidad & Tobago Danielle A. Jones, 3rd Runner-up Miss Paraguay Yanina Gonzalez, and 2nd Runner-up Miss Puerto Rico Alba Giselle Reyes Santos smiled in accepting the results.
That left two survivors. Miss Australia Jennifer Hawkins, the 20-year-old blue-eyed beauty queen, clung to Miss USA 2004 Shandi Finnessey, as both women braced themselves for the fateful announcement at the conclusion of the live NBC telecast. As her name was called by co-host Billy Bush as First Runner-up, Shandi reacted with a warm hug for Jennifer, then Shandi joined the three other finalists stage left.

Ladies in waiting: Shandi Finnessey and Jennifer Hawkins await the judges' decision.

Jennifer Hawkins is crowned Miss Universe 2004 by Amelia Vega, Miss Universe 2003.

Going from "the Land Down Under" to the top of the world in pageantry, Australia's Jennifer Hawkins was now Miss Universe 2004, the pageant's 52nd winner in its history. Outgoing Miss Universe 2003 Amelia Vega of the Dominican Republic placed the 800-jewel, $250,000 crown on Jennifer's head, and then the new Miss Universe put her hand on her hip and walked along the runway as she greeted the cheering crowd with smiles and waves. Jennifer paused several times to touch the crown, as if to reassure herself that every girl's dream, of serving an entire year as the universal symbol of female beauty, had indeed become her very own new reality.

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