Miss World pageant returns to China

A bevy of 120 beauties from around the globe will don their most alluring evening gowns and sexiest swimwear on Saturday for the Miss World pageant in the Chinese resort town of Sanya.

After a month-long tour of China, from visiting the striking Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing to shopping in Shanghai, contestants have now invaded Hainan island's pristine beaches for the early mini-contests and the main event.

Norway's Mariann Birkedal, the raven-haired 23-year-old who earned a spot in the final by taking the preliminary Top Model title, is tipped by bookmakers to take the crown - a result that might anger authorities in Beijing.

China has been at odds with Oslo since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded earlier this month to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo - and any glory for Norway, even in a beauty pageant, might ruffle some official feathers.

Also tipped by British bookmakers William Hill are Alexandria Mills of the United States, Yara Santiago of Puerto Rico, and Brazil's Kamilla Salgado.

The competition, which was first held in 1951 and is being staged in Sanya for the fifth time in eight years, annually rakes in a global television audience of about a billion viewers.

"Miss World has a special relationship with Sanya and there is no better place to begin our 60th year celebrations," the pageant's co-chairwoman Julia Morley said on the official website.

Reigning Miss World Kaiane Aldorino of the tiny British territory of Gibraltar will hand over her crown at the glittering ceremony.

"While I will be sad as my Miss World experience will soon be coming to a close, I am very happy that the place to end my year will be Sanya," said the 24-year-old Aldorino, who was a human resources clerk when she won the title.

Aldorino and 10 contestants helped distribute aid to victims of recent flash floods on Hainan, in the south of the country - emphasising what organisers say is the event's commitment to charity work.

"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 fund-raise for charity," according to a statement on the official website.

Miss Beauty with a Purpose is one of several contestants who will earn "fast-track" spots in the semi-finals by winning mini-titles.

Along with "Top Model" Birkedal, Santiago booked her place with the Beach Beauty title, and Ireland's violin-playing Emma Waldron won the talent contest.

Lori Moore of Northern Ireland, a 20-year-old hockey and netball enthusiast, also secured her spot by taking the Sportswoman crown.

"My family back home are so proud - they are coming to the final," Moore said.

In 1951, Sweden's Kiki Hakansson became the first Miss World. Oscar-winning American actress Halle Berry was a finalist in 1986.

Venezuela and India have produced the most Miss Worlds, with five titleholders each. Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai took the crown in 1994.

In 2002, the pageant was moved from Nigeria to Britain after more than 200 people died in clashes sparked when a newspaper suggested the Muslim prophet Mohammed would have chosen a wife from among the contestants had he been alive.

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