ORDOS, China (AFP) – Global beauty queens dressed in shimmering ball gowns competed Saturday for the coveted tile of Miss World in the unlikely setting of a Chinese mining city on the edge of the Gobi desert.
A total of 116 contestants — the highest number ever — took to the stage after a dance by a troupe dressed as Mongolian warriors at the start of the contest, watched annually by about a billion people around the globe.
This year it takes place on the arid and sparsely populated steppes of Inner Mongolia, where Ordos, around 700 kilometres (440 miles) from the nearest beach, makes an unusual venue for the world’s biggest beauty pageant.
Reigning Miss World Ivian Sarcos of Venezuela will hand over her crown in the futuristic Dongsheng stadium, which is surrounded by swathes of empty or unfinished apartment blocks.
Contestants made last minute preparations to their hair and make-up before the contest started. The smell of perfume permeated the red carpeted area, where an excited Miss Nicaragua was seen in a red ball gown, her high-heels making thudding sounds on the carpet.
Besides the traditional swimsuits and evening gowns, participants were also scheduled to don outlandish costumes, with some dressed as belly dancers and one, Miss Fiji, set to appear in an owl get-up.
The beauty queens have been in China rehearsing for nearly a month, soaking up traditional Mongolian culture by churning yoghurt in a nomad’s yurt and donning local attire to climb a sand dune.
The city, which has a vast town square dedicated to the mighty Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan, has grown rich over the last 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 been unable to fill the vast tower blocks that have sprung up, earning it the title of China’s biggest ghost town.
Enthusiastic competitors seemed unfazed, expressing optimism that with the help of the pageant, the city could leave that reputation behind and take its place alongside other global centres of glitz and glamour.
“Ordos could be the next Dubai,” said Marielle Wilkie, representing the Caribbean nation of Barbados.
Albanian contestant Floriana Garo chimed in with her own bold prediction.
“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 vying for this year’s title include a Kazakh doctor and a Peruvian medical student, but the bookmakers are tipping Miss Mexico, 20-year-old Mariana Reynoso, for the crown.
Other leading contenders are thought to be Miss China and Miss Nepal.
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.
China has already hosted the competition five times, most recently in 2010 on the tropical southern island of Hainan.
In 2002, the pageant was moved from Nigeria to Britain after more than 200 people died in clashes sparked when a newspaper suggested the Prophet Mohammed would have chosen a wife from among the contestants had he been alive.