69th Miss Universe Initial Impressions: The Americas and the Caribbean

Only two nations from the previous edition are skipping this year: The island of St. Lucia and the US Virgin Islands. And how ironic for the latter, considering its proximity to Florida. With 29 delegates, it’s not just the most represented region. It’s also the most competitive group in this batch. So competitive, that even with the discontinuation of the Continental Format, there will still be a multitude of sacrificial lambs.

Here’s my assessment of Team Americas:

ARGENTINA – Alina Luz Akselrad. Osmel Sousa’s debut as national director for this country wasn’t as fruitful as we would have hoped, but, hey, Mariana Valera did earn her due in MGI. His second Argentine protégé evokes memories the Venezuelan queens he trained and produced during his 90s heyday. With the continental limit no longer a hindrance, there might just be room for her to advance. That, or some favorites might be sacrificed.

ARUBA – Helen Hernandez. The One Happy Island has yet to catch another break since Taryn Mansell’s 1st Runner-Up finish 25 years ago. This business administration student registers well but is not expected to end that drought.

BAHAMAS – Shauntae Miller. This sassy fur-mom exudes more sass and style than most recent candidates from her archipelago, and, fun fact alert: the host city’s closer to her island of residence than the host candidate’s hometown. This may not be the year of the Bahamian Breakthrough, though…

BARBADOS – Hillary-Ann Williams. …And probably not the year of the Barbadian Breakthrough either. Although, props for this lady’s upbeat demeanor and starting a digital marketing firm during the pandemic. Pivoting really is the name of the game these days.

BELIZE – Iris Salguero. Her experiences in Miss World 2016 and Miss Earth 2017 served her well and she looks more competitive than ever. She’ll also probably ace interview, based on her Intelligence Round citation in the latter. But just like in her previous stints, she’s far from being in contention.  

BOLIVA – Lenka Nemer. She’s of Lebanese lineage, which explains her arresting stare. And, really, with only three placements spread far apart, this country could use the buzz more often. Keep an eye on this one. Granted the selection committee chooses to deviate from the usual South American girls, then she should add to that humble tally.

BRAZIL – Julia Gama. Among this roster, she was the first to set foot on the global stage, having made Top 11 in Miss World 2014. Couple that with her nation’s ongoing streak and that theoretically spells instant placement. Her transformation is impeccable. But with the increased number of competitive Latinas this year, she shouldn’t rest on her laurels.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS – Shabree Frett. It’s nice to see Nature’s Little Secret finally trying, and they ended last decade on a high note after scoring their first ever pageant placement in Miss World 2019. Here, however, the status quo might remain, though this therapist does have an endearing personality.

CANADA – Nova Stevens. With her ebony complexion and passion for human rights, she was sent to tower over the rest, both in stature and in spirit. Her magnificence is something this contest has never seen. She’s a South Sudanese born in Kenya, then sent to Vancouver as her parents remained in Ethiopia. Whether or not you’ve acquired the partiality for her brand of looks, you’ll still be compelled to listen to her harrowing journey. After all, the whole point of this platform is to introduce us all to a Universe that’s abundant in different types of beauty, stories, and sensibilities. It’s a platform where jingoism and racism shouldn’t prevail. And after that unfortunate episode that presented a new low for local fandom, her prospects are now higher than ever.

CAYMAN ISLANDS – Mariah Tibbetts. She’s as effervescent as an Island Girl can get, replete with touching story of how her older sister beat brain cancer. Her disadvantage, though, is that she’s alphabetically sandwiched by frontrunners.  

CHILE – Daniela Nicolás. With a look that channels classic Hollywood glam, she can arguably be touted as her country’s most gorgeous contestant yet – rivalling even that of their sole titleholder, Cecilia Bolocco. It remains to be seen how this actress will fare compared to her neighbors, but that face certainly needs telecast airtime.

COLOMBIA – Laura Victoria Olascuaga. Just like the Philippines, this country underwent a franchise shift last year, leaving many of us to wonder if Maria Fernanda Artizabal will ever bring her pasarela to the global stage at all. This journalist does follow the tradition of ferocious catwalk divas and onstage dynamos from her country. No doubt, she’ll keep slaying. It’s her status as Latina frontrunner that’s in dispute.

COSTA RICA – Ivonne Cerdas. The fact that her country is slated to host the next edition might work on her favor. And to be honest, she arguably looks better than the some of the Latina superpowers competing this year. A SotoCarvajal* shocker wouldn’t be far-fetched.

*- Their 2004 and 2018 Top 10 placers sure came out of nowhere.

CURAÇAO – Chantal Wiertz. Not that we should call the circumstances opportune by any measure, but this 2019 alumna earned her right to compete this year by appointment due to the cancellation of her national pageant. With her gorgeous European features and unmistakably Dutch Antillean accent, she truly is her island personified. She’s also bound to have a poignant story to tell as she was diagnosed with autism.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – Kimberly Jiménez. Born to a Puerto Rican father and Dominican mother, this model-actress exudes the best of both worlds. In some angles, she even comes across as a mix of two former queens from both lineages: Puerto Rican Miss Universe 2006 Zuleyka Rivera and Dominican Republic’s 2009 1st Runner-Up Ada Aimee de la Cruz. How can they possibly fit all these worthy Latinas in?

ECUADOR – Leyla Espinoza Calvache. It’s sad when you think about how parsimonious this pageant can get towards this country, considering that they even hosted once before. Case in point: In the previous decade, there were at least three worthy candidates in the same league as Constanza Baez* who still missed the cut. This international business student appears to fall into that category, as she’s currently overshadowed.

*- 2nd Runner-Up in 2013. The country’s best placement here to date.

EL SALVADOR – Vanessa Velásquez. To be tapped for a special photoshoot alongside Philippines and Colombia means sponsor Olivia Quido saw something in her. As a result, this model-influencer’s prospects dramatically soared and is now considered another Latina to watch.

HAITI – Eden Berandoive. Here’s an underrated gem. And remember: her 2016 compatriot Racquel Pellisier was also considered an underrated gem before the finale and look how far she reached.We never know these days.

HONDURAS – Cecilia Rossell. This country last placed in 1955. That makes its placement drought three years younger than this 69-year-old pageant. A reversal of fortune isn’t foreseen yet, but this girl does have fierceness to spare.

JAMAICA – Miqueal-Symone Williams. When this international model was chosen as her island’s representative, fans were mystified and were quick to tag her as the one who might finally win its first Miss Universe crown. And why not – considering that they came close thrice in the past decade. She’s the Caribbean’s answer to Agbani Darego, the first Nigerian to pass muster in Miss Universe and then win Miss World. She may have slipped out of contention a bit, but chances are, she’ll still be up there.

MEXICO – Andrea Meza. Historically, a Miss World Top 3 placer was always doomed to flub her next pageant. Just Google the likes of Claire Smith, Ingrid Rivera, Michelle Khan, Siobhan McClafferty, and  Zizi Lee to find out more. So, for 2017’s 1st Runner-Up to even think of entering her local pageant, it was already a tremendous gamble. Well, so far, the anxieties are kept at bay, and her strategy of winning fans from other nationalities seems to be working (i.e. donning a terno-inspired dress in a December appearance). Certainly, there are many more tricks in that playbook. And perhaps, it’s time to break the curse.

NICARAGUA – Ana Marcelo. While this photogenic lady enjoyed early buzz, the hype shifted towards weightier sashes as months progressed. One can only hope that this won’t quell her fighting chances completely, because she is worthy caliber.

PANAMA – Carmen Jaramillo. Followers of Miss Earth will remember her as the 2015* frontrunner who was mysteriously shut out of that year’s Top 16. It’s lovely to see that competitive spirit intact six years later. But with a slew of other Latinas receiving more mileage, whether by virtue of looks or by sash, vindication is far from guaranteed.

*- AKA the year Angelia Ong scored a back-to-back Miss Earth victory for the Philippines

PARAGUAY – Vanessa Castro Guillén. There were rumors that Miss Supranational 2015 Stefania Stegman was originally slated to represent this country, but some plot twist paved the way for this architect to be sent instead. Well, she definitely looks more polished than when she was announced as representative, but she’s the perceived longshot among the South American contingent.

PERU – Janick Maceta Del Castillo. Fans were still raving over her Miss Supranational 2019 3rd Runner-Up placement when she was chosen to compete here. And, perhaps, striking while the iron is hot was a brilliant strategy. She arrived in Florida with that competitive fire still ablaze and, unsurprisingly, continues to stand out among what could easily be the most competitive Latina group in years. Replicating or even exceeding her previous finish might be a struggle this time around, but she’s still expected to slay.

PUERTO RICO – Estafanía Soto. Hers is a timeless beauty, which takes us back to the early-to-mid 2000s when this island was either a Top Five mainstay or part of the four-year Photogenic streak. (And while we’re at the topic of throwbacks, Happy 20th Anniversary, Denise Quiñones!) Point being: If this lady competed back then, she’d reign supreme. Not that she can’t go far now. After all, her island’s enjoying a recent resurgence in this contest. But, again, the heightened level of competition leaves no room for guarantees.

URUGUAY – Lola de los Santos. The second Uruguayan to benefit from the Osmel Touch has an angelic face and is proudly a member of the LGBTQ community. On paper, it sounds like a winning formula in a contest slowly opening itself to the spectrum. Realistically though, she’ll need more than those noteworthy qualities to survive the impending Latin onslaught.

USA – Asya Branch. How nice for a Mississippi girl to finally see action here. Her low-key arrival where she was seen wearing flip-flops and carrying a dowdy duffel bag had fans talking, that’s for sure. But polarizing as that scene was, it did paint a portrait of her as a simple, down-to-earth queen who’d rather enjoy mingling with her newfound global sisters than obsess over making that moment IG-worthy. And besides. She’s Miss USA.

VENEZUELA – Mariángel Villasmil. It’s strange not mentioning this country as a top-of-mind favorite. To quote two-time correspondent Carson Kressley, “It’s like having the Oscars without Meryl Streep”. But this chef does feel like a slow burn, intensifying day by day, and reminding us of the unrelenting goliath that is her pageant-obsessed nation. She’ll unleash that fire when it counts. And, once she does, it will be hard to extinguish.

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