Most of the young women competing for the Miss Universe title had nice plans when they left Puerto Rico last weekend: modeling contracts, university studies, jobs, or vacations with their boyfriends.
Miss Israel Ilanit Levi, however, faced something a bit more grueling: basic training.
Like most Israeli women, Levi, 19, will have to do a stint in the army, a tour of duty she postponed for six months to prepare for the May 11 beauty pageant in Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum in this industrial suburb of San Juan.
Yet she didn’t seem at all bothered by the prospect, clowning around with her fellow contestants in the days before the pageant as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
Levi was all business when necessary, however, impressing the judges enough in the weeks of interviews, photo shoots and dance rehearsals leading up to the pageant to earn a spot as a semi-finalist on pageant night.
After an initial pass by all 77 contestants in representative national costumes – and no, Levi didn’t wear her famous bulletproof dress – the field was narrowed to the 10 semi-finalists who dominated the rest of the show.
Levi didn’t make it to the group of five finalists, however, hampered perhaps by the fact that she was significantly shorter than her competitors – a mere 5 feet 7 inches, next to Amazons measuring close to 6 feet. In addition, her simple black dress seemed rather plain next to the elaborate evening gowns chosen by the other semi-finalists.
Still, Levi’s achievement marked the best finish by an Israeli since 1978, the end of a remarkable stretch beginning in 1958 when Miss Israel placed among the Miss Universe semi-finalists or finalists in all but four years.
Israel has won the Miss Universe title only once, when Rina Messinger took the crown in 1976. It won the slightly less prestigious Miss World pageant in 1999.
Unlike pageant powerhouses Venezuela and India – which invest years of training and thousands of plastic surgery dollars in promising beauty queens – pageants are not a big business in Israel. Perhaps as a result, the Israeli contestants often lack the polish and poise that make the difference among outstanding candidates.
For example, many of this year’s 77 contestants used an interview question about the most interesting event in their lives to mention prizes they had won or volunteer work in humanitarian causes.
Levi, with typical Israeli bluntness, said she couldn’t recall anything very interesting.
While it may not have helped her with the judges, her naturalness made Levi one of the more popular girls among the group at last Friday’s pageant, won by hometown hero Denise QuiÃ±ones of Puerto Rico.
As the contestants braced themselves for a final rehearsal that lasted from 1 p.m. to nearly midnight the day before the pageant, many slouched in their seats with bored looks on their faces.
Levi was a blur of activity, however, talking, snapping gum, answering her cell phone and teaching Miss Croatia, Maja Cecic-Vidos, the Hebrew slang for excellent – “akhla.”
She then dragged Miss New Zealand, Kateao Nehua-Jackson, outside for a quick smoke.
Her family, meanwhile, admired Levi’s rehearsal outfit: skin-tight black Spandex pants with silver flame designs on the flared legs and a sparkling silver halter top.
“Can you believe those pants cost only $20?” Levi’s sister, Nitza, asked a friend sitting with her in the audience. “Or was it $21?”
After three weeks in Puerto Rico on a grueling schedule of rehearsals and photo shoots, Levi said she missed Haifa, where she grew up with her four siblings in a single bedroom.
“I’m dying to get home already,” she told JTA as admirers tried to pull her away for photographs. “I want to be able to go where I want, when I want to.”
That, sister Nitza said, is just like Ilanit.
“She’s not one of those people to let this all go to her head,” Nitza Levi said. “She’s still the same Ilanit, one of those people who, no matter what happens, still likes their small, warm home.”
Indeed, after the show, Levi seemed decidedly nonplussed by her strong finish.
“It was OK,” she said. “Not something grandiose or extraordinary.”
Her family, in fact, seemed more exuberant than Levi that she had been picked as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
“Ever since I was a kid, I knew my sister was the most beautiful woman,” Levi’s brother Asher said. “I’ve been around in the world, and there isn’t anyone as beautiful as Ilanit.”
On second thought, he admitted, the pageant’s hosts – super models Elle MacPherson and Naomi Campbell – came pretty close.
But the family said they felt the judges had other considerations when choosing the next Miss Universe.
“It doesn’t just come down to beauty here,” Nitza Levi said. “There are a lot of other factors, like politics and language.”
Detractors, however, said politics had worked in Levi’s favor.
Jase Choenni, manager for Miss Netherlands Reshma Roopram, sketched an elaborate conspiracy theory to explain why his beautiful charge – and fiancee – wasn’t a semi-finalist. Levi was chosen, he said, by judges who wanted to help Israel’s international image at a time when most news from the region paints Israel as bloodthirsty and violent.
The national manager for Trinidad & Tobago noted ominously the preponderance of Jewish names among the judges who picked the semi-finalists.
Yet few men who laid eyes on Levi wouldn’t do a double take. Her exotic features – she has olive skin and piercing eyes – reflects her international heritage: Her father made aliyah from Morocco, her mother from Libya.
There even was enough of a Latin look about Levi to make her a favorite with Puerto Ricans, who compared her to Puerto Rican-American Jennifer Lopez.
Not all the images of Levi that made the local press were flattering, however. One paper used a huge picture of Levi looking angry and bored to depict the contestants’ frustration with the preparations for the event.
The picture scandalized the groupies circulating about the pageant, who feared it would hurt Levi’s chances.
Levi laughed it off as a chance and candid moment.
“Look, it’s really hard work,” Nitza Levi said. “They keep them going from morning to evening.”
Still, it wasn’t quite as challenging as, say, basic training. After the army, Levi hopes to study psychology and work as a children’s therapist.
Given the recent months of Mideast violence, it was inevitable that Levi would be asked frequently about politics. As Israel’s representative at the forum, she felt obligated to defend the country’s image.
The other contestants “want to know how I live, what it’s like,” she said. “I want to make sure they know that what they read about in the paper, the war and the violence – it exists, but it doesn’t dominate our lives.”
Still, politics intrudes even into the world of beauty pageants. As in the 2000 pageant – which took place while Israel still occupied its security zone in southern Lebanon – Miss Israel 2001 got the cold shoulder from Miss Lebanon, who was under orders from her government to ignore Levi.
“Our countries are not at war, but” she and Levi “are not going to be friends, either,” said Miss Lebanon Sandra Rizk. “We just try to be businesslike.”
Levi’s closest friends among the contestants were Cecic-Vidos of Croatia, Miss Egypt Sarah Shaheen and Nehua- Jackson of New Zealand.
In fact, Levi admitted, the pageant turned out to be a lot more fun than she imagined.
“I thought it would be like jail, all the time ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ ” she said. “But none of us here is really thinking about being Miss Universe; it’s too overwhelming for us. So we just concentrate on enjoying ourselves.”