Miss Universe to push HIV awareness after crowning blunder

MANILA - The new Miss Universe, back in the Philippines after an epic televised blunder surrounding her crowning, said Sunday she would use the attention the incident attracted to campaign for HIV awareness, especially in her home country.

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In front of an estimated one billion television viewers worldwide last December, pageant host Steve Harvey mistakenly announced Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez, as Miss Universe before correcting himself minutes later.

The diamond and sapphire crown was removed from the head of a sobbing and humiliated Gutierrez and transferred to Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach of the Philippines.

Wurtzbach, speaking to reporters about her plans, said she would undergo a "public testing" for HIV when she returns to the United States where the Miss Universe Organization is based, to erase the stigma surrounding the disease.

"It's about time someone like me should step up and hopefully others would follow suit as well," Wurtzbach, 26, told AFP.

"I think in the Philippines, there's a bit of a stigma because we're a conservative country."

The Philippines reported a 22 percent increase in HIV infections year-on-year in September last year. Four in ten of the new cases were reported in the capital Manila.

The nation of 100 million people, on whom 80 percent are Catholic, is heavily influenced by the church which frowns on contraceptive use. Testing for HIV is also considered taboo.

In the very few minutes she stood at the back of the Las Vegas stage at the end of the pageant, Wurtzbach said she accepted being first runner-up as a huge crowd of disappointed but proud fans in the audience waved Filipino flags.

"I told myself, I fell short, what a waste. But it's okay. I did everything I could and the most important thing is everybody is proud of me," she said.

That was until Harvey admitted his unprecedented gaffe.

"I was so happy. I was so excited. I couldn't describe it. It was something the Philippines has been waiting for for a long time."

Wurtzbach said she stood by her statement during the pageant's interview question, that Filipinos welcomed the return of US soldiers to their former bases in the Philippines.

"The Americans have always been our friend, we've always worked with them... I don't think there's anything wrong with asking for help when we need it," she said.

Beauty pageants like Miss Universe have cult followings in the Philippines and former titleholders go on to lucrative careers in movies and modelling.

It was the Philippines' first title in 42 years and the third since the pageant started in the 1950s.

Her one-week long homecoming itinerary includes a grand parade around Manila on Monday, courtesy calls on President Benigno Aquino and both houses of parliament and a concert at one of the capital's biggest indoor stadiums.

Wurtzbach had been modelling since she was 11 and played bit roles in movies and television, but her entertainment career never hit the big league until she won Miss Universe. She lost in the local contest twice before earning the right to represent her country in the pageant.

The Filipina-German, with her smouldering gaze, said she dreams of becoming an "Bond Girl" in future 007 movies.

Wurtzbach, who is rumoured to have dated the 55-year-old Aquino, said she would stay single to concentrate on her duties as Miss Universe and pursue her Hollywood dream.

"This is my boyfriend for now," a beaming Wurtzbach said, as she clutched the porcupine-shaped crown on her head.



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