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Miss Universe Pageant Defends Credibility Amid Criticism Show is Degrading, Unprofessional

This year's Miss Universe pageant is missing one of its most noted contestants: Miss Sweden, a statuesque blonde whose country is one of the few to win the crown three times.

Isabel Lestapier Winqvist, 20, has dropped out because Swedes say the Miss Universe competition, airing live Monday night from Mexico City's National Auditorium, is degrading to women and weighed down by scandals.

"We're taking a big beating by being linked to it," said Panos Papadopoulos, the organizer of the Miss Sweden contest, which scrapped its swimsuit competition and allowed women to apply for the position like any other job after heavy criticism from feminists.

Participants in the pageant also are breaking the mold.

Miss Jamaica, 25-year-old Zahra Redwood, is the contest's first Rastafarian and the first to appear in dreadlocks. She wants judges to see her as a "Rastafarian promoting the message of peace, love and unity throughout mankind."

Miss Tanzania, Flaviana Matata, an electrical technician whose country is participating for the first time, is also challenging stereotypes of beauty with her shaved head. "I never let anyone define me neither by hair nor clothing as I believe God made me perfect as a pure, natural African woman," she said.

Donald Trump, who now co-owns the contest with NBC, says the Miss Universe Organization has redefined beauty pageants.

"With each passing year our ratings continue to get better because of the beautiful and intelligent women who participate in our competitions," he declared.

But the Miss Universe competition is still judged solely on an interview and swimsuit and evening gown competitions, continuing a tradition that began with a spat over a swimsuit more than 50 years ago. California's Pacific Mills clothing company launched the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants after the 1951 Miss America, Yolande Betbeze, refused to pose in its swimsuit.

Miss Universe is considered a wilder rival to Miss America, which offers scholarships and values its talent contest more than its swimsuit competition. Other than Vanessa Williams, who stepped down in 1984 after Penthouse published her nude photographs, Miss America has had relatively few scandals. But risque photos and public drunkenness have increasingly landed Miss USA and Miss Universe contestants in the tabloids.

Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees was dethroned from this year's competition after her racy pictures emerged on the Web. Miss New Jersey USA Ashley Harder resigned when she got pregnant. And before Tara Conner handed her crown to the latest Miss USA, Tennessee journalism graduate Rachel Smith, the telecast opened with a string of news clips about Conner entering rehab for boozing at New York clubs.

Even the outfits in this year's contest have raised eyebrows.

Miss Mexico Rosa Maria Ojeda was forced to change her gown to a fruit-and-vegetables motif after Mexicans were outraged by the bullet-studded belt and images of hanging bodies and firing squads in her skirt's original design, which referred to the bloody Cristero war, a Roman Catholic rebellion in the 1920s. Miss Jamaica donned a Bob Marley T-shirt to honor her country's culture, while Miss Ecuador, Lugina Cabezas, appeared holding a fake, bloodstained banderilla, a colorful barbed stick stuck in the back of bulls during bullfighting, outraging animal rights groups.

Organizers say the Miss Universe contest carefully selects women who are intelligent, well-mannered and cultured, and dispute the notion that beauty queens are clueless about international issues. The pageant's Web site notes that Miss Universe 2000, Mpule Kwelagobe, helped build a 400-bed pediatric AIDS hospital and orphanage in her native Botswana, while Miss Universe 1981 Irene Saez of Venezuela went on to become mayor of a municipality and later ran as president, losing to President Hugo Chavez in 1998.

"We do change with the times," said Paula M. Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization. "It really opens doors for people. It's nice for us to pick somebody who is not known, give them a shot and change their life forever."

Sweden is a three-time Miss Universe winner, behind only the United States, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. But Papadopoulos, owner of the Panos Emporio brand swimsuits, which in 2004 bought the rights to the Miss Sweden contest, said Trump's pageant doesn't fit with Miss Sweden's new, more professional image.

"The modernization of the international competition has been significantly slower than the Swedish contest, although we see signs of change on the horizon," Papadopoulos said.

Miss Universe organizers took it in stride. "We will miss you," Papadopoulos said they told him by e-mail, "and we will miss Miss Sweden."