ECUADOR, June 2, 2004  (MALAYA) By JOSE D. PATAO, JR. -  EIGHTY of the most beautiful women in the world, including the Philippines' Maricar Manalaysay Balagtas, are now in Ecuador for the 53rd Miss Universe Beauty Pageant which the South American country is hosting for the first time. The world will focus its eyes on the capital city of Quito when it hosts the finals on June 1 (June 2 in Manila) at Centro de Exposiciones y Convenciones dela Mitad del Mundo (CEMEXPO).

The 80 delegates, representing as many countries worldwide, have already attended welcome parties and were presented to media in several functions; they have also posed for their official photos and judging from the observations and reactions of pageant followers, this year's batch of hopefuls-all eager to succeed last year's Miss Universe Amelia Vega of the Dominican Republic-is a gorgeous lot, with half of the field actually capable of taking the title and all the honor and prizes that go with it.

The much-awaited national costume contest and presentation show (which will select the 15 semi-finalists), will be held this week as the pageant reaches its feverish pitch when one lucky, lovely lady is finally crowned as Miss Universe 2004 next Monday.

The 80 contestants are: Telma Sonhi (Angola), Ann-Marie Brown (Antigua & Barbuda), Zerelda Lee (Aruba), Jennifer Hawkins (Australia), Raquel Horton (Bahamas), Cindy Batsor (Barbados), Lindsy Dehollander (Belgium), Leilah Pandy (Belize), Gabriela Oviedo (Bolivia), Icho Kealotswe (Botswana), Fabiane Niclotti (Brazil), Ivelina Petrova (Bulgaria), Vanessa Fisher (Canada), Stacey Kelly (Cayman Islands), Gabriella Barros (Chile), Zhang Meng (China), Catherine Daza (Colombia), Nancy Soto (Costa Rica), Marijana Rupcic (Croatia),

Angeline Da Silva (Curacao), Nayia Iakovidou (Cyprus), Lucie Vachova (Czech Republic), Tina Christensen (Denmark), Larimar Fiallo (Dominican Republic), Susana Rivadeneira (Ecuador), Heba El-Sisy (Egypt), Silvia Mejia (El Salvador), Sirle Kalma (Estonia), Ferehyiwot Abebe (Ethiopia), Mira Salo (Finland), Laetitia Bleger (France), Nina Murtazashvili (Georgia), Shermine Sharivar (Germany), Menaye Donkor (Ghana), Valia Kakouti (Greece), Marva Weatherborn (Guatemala), Odessa Phillips (Guyana), Blanka Bakos (Hungary), Tanushree Dutta (India),

Cathriona Duignam (Ireland), Gal Gadot (Israel), Laia Manetti (Italy), Christine Straw (Jamaica), Eri Machimoto (Japan), Anita Maina (Kenya), Yoon-Young Choi (Korea), Maria Jose Honein (Lebanon), Andrea Fonseca (Malaysia), Rosalva Luna (Mexico), Lindsay Pronk (Netherlands), Marifely Arguello (Nicaragua), Anita Uwagbale (Nigeria), Kathrine Sorland (Norway), Jessica Rodriguez (Panama), Yanina Gonzalez (Paraguay), Liesel Holler (Peru), Maricar Manalaysay Balagtas (Philippines), Paulina Panek (Poland), Alba Reyes (Puerto Rico),

Ksenia Kustova (Russia), Dragana Dujovic (Serbia & Montenegro), Sandy Chua (Singapore), Zuzana Dvorska (Slovak Republic), Sabina Remar (Slovenia), Joan Ramagoshi (South Africa), Maria Jesus Ruiz (Spain), La Ferne Fraser (St. Vincent & the Grenadines), Katarina Wigander (Sweden), Bianca Nicole Sissing (Switzerland), Janie Yu-Chen Hshieh (Chinese Taipei), Murakot Kittisara (Thailand), Danielle Jones (Trinidad/Tobago), Fatos Segmen (Turkey), Sharima Ariza (Turks & Caicos), Oleksandra Nikolayenko (Ukraine), Nicole Dupont (Uruguay), Shandi Finnessey (USA), Ana Karina Anez Delgado (Venezuela) and Hoang Ngoc (Vietnam).

Will our very own Maricar Balagtas finally clinch our third Miss Universe crown (after Gloria Diaz in 1969 and Margie Moran in 1973)? Find out on Tuesday, June 2, when the world's premiere beauty extravaganza is aired live via satellite by RPN 9 at 10:30 am (with a prime telecast at 7 p.m.). To be hosted by Billy Bush and Daisy Fuentes, the spectacular show will be seen by over 1 billion viewers worldwide.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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