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Miss Universe 2012: Language barrier took the spotlight

The morning after winning the Miss Universe pageant, Olivia Culpo answers questions during an interview,Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, in Las Vegas. The 20-year-old Rhode Islander who brought the Miss Universe crown back to the U.S. for the first time in 15 years is hoping that her quick rise through the beauty pageant ranks and an onstage stumble will show women that anything is possible. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Miss Venezuela came in third in the Miss Universe contest, a disappointment for the South American nation that has won more crowns in the pageant than any other country besides the U.S.

But Irene Sofia Esser Quintero was the talk of the Internet on Thursday after she attempted to answer a question in English during the pageant's finals. Her answer was unintelligible at times — one of several examples where the language barrier came to the forefront during the pageant.


Pageant officials provided a professional translator so top-five Miss Venezuela could understand her on-stage interview question: "If you could change one law, what would it be and why?"

Esser was allowed to answer in her native Spanish, but stepped out of her comfort zone and tried her English with this response:

"I think that any leys (laws) there are in Constitution or in life, are already made. I think that we should have, uh, a straight way to go in our similar, or, eh, in our lives as is this. For example, I'm a surfer, and I think that the best wave that I can take is the wave that I wait for it. So please do our only, eh, law that we can do. Thank you, Vegas!"

Bloggers and observers on Twitter seized on the brunette beauty's comment, with some lampooning her English and calling the answer nonsensical. Others defended her as brave for trying a second language under the glare of the spotlight.

Back home in pageant-crazy Venezuela, which has produced six past titleholders and numerous finalists, her loss was front-page news. An article in the newspaper El Nacional, noted Esser looked quite good, "but an unintelligible answer in the round of questions lost her the crown."

Because the pageant doesn't release scores publicly, there's no way to determine how the answer affected the outcome.

The newspaper also referred readers to an online poll asking whether they liked Esser's response. About 90 per cent of those who answered, many of them in Venezuela, said "no."


While Esser stepped out with English, other finalists shied away from the pageant's lingua franca. In videotaped interviews aired during the telecast, top 10 candidates Miss Mexico and Miss France opted to talk about themselves in Spanish and French, respectively. In the live interview, top-five contestant Miss Brazil took her question — about whether bikinis turn women into sex symbols — in Portuguese, and gave her answer in Portuguese. She finished fifth.

The pageant has no language requirement. Pageant spokeswoman Brenda Mendoza said organizers are proud their contestants come from around the globe, and have translators on hand to facilitate interviews for non-English speakers.


Miss Philippines Janine Tugonon addressed the topic directly in the on-stage interview. When asked whether English should be a prerequisite for Miss Universe because she's an international ambassador, Tugonon gave this reply in her own, slightly accented English:

"For me, being Miss Universe is not just about knowing how to speak a specific language. It's being able to influence and inspire other people. So whatever language you have, as long as your heart is to serve and you have a strong mind to — to show to people, then you can be Miss Universe."

She got loud applause and cheers in reply.


Newly crowned Miss Universe Olivia Culpo may have a little trouble of her own with the language barrier. She either didn't hear or declined to answer when a reporter at a post-pageant press conference asked her in Spanish whether she spoke Spanish. (Culpo speaks some Italian, but not Spanish). Knowing the language could be a big interviewing asset for a Miss Universe winner — the pageant is a big enough hit among non-English speakers that it was simulcast in Spanish on Telemundo.

Culpo said she enjoyed the diversity of the contestants and did her best to help the non-English speakers navigate the U.S. in the weeks before the competition.

"They looked at me for advice, for translation, for 'what does this button do,' 'how do you get the paper out of the dispenser,'" she said on Thursday.

But she acknowledged that contestants from non-English-speaking countries are at a disadvantage.

"It definitely makes it harder. But if you're going into this job, I think you need to be prepared to speak English because you live in New York City and a lot of your events are in New York City. And we speak English."


Last year's winner, Angolan beauty queen Leila Lopes, spoke in deliberate English, perhaps refined by Miss Universe appearances and business management studies in England. Her road to the Miss Universe crown last year in Sao Paulo involved winning over the crowd by speaking in Portuguese, their shared language. Angola, like Brazil, is a former Portuguese colony.

News from © The Associated Press, 2012
The Associated Press

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