Sunday, December 08 2002 @ 01:16 AM MSK
LONDON (CP) - With beauty queen smiles firmly fixed in place, Miss World 2002 was crowned Saturday, just weeks after religious violence left more than 200 people dead and drove the pageant out of Nigeria.
Despite criticism from some who wanted the pageant cancelled, including London Mayor Ken Livingstone, organizers of the 52nd annual beauty contest never wavered in their determination to stage the event.
And while the violence that marred the pageant in Nigeria was acknowledged, Saturday's show wasn't about mourning the dead.
"Our thoughts go out to the people who have suffered and we hope that Nigeria recovers quickly," said Sean Kanan, an American soap actor who co-hosted the television show broadcast to more than 140 countries.
The pageant was won by Azra Akin, 21, of Turkey. Miss Colombia, Natalia Peralta, was the runner-up while Miss Peru, Marina Mora Montero, took third place.
Miss Canada, Lynsey Bennett, failed to make the first cut down to 20 semi-finalists based on a judging system that combined Internet voting with scores from a panel of judges.
Seen as an anachronism by its critics, the show at Alexandra Palace - a Victorian era exhibition and recreation centre in north London - opened with the pounding beat of the chorus "Boom, boom, come and move your body to the beat" as the 92 contestants strutted in evening gowns around a figure-eight-shaped stage.
The program is no longer broadcast in many western countries, including Britain and Canada, but it still finds an audience in Asia and Africa.
In Nigeria, people gathered around televisions in living rooms, outdoor markets, bus stations and airports to watch the show, even in the northern city of Kaduna, where the worst rioting was witnessed last month.
Bennett was among the first to flee when more than 200 people died in the Muslim-Christian rioting after a local journalist suggested Mohammed, founder of Islam, would have approved of the pageant and might even have taken one of the women as a bride.
After deciding she wanted to re-enter the contest when she arrived home in Ottawa, the 22-year-old Carleton University student wasn't sure what kind of reception she would get on her return.
"I wasn't sure how the other participants would take it and when we talked to the organizers of Miss World they had said everyone every day was asking where I was and when was I going to come back because they missed me, because I didn't get to say goodbye," she said in an interview after the pageant.
The pageant's first controversy this year arose when a number of contestants withdrew over a Nigerian Islamic court's decision to stone a woman to death for committing adultery. The Nigerian government has said it will not allow the sentence against Amina Lawal to be carried out, noting that it can overturn Islamic, or sharia, law.
Bennett said she had no regrets about how she handled the situation in Nigeria, where she had hoped to raise awareness about Lawal's case.
"I left Nigeria because I went down there for the competition to help Amina Lawal, I was helping one life, I didn't go down there to have over 200 of them killed," said Bennett, who studies geography and French at university.
"I mean, the riots broke out and this was supposed to be a peaceful time, it was Ramadan, and so I thought you know what, this isn't why I came, and so I decided to go home.
"I didn't boycott the pageant. I boycotted the situation that was occurring in Nigeria."
Organizer Julia Morley has remained unbowed in her decision to push on with the show, pointing to the more than $360 million Cdn that has been raised for charity by the organization she heads in dismissing those who believe the pageant has been tinged with blood.
"We had nothing to do with the violence, so it is quite ludicrous to suggest we are being insensitive by continuing with the competition," she said.
Miss World, founded by Morley's late husband Eric in 1951, is no stranger to controversy and violence.
In 1970, feminists flour-bombed the show hosted by comedian Bob Hope at the Royal Albert Hall in London. And in 1996, police in Bangalore, India, fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters throwing rocks.
Morley also defended the women who entered the contest, noting the aspiring lawyers and the lone doctor, Miss Scotland, in their ranks. The winner of the pageant received a cheque for the equivalent of about $247,000.
Miss World contestants no longer parade in swim wear as part of the program as they remained in evening gowns for the entire two-hour show, a distinct change from the contest's past.
The show may have been hurriedly moved to London, but all of the video and photographs taken in Nigeria, including pictures of contestants in bikinis, was used on two giant TV screens flanking the stage.
Bennett, dressed in a crimson evening dress, said after all that's happened in the last month, she's still glad she entered the contest.
"I think it's been a good experience, a very unique one, I can say that," she added. "And I'll definitely never forget it, that's for sure."