71st Miss Universe Candidate Round-Up: Asia and Africa

Over the last decade, half of the royal roster had been from this group, with Pinays and South Africans tag-teaming in short intervals. Last year also marked India‘s return to supremacy in first-time host Israel, which curiously opted to skip this edition, along with Kenya and Morocco. Another country almost dropped out, but that delegate arrived just before the preliminaries. That keeps the group’s head count at 28, including this year’s lone debutante and an island country returning after its 1995 debut. Even if most of the heavy favorites are from another region, expect this group to maintain its clout in years to come, given that the contest is now Thai-owned.

ANGOLA – Swelia Da Silva Antonio. As a lifelong Dutch immigrant, she pulled a sensational Top 12 finish in Miss Supranational 2021. Now, she’s here representing her land of birth. Bold move for this accomplished crossover to herald this country’s comeback, but truth be told, she’s now on tougher territory. Her best shot now will be to pull an upset. Surely, Leila Lopes taught her some strategies.  

AUSTRALIA – Monique Riley. Her December IG post, where she showcased her naturally toned body, received moderate fanfare. Yet, she hardly received enough buzz since arriving in New Orleans. Nevertheless, consider this aspiring actress a potential surprise.  

BAHRAIN – Evlin Khalifa. One year later, the thought of this country dabbling in pageantry still stumps fans. Yet here they are, strongly represented once again by this bewitching model. Of course, she covered up in Preliminary Swimsuit, but that double twirl conjured wild applause. Plus, that hooded gown was truly entrancing. Much as there are other heavy favorites, we might just witness a new era usher in. That MUBA fashion shoot also might be telling.   

BHUTAN – Tashi Choden. For a staunchly conservative country to debut is one thing, but to send an out-and-proud lesbian model to do the job is a landmark breakthrough. It’s a story worth highlighting on the telecast and certainly one for pageant history books. Whether or not that will translate into a placement, though, remains the question. But to be fair, she does impress.

CAMBODIA – Manita Hang. It’s not that this country hasn’t sent worthy contenders in their short run so far; 2020’s Sarita Reth sure seemed like a close shot. But if this Khmer-French Megan Young clone were any indication, they want it more than ever. This pre-arrival favorite certainly does not disappoint. Above average preliminary performance aside, the time may already be ripe.

CAMEROON – Monalisa Mouketey. It’s refreshing to see this country field a first timer after two years of sending veterans. Much as this youth advocate looks like a more voluptuous Rihanna, she won’t likely be the African-of-choice.  

CHINA – Sichen Jiang. If fighting spirit were a category, this investment banking analyst would be the runaway winner. Many wouldn’t have guessed, but a delay in her visa application process actually prevented her from leaving her homeland up until this week, thus almost casting doubts on her participation altogether. Lo and behold, much to the surprise of fans expecting to see Colombia after Chile in preliminaries, she was there – looking unfazed, well-prepared, and in buoyant spirits. Much as she probably won’t surpass Zhuo Ling’s 20-year-old landmark feat, she’s this year’s Perseverance Queen.

EQUATORIAL GUINEA – Alba Isabel Obama Moliko. This law student has striking presence and unique style, but she stands to replicate her Miss Supranational 2019 finish. 

GHANA – Engracia Afua Mofuman. As the first African selected to compete, this educator made a strong early impression. The potential’s still there, but the momentum might have been seized by another bald beauty.   

INDIA – Divita Rai. After reclaiming supremacy in just seven months last year, this country’s sworn to maintain that stronghold. It’s somewhat a nail-biter, though, that this architect isn’t an absolute standout like Adline and Harnaaz. While she performed commendably in preliminaries, sustaining the streak might not be as assured.

INDONESIA – Laksmi De Neefe Suardana. It’s noteworthy to see this country back with their first Balinese representative, but their hiatus might have given other Asians the upper hand. Much as this literacy advocate made a solid impression in evening gown, a return placement might not be easy.

JAPAN – Marybelen Sakamoto. Clearly, the Land of the Rising Sun likes playing the diversity card lately, because now we have this half-Peruvian who looks like a glammed up, younger version of Sandra Oh. She’s overshadowed, but we can always count on the Japanese to bring something different, style-wise. On that department, she delivered.  

KOREA – Hanna Kim. In between their 2017 and 2022 victories in other pageants, this country went through a noticeable dry spell. This linguist may not be expected to maintain the resurgence started by the newly crowned Miss Earth, Mina Sue Choi, but she’s a quality contender.

KYRGYZSTAN – Altynai Botoyarova. This design student is not only heralding her country’s return after a three-year absence. She’s also taking one for the Central Asian Team. Every small win counts in this arena, and this underrated bet has two. But somebody please tell Harnaaz that she’s not Miss Kazakhstan.

LAOS – Payengxa Lor. It’s a thrill to see a Hmong woman compete for the first time, and the fact it inspired her evening gown makes it even more ground-breaking. Much as the usual ASEAN suspects will make it tough, this English teacher sure came well-prepared.   

LEBANON – Yasmina Zaytoun. Of all the countries that won this tilt at least once, it’s the Land of the Cedars that’s endured the longest drought. Ending the 49-year dry spell might still be a stretch, but this journalism student does have standout qualities. Also, it’s nice to know Rima Fakih is back at work. 

MALAYSIA – Lesley Cheam Wei Yeng. Hard to believe that her national level victory was fervidly disputed by fans, because she does have the qualities to impress. Sadly, there’s still that general inkling that it will be another year out for this country. Unless, of course, the selection process goes the same miraculous route as last year.

MAURITIUS – Alexandrine Belle-Etoille. Even before her Miss Supranational Top 12 finish last July, this Fine Arts graduate was already assigned to this contest. Knowing this country’s track record here, however, it’s a colossal risk. Consider what happened to former Miss World placer Anne Murielle Ravena last year.  

MYANMAR – Zar Li Moe. One can only imagine the lengths this aspiring entrepreneur took through just to make it to New Orleans. She’s not as favored as her predecessor, but we can at least celebrate her strong performance.  

NAMIBIA – Cassia Sharpley. This medical practitioner is striking and elegant but not expected to avenge Chelsi Shikongo’s non-placement last year.

NEPAL – Sophiya Bhujel. Two editions later, Anshika Sharma’s exclusion still stings. And while this businesswoman is a step in the right direction again, she still stands to be overshadowed. Training in the Philippines worked wonders for her, though.

NIGERIA – Hannah Iribhogbe. Here’s the other African bald beauty in the mix. This model, who goes by the stage name “Montana Felix”, never ceased serving looks since setting foot in New Orleans. If she plays her cards right, they might as well place half her continent. Being born in Agbani Darego’syear might also be a good omen.

PHILIPPINES – Celeste Cortesi. Just to get it out of the way, yes, she’s still more Italian. But even with that perceived caveat, one thing stood clear in both her national pageant stints: it’s impossible not to choose her. Well, there’s comfort knowing that she’s lived in the country long enough to flesh out her inner Pinay. Now that she speaks with more confidence and heart, we’re assured that interview won’t hinder her the way it did in Miss Earth 2018. She’s more unstoppable than ever and that preliminary performance just summed up the Celestial Goddess she’s destined to be. Can it translate to a 5th Crown? It’s too early to call. Let’s just say it’s within striking distance.

SEYCHELLES – Gabriella Gonthier. One thing’s for sure, this London-educated business graduate can out-perform her 1995 predecessor, Maria Payet. Anything more than that, however, will be a stretch. Anyway, about time this island country came back.

SINGAPORE – Carissa Yap. We can rest easy knowing Nandita Banna finally ended this country’s drought last year, because this finance student’s not foreseen to follow suit.  

SOUTH AFRICA – Ndavi Nokeri. Whether sporting braids or letting those curls loose, this Investment Management graduate captivates – not that we expect less from the Rainbow Nation at this point. The fact that she’s also slated to join Miss World and Miss Supranational this year is also a curious gamble, given that she’s already slaying here.

THAILAND – Anna Sueangam-iam. The moment she beat former Miss World runner-up Nicolene Limsnukan in nationals, she became an instant early favorite. Perhaps, we can factor in her country seeking solace from last year’s streak-breaker. Well, her New Orleans appearances don’t underwhelm and the back story behind her pull-tab evening gown is indeed a heart-tugger. Vindication’s likely set in stone. We all know why.

VIETNAM – Nguyen Thi Ngoc Chau. It’s always safe to assume that the Fan Vote will put this country at an advantage – not of late, though, because that’s exactly how their recent Miss International bet lost her shot (to Northern Marianas!!!). But even without that lifeline, this Miss Supranational 2019 alumna certainly delivered, same way her two predecessors did. And with rumors abound that her country is bidding to host again, she’ll probably still be in the mix.

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