MEXICO CITY — This year's Miss Universe pageant is missing one of its most noted contestants: Miss Sweden, a statuesque blond 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 on NBC at 9 tonight 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.
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 pulled from this year's competition after racy pictures emerged on the Web.