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Philippines wins its 4th Miss Universe title

This year's event has garnered positive feedback for themes of inclusivity and an all-women panel of judges

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Newly crowned Miss Universe 2018 Miss Philippines, Catriona Gray (left), with first runner-up Miss South Africa, Tamaryn Green (right), at the Miss Universe 2018 beauty pageant in Bangkok. Miss Venezuela, Sthefany Gutiérrez, is the second runner-up.

Bangkok

MISS PHILIPPINES was crowned Miss Universe on Monday morning in Bangkok after a trailblazing ceremony praised for featuring its first transgender candidate but marred by gaffes about the English-speaking ability of two Asian contestants.

Catriona Gray, a 24-year-old Filipino-Australian model, finished first ahead of the finalists from South Africa and Venezuela in the glittering televised event hosted by American comic-turned-TV host Steve Harvey and supermodel Ashley Graham.

This was the 67th Miss Universe paegant, and the third edition to be held in Thailand.

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During the question-and-answer segment, Ms Gray was asked during the contest about her views on legalising marijuana and replied that she supported it for medical uses.

After she was crowned, she told reporters that the question was "definitely relevant" and "an active topic", in an apparent reference to the war on drugs in the Philippines that has killed thousands of Filipinos and caused international alarm.

Applause for work in the slums of Manila

Ms Gray also earned applause describing her work in the slums of the Philippine capital Manila.

She said she would like to expand her work with an organisation in the Philippines that promotes education on HIV and AIDS.

"A few years ago, I lost a close friend to health complications with HIV," she told reporters after the event. "So spreading awareness on that cause and encouraging people to get the simple test and knowing their status is definitely one of my first projects that I'd like to pursue."

Ms Gray, a student of music theory, wore a red and orange dress that was inspired by Mount Mayon, a volcano that erupted this year. She outlasted more than 90 contestants from around the globe at the annual event, which was held in the Thai capital's Impact Arena.

This is the fourth time that the Philippines has won the international beauty paegant, and the second time in the last three years.

Miss Singapore, 24-year-old National University of Singapore sociology graduate Zahra Khanum, did not make the first cut when the judges whittled the field down to the Top 20.

During the competition, candidates were asked questions on press freedom, legalisation of marijuana, refugees and the #MeToo movement.

This year's event drew positive feedback for themes of inclusivity and an all-women panel of judges made up of business leaders and former Miss Universe titleholders.

Miss Spain's Angela Ponce made history as the first transgender candidate in a competition once owned by US President Donald Trump, whose administration has attempted to block military recruitment of transgender people.

"I always say: having a vagina didn't transform me into a woman. I am a woman, already before birth, because my identity is here," Ms Ponce told AFP on Saturday, gesturing to her head. She added she wanted her appearance to be empowering and that she hoped for a "new generation of human beings who are raised a lot better, more tolerant and respectful."

But issues of tolerance and respect came centre stage during the build-up to the competition when Miss USA, Sarah Rose Summers, appeared to poke fun at both Miss Vietnam and Miss Cambodia on social media for not being able to speak English.

The comments went viral but Ms Summers later posted an apology on Instagram, saying she did not "intend to hurt" her fellow competitors.

Ms Gray's victory was closely followed in the Philippines, where beauty pageants are hugely popular.

Social media exploded with clips of fans jumping for joy and hugging each other as the Filipina contestant went through each successive round and eventually won the crown.

A spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte in a statement praised Ms Gray's win for putting the Philippines on the world map "for its beauty and elegance".

Miss South Africa, Tamaryn Green, 24 was the first runner-up, followed by Miss Venezuela, Sthefany Gutiérrez, 19. AFP, REUTERS