Miss Universe's next competition:

Aids Awareness

Postcard: South Africa

July 24, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Staff

SOWETO, South Africa -- On a recent Sunday morning in South Africa's best-known township, the congregation at St. Paul's Anglican Church sat through whiffs of pungent incense fumes and a long-winded sermon about HIV / AIDS prevention. As the lengthy service neared its end, a tall, strikingly attractive woman entered the sanctuary and sat in the front row. Curious eyes set upon her.

Then priest Timothy Mncube asked Natalie Glebova, better known as Miss Universe, to say a few words. As she stood and approached the pulpit, surprise and delight spread like wildfire.

"Miss Universe in Soweto!" exclaimed parishioners over thunderous applause.

Little girls, giddy with disbelief, huddled to the front of the church to get a better glimpse of the Russian-born beauty now residing in Canada. With a solid white suit, flowing brown hair, high heels, and a smile that highlighted her soft, grayish-blue eyes, she all but transformed the pulpit area into a supermodel's runway.

Glebova, 23, had chosen South Africa as her first official tour stop since being crowned in Thailand in May, in part to begin fulfilling her obligations to the pageant's official platform, HIV / AIDS awareness.

As Miss Universe, Glebova is the official AIDS spokeswoman for the Global Health Council, the world's largest membership alliance dedicated to improving health and the sponsor of her eight-day HIV / AIDS educational tour in South Africa.

For the parishioners in attendance, Glebova's presence had made their day. It didn't matter that she spoke, albeit briefly, on a topic that had just been preached about at length, a topic so volatile in a nation that carries one of the world's highest HIV / AIDS caseloads (more than 5 million people infected) that it is seldom spoken of easily.

"I'm learning and seeing firsthand how HIV / AIDS has devastated your country," said Glebova, 23, who added that AIDS is a pandemic that the world needs to confront as a community.

There's no telling what impact the beauty queen will have on the issue, but clearly Glebova knows that her tenure as Miss Universe won't be spent merely smiling for flashbulbs at black-tie soirees.

The Miss Universe Organization is adamant that the woman widely regarded as the most beautiful in the world use her fame to bring about change. It chose to embrace HIV / AIDS awareness as its official cause in 1998, when Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam of Trinidad and Tobago wore the crown.

"We made a conscious decision to stick with one platform to be more effective so that the current Miss Universe could build on the success of the woman before her," said Mary Hilliard Harrington, director of marketing for the Miss Universe Organization. "We sought to strengthen ties with organizations rather than have our titleholder pick a platform. This gives us a more effective campaign that works to empower women."

Harrington said the organization doesn't expect to see any numerical impact as a result but is more concerned with generating awareness.

"Our expectation for Natalie is only for her to build on the success of her predecessor," said Harrington.

The more Miss Universe embraces the mantle, the less likely pageant officials will endure the sort of setback they experienced in 2002, when four months after Oxana Fedorova of Russia became Miss Universe, she was dethroned because she was unable to fulfill the duties of traveling around the world for charities.

It marked the first time in the pageant's 52-year history that it has ousted a titleholder; the Miss Universe crown was passed to first runner-up Justine Pasek of Panama.

"I traveled with Oxana when she went on a trip to Africa similar to that of Natalie," said Harrington, "and she was successful when she was at work. But the unfortunate thing is that she had a life back in Russia that she was not willing to give up, and at times she didn't show the heart for it the way Natalie and others have."

For the most part, the women readily embrace the cause. Pasek canvassed her country as she spoke directly to the people of Panama about HIV / AIDS awareness, imploring them to eliminate the stigma toward HIV to effectively address the epidemic there. She also took an HIV test.

Pasek's successor, Amelia Vega of the Dominican Republic, helped promote World AIDS Day in 2003 by taking part in a mobile clinic in Miami's Little Havana that provided free HIV testing.

Now, Glebova hopes to build on their successes, intent on focusing primarily on prevention among young people.

"I've had some knowledge about [the HIV / AIDS epidemic in South Africa], but this is the first time I'm seeing it firsthand," said Glebova. "As Miss Universe, I'm working with the Global Health Council to empower and educate women all over the world."

Glebova later visited nearby Johannesburg, where she was tested for HIV / AIDS at Helen Joseph Community Hospital. Afterward, she held a news conference stating that she hoped her public test would encourage other women to get tested.

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