Behind all the hugs and smiles, the 80 Miss Universe contestants are engaged in a fierce competition. But two contestants with perhaps the greatest reason for hostilities have become fast friends.
Miss Kosovo and Miss Serbia, representing one of the world's most ethnically torn regions, seem a little bit weary of people asking whether they get along.
"We are friends, we go everywhere together," said Bojana Boric, this year's Miss Serbia. "We are the girls who want to talk with each other."
The 2008 Miss Universe pageant, co-hosted by Jerry Springer and Melanie Brown, will be broadcast live by NBC (9 p.m. EDT Sunday) to millions of viewers across the globe from Nha Trang, Vietnam. The seaside city in central Vietnam is plastered with posters of last year's Miss Universe, Riyo Mori of Japan.
Among the 80 women hoping to seize Mori's crown will be Boric and Zana Krasniki of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February. The move has divided nations around the world, with the U.S. among dozens of countries supporting Kosovo, but others arguing that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia.
Vietnam is among those nations that hasn't recognized Kosovo, and the Vietnamese compere at a recent Miss Universe event introduced Krasniki as "Miss Kosovo-Serbia."
"I'm so proud to represent Kosovo, the newest country in the world," Krasniki said.
This year's contestants span a wide range of experiences and aspirations.
Miss Albania was a professional basketball player. Miss Argentina says she has paranormal experiences. Miss Antigua & Barbuda is fascinated by snakes.
Miss Venezuela has been kidnapped and Miss Angola was in a plane crash while trying to escape a conflict during her country's civil war.
The shortest contestant in this year's show is Miss El Salvador, a petite 5-foot-3. The tallest are Miss Jamaica, Miss Mexico and Miss Peru, who measure 6-feet.
Plastic surgery is not forbidden. In fact, Miss Brazil aspires to become a plastic surgeon someday.
All the girls will be hoping to avoid the calamity that befell Miss USA during last year's contest, when she fell down during the evening gown segment and became an unintended star on You Tube, where the video was played over and over again.
"Anything can happen on live television," said Phil Gurin, the executive producer of this year's show, which is owned jointly by NBC and New York magnate and television star Donald Trump.
Miss USA, Crystle Stewart of Texas, is confident she won't meet the same fate as her predecessor.
"All I can offer to the world and to America is to do my best," said Stewart, who is writing a motivational book called Waiting To Win. "Nerves don't play a part in this," she said.
The show will be co-hosted by British pop singer Mel B, known as "Scary Spice" during her days with the Spice Girls. She will be joined by American television personality Jerry Springer, host of "America's Got Talent" and a long-running tabloid talk show that often climaxes with angry guests cussing and brawling with one another.
Springer's talk show was once named the worst show in history by TV Guide magazine.
"I'm honored," Springer said during an interview on the sidelines of a weekend pageant rehearsal. "I was worried that we would be second worst and nobody would remember us."
Springer said he wasn't sure why he was chosen to host Miss Universe, the sort of job traditionally filled by wholesome figures like Donnie and Marie Osmond.
"Someone must have been drinking," Springer quipped. "When they called and asked if I wanted to do it, I said, "Duh! Of course! They picked me to remind all these beautiful people of what they're going to look like in 50 years."