Miss Universe plans gap year boost for Angola

Most beauty queens are content to spend their time describing their love of animals, children or world peace.

Not so for new Miss Universe Leila Lopes, who aims to use her reign to increase tourism and gap years in her home country of Angola, according to the BBC.

The 25-year-old former business student was crowned winner of the 2011 contest last month during a ceremony in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She beat off competition from several finalists, including Great Britain’s Chloe-Beth Morgan.

The new Miss Universe said: "I think it's an honour for not just Angola, but for Africa as well."

Ms Lopes, who is the first African to become Miss Universe for 12 years, has been keen to address many travellers' concerns about her country. "Some people still think that we live in trees, and we are always fighting," she said. "No no no, we have peace, and we have beautiful places."

Angola has a long history of conflict, mostly notably the civil war that ran for decades before ceasing in 2002. "We were at war for almost 30 years, but we've been at peace for almost nine years," Miss Universe confirmed.

Angola has natural beauty in abundance

Despite being a major oil producer in Africa, Angola is also troubled by economic problems, with two thirds of the population living in poverty.

However, international perception of Angola as a war-ravaged corner of Africa could soon be at an end, according to Ms Lopes. In fact, she believes her Miss Universe victory is already having an effect. "Until two weeks ago, not many people could locate Angola on a map," she said, presumably implying that they now can.

Ms Lopes has been eager to highlight what she believes her country has to offer the world. The beauty queen said: "We've got amazing food, great weather; it's like the best place to be."

She added: "Angola is a fast-growing country, everything is going perfectly now, and this is what I want to show to the world." 

Angola has never been a popular gap year destination, perhaps due to its civil conflict, though it is possible that the crowning of an Angolan Miss Universe may be the seminal watershed moment that sees all that change.

Ms Lopes has become something of a traveller herself since her coronation as she traverses the globe to meet her new subjects, although it is unlikely she has been living out of a backpack.

Beauty pageants have declined in status and prestige over the last couple of decades amid accusations of sexism, political incorrectness and, for some, simply being too old-fashioned. Many believe that women should not be judged on their looks.

Africa has some stunning wildlife

But Miss Universe 2011 has countered these criticisms by arguing that the title comes with an ‘invisible power’ to bring happiness to those she meets. Ms Lopes stated that critics of beauty contests were "entitled to their own opinions," but that these competitions weren’t just about physical attractiveness.

"Aspiration and personality come first before looks," she said. "You must have a great personality."

Although many might be sceptical about the influence of a beauty queen affecting international tourism trends, there will equally be many that will wish Ms Lopes every success. 

Photo of Leila Lopes taken by Dietmar Lang (via Creative Commons)

Story and quotes sourced from BBC's Network Africa in New York

Have you ever travelled to Angola, gappers? Will Miss Universe’s promotion campaign have any influence on you? Do you think beauty pageants have any place in modern culture?