Johannesburg (AFP) Dec 12, 2009
African drums and traditional dancers kicked off the Miss World pageant in South Africa, where the glitzy night began in the shadow of reports that one contestant was linked to a religious cult.
Dressed in brightly coloured full-length gowns, the contestants were introduced on stage in a live broadcast with one billion expected viewers worldwide.
As they lined the stage, drummers and dancers in traditional dress as well as miners' gumboots performed. Children carried flags representing the nations of the 112 hopefuls.
The run-up to the event was tainted as organisers asked a court to suppress a local newspaper report linking Miss Indonesia, Kerenina Sunny Halim, to an American religious cult.
According to a report by the weekly Mail and Guardian, Halim belongs to The Family International, which has been mired in child and sexual abuse allegations by former members.
The 23-year-old Halim told the Jakarta Globe that she is a member of the church, for which she did humanitarian work after the Asian tsunami in 2004, the Mail and Guardian said.
The newspaper said the church group's late founder David Brandt Berg preached free love to his followers, encouraging females to go into the world and engage in "flirty-fishing" of men.
"The Mail and Guardian has besmirched the reputation of a young woman without any justification for doing so," responded the Miss World company in a statement.
The Johannesburg High Court early Saturday ruled against the bid to force the newspaper to remove the story from its website.
"This was a blatant attempt by Miss World Ltd to intimidate us by threatening damages running into hundreds of millions of pounds sterling," said Mail and Guardian editor, Nic Dawes.
"I have offered the pageant organisers right of reply in our newspaper and on our website, which they have yet to take up," said Dawes.
But organisers didn't let the incident affect the glittering ceremony in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, where reigning Miss World Ksenia Sukhinova, 22, from Russia will hand over the crown.
Held in Johannesburg for a second consecutive year, the extravaganza will be hosted by Chinese television presenter Angela Chow, former Miss Namibia turned entrepreneur Michelle McLean and Miss World official Steve Douglas.
The contestants from Barbados, Guatemala and India were Friday night announced as finalists for the special beauty with a purpose title.
Organisers say the title pays recognition to beauty queens who have made a difference in people's lives, through charitable works in their home countries.
The winner will be announced during the main event.
"Charity work is integral to the Miss World ethos and part of the brief to contenders in each country is that they volunteer their time or fundraise for charity," said pageant owner Julia Morley.
The contestants arrived in the country on November 14 to start a journey packed with safaris and visits to top tourism sites.
In 1951, Sweden's Kiki Hakansson became the first Miss World; then-unknown Halle Berry represented America in 1986 and became a runner-up before going on to become an Oscar-winning actress.
Venezuela and India have produced the most Miss Worlds, with five title holders each.
The city of Johannesburg has been lambasted for spending 90 million rand (eight million euros, 12 million dollars) to host the event, as its council is battling to meet basic service demands by the poor.
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