By Elizabeth Llorente, ,
Published January 03, 2017
The world's most high-profile beauty pageant is being hosted Sunday in a place that most Americans have never heard of – the small Florida city of Doral.
It may seem a puzzling departure from the more typical locations for the Miss Universe pageant, major cities such as Las Vegas, Moscow, and Mexico City.
But it is fitting for Doral, which is 12 miles from Miami, to be the pageant's official host.
Doral is home to one of the nation's highest concentrations of immigrants from Venezuela, where beauty pageants are a national obsession.
The reigning Miss Universe, Venezuelan Gabriela Isler, said having the pageant in Doral holds a particularly special symbolism for her.
We feel the pageant belongs to us. We feel a proprietary pride about having Miss Universe here.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place to finish my chapter as Miss Universe,” she told Fox News Latino. “I can find arepas and my Venezuelan food at any corner. I have all my people here. It just feels like home.”
She recently was at the "Celebration of Nations Parade and Festival," Isler said, "and to see all these Venezuelan flags, it's the perfect place to finish [the reign]."
Doral’s mayor, Luigi Boria, said that as a native of Venezuela, it was something of a dream-come-true to see his city chosen to host the Miss Universe pageant.
“In Venezuela, people grow up with the Miss Universe pageant,” Boria said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “We even nearly elected a Miss Universe winner as president of Venezuela once,” referring to Miss Universe 1981, Irene Saez.
“Venezuela is blessed with beautiful women,” Boria said matter-of-factly. “In my college classrooms, on the streets of Caracas, you’re surrounded by beauty. People appreciate the country’s beautiful women like they would a work of art, a beautiful flower, a breath-taking landscape.”
So the selection of Doral as the official host city feels like a homecoming for the pageant, Boria said.
“We feel the pageant belongs to us,” he said. “We feel a proprietary pride about having Miss Universe here.”
The Miss Universe pageant itself will be at Florida International University in greater Miami, but many of the preliminary events leading up to the big night will be in Doral, which was incorporated only in 2003.
Boria, who left Venezuela with his family in 1989, settling in the Doral area, recalls campaigning for mayor about three years ago with the vision of making the place where he raised his children a destination city.
“I always had the dream of Doral being on the global radar,” he said. “I have visions of Doral being a miniature Paris. It’s beautiful, it’s vibrant, there are many plans for growth – that is what we are able to showcase now, with the Miss Universe events here.”
Last year, Boria, who had dealt with Miss Universe pageant owner Donald Trump, wrote to the mogul about holding the Miss U.S.A. pageant in Doral.
"But Donald Trump, much to my shock, responded by saying 'Why not Miss Universe?'" recalled Boria. "That's much bigger, it has a huge worldwide audience. I said 'Of course!'"
"Our community is ecstatic," he said. "Not just Venezuelans, either, but also Colombians, we have a large Colombian community here."
But not everyone is applauding Doral's role in the Miss Universe pageant.
For one thing, Trump has been a controversial figure in Doral. Many residents complained when Trump's golf course included barriers of palm trees that blocked some people's scenic views.
Some residents and council members also objected to the $2.5 million spent on hosting the pageant.
“When are we going to stop focusing on the glitz and glamour and refocus on what matters: fixing traffic, improving our schools, roads, and parks for our residents?” Councilwoman Christi Fraga said, according to published reports. “Enough is enough.”
Boria acknowledges the controversies, but maintains that the pageant is bringing Doral many returns that will be long-lasting.
"In my humble opinion, as a businessman, it's a good investment that Doral is making," he said. "On Sunday, when the pageant takes place, we'll have a lot of publicity around the world. We'll be promoting the city as a place to visit, to live in, to retire to. We have a lot of money in sponsorships for this pageant, and the city has $60 million in reserves."