The Miss Universe beauty contest has been held since 1952 (not to be confused with the similar Miss World). Founded by California clothing company Pacific Mills to showcase its Catalina swimwear brand, it became part of Kayser-Roth and then Gulf and Western Industries. In 1996 Donald Trump acquired ownership of the pageant, then being broadcast by CBS; in 2003 the television rights went to NBC.
Despite its historical rivalry with Miss World, the Miss Universe contest retains unparalleled prestige in many parts of the world, particularly Latin America.
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The process of electing Miss Universe in most cases is a long one. Most countries which want to participate must first hold contests in each city to elect a candidate to become the country's representative for Miss Universe. Then it must elect a candidate from among the women selected by each city. For example, in Finland, Miss Helsinki must compete against the women selected by the other Finnish cities. Once a country has selected a candidate she goes on to compete for the title of Miss Universe. The number of countries participating fluctuates each year due to interest as well as financial capabilities: the Miss Universe Organization charges a franchise fee to license a country for competition, which is individually determined for each nation. Generally, about 70–80 countries will participate, with new ones coming in and out each year. Different pageants can compete to hold the license for each country, especially when the previous organization has been revoked/expelled, as in the case of the major Miss Italy and Miss France competitions (although the traditional Miss France organization has returned as of 2004).
Among the most important national pageants in the world are the Miss Venezuela, Miss India, Miss Philippines, Miss USA, Miss Colombia, Miss Spain, and Miss Puerto Rico Universe contests, all of which command consistently high interest and television ratings in their respective countries. Organizations attempting to build themselves up to the level of these established contests include Nuestra Belleza Mexico (Miss Mexico), Miss Universe Japan, and the triumvirate of Miss Bolivia-Miss Paraguay-Miss Uruguay (all directed by Gloria de Limpias). Among the more recent arrivals in the pageant are China (2002), Albania (2002), Vietnam (2004), Georgia (2004), Ethiopia (2004), and Latvia (2005); there have also been resurgent efforts to revive strong national pageants in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the Caribbean, among other regions. There are continually efforts to expand the pageant, but the participation of some countries such as Indonesia and Algeria has proven difficult due to cultural barriers to the swimsuit competition, while others such as Mozambique, Armenia and Nepal have balked at sending representatives due to the cost. Only four countries have been present at every Miss Universe since it's inception in 1952 as of 2005; Canada, France, Germany, and the USA.
Such a national competition does not necessarily always occur, however. For example, in 2000 Australia abolished their competition as a relic of a bygone era. Since then, Australian delegates have been chosen by a modelling agency in time for the Miss Universe competition. Although such "castings" are not uncommon, they are generally discouraged by the Miss Universe Organization, which prefers national pageants that preserve the aura of respectability and competition required to reach the world finals. Despite the "casted" Australian delegate being chosen as Miss Universe in 2004, it is likely that Australia will return to organizing a national pageant.
According to the organisers, the Miss Universe contest isn't won just on looks. Women who aspire to become Miss Universe must be intelligent, well-mannered and cultured. Many times, a candidate has lost the contest because she did not have a good answer to a question during the contest's question and answer round.
The first winner in 1952 was Armi Kuusela from Finland, who married a wealthy Filipino businessman from the famous Hilario clan of Manila (The first Miss Asia, from Malaysia, and first Miss International, from Colombia, also married Filipinos!). Interestingly, the Miss Universe title was post-dated until 1958, which explains why in pictures Ms. Kuusela's sash reads "Miss Universe 1953."
Irene Sáez, Miss Universe 1981, ran for President of Venezuela in 1998, losing to Hugo Chávez. In 1992 she was elected mayor of Chacao. While mayor, she gained some notoriety by banning overly passionate kissing in public parks. In 1999 she became governor of Margarita Island.
Yet another Miss Universe, 2002's winner Oxana Fedorova of Russia, became the first Miss Universe who officially did not finish her reign, making first runner-up Justine Pasek of Panama the first Panamanian ever to hold the title.
The Miss Universe contest's central offices are in New York, and the contest is held in different cities each year. All the contests until 1972 were held within the United States. Miss Universe Organization, a partnership between NBC and Donald Trump, has run the contest since June 20, 2002; they also hold the U.S. broadcast rights. They also produce the Miss USA (the winner of which goes on to represent the U.S. in the Miss Universe pageant), and Miss Teen USA contests.