Miss China won the coveted title of Miss World on Saturday, triumphing on home soil during a glitzy final held in a mining city on the edge of the Gobi desert.
The mostly Chinese audience erupted in cheers, and fireworks lit up the sky, when it was announced that the home candidate, Yu Wenxia, had been awarded the coveted title.
“When I was young I felt very lucky because so many people helped me, and I hope in the future I can help more children to feel lucky,” Yu, a 23-year-old aspiring music teacher said when asked why she should be crowned.
Yu, who became China’s second Miss World winner, appeared on stage in a dazzling array of ballgowns during the two-hour final and serenaded the audience with a piercing rendition of a popular Chinese song.
Last year’s Miss World, Ivian Sarcos of Venezuela, handed over her crown to Yu, who wore a sparkling blue dress, in the futuristic Dongsheng stadium in the northeastern city of Ordos.
Miss Mexico, Mariana Reynoso, had been the bookmakers’ favourite for the title, but failed to make the last seven candidates despite a strong showing in the early rounds of the pageant. Miss Wales, Sophie Moulds, came in second, while Miss Australia, Jessica Kahawaty, finished third.
The final, watched by a worldwide TV audience of an estimated one billion viewers, included a nod to the culture of Inner Mongolia, with a performance by a group of Mongolian musicians playing the erhu, a traditional two-stringed instrument.
Ordos, which sits around 700 kilometres (440 miles) from the nearest beach, was an unlikely setting for the world’s biggest beauty pageant.
The city has grown rich over the past decade on the back of a coal mining boom that has transformed it from a sandstorm-afflicted backwater into one of the wealthiest places in China.
The boom triggered a frenzy of building in the city, but the local government has struggled to fill the vast tower blocks that sprung up, earning it the title of China’s biggest ghost town.
However, enthusiastic competitors seemed unfazed by the locale, expressing optimism that with the help of the pageant, the city could leave its reputation behind and take its place alongside other global centres of glitz and glamour.
“Ordos could be the next Dubai,” Marielle Wilkie, representing the Caribbean nation of Barbados, confidently predicted.
Albanian contestant Floriana Garo chimed in with her own bold statement.
“In ten years, this city will be booming,” she said.
Architecture in Ordos, where the city museum is shaped like an undulating blob, is “world class,” added Markysa O’Loughlin, representing St. Kitts and Nevis, also in the Caribbean.
Contestants churned yoghurt in a nomad’s yurt and donned local dress to climb sand dunes during their month-long stint in China. Video clips shown during the final showed the beauty queens posing in swimwear on desert sand dunes.
A total of 116 contestants — the highest ever number to take part — took to the stage during the final in a variety of stunning gowns.
A red ceremonial flag was passed over to representatives from the Southeast Asian resort island of Bali, hosts of the 2013 Miss World Final, during the ceremony.
While the popularity of the contest, first held in 1951, has waned in the West, continued interest in Asian countries ensures that the final rakes in a huge global television audience.
Sweden’s Kiki Hakansson was the first Miss World, while Oscar-winning US actress Halle Berry was a finalist in 1986 and Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai took the crown in 1994.
Venezuela has produced the most Miss Worlds, with six winners, while India and Britain claim five titles each.