32nd place – Irene Saez (Venezuela)
(Our judges are: Greg Borowski, Willian Prendiz de Jurado, Edwin Toledo (Times of Beauty), Ricardo Guiraldes (Chilean Charm), Julio Rodriguez (Belleza Venezolana), Alberto Dubal (Miss Memorabilia), Jimmy Harris (Beauty School), Pepe Medel, Jean-Marie Vandecasteele, Andre Sleigh, Rose Foulger, Luis Trujillo. From GB, Ed Dominguez, Henrique Fontes, and Chris Kuntz)
Miss Universe celebrated its 30th anniversary in the “Big Apple”. Although New York had welcomed Miss Universe candidates several times before they reached their final destinations, especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was the first time that it hosted the whole pageant. The final happened at the Minskoff Theater and 76 women competed. Gibraltar, Namibia, and Western Samoa debuted. A homesick Miss Mauritius returned home one week before the final event.
At first, Miss Universe 1981 was expected to happen at the Madison Square Garden, however, due to little interest by the local press and people, it was moved to the Minskoff, located at the heart of Broadway, with a 1600-people capacity.
The candidates stayed at the fabulous Le Park Meridien, the first French hotel in New York, which had been recently inaugurated.
Broadway musicals were represented in the event by 42nd Street, which was part of the show.
The lovely Helen O’Connell, co-host of Miss Universe since 1972, and nominated for an Emmy Award for her participation in Miss Universe 1976, was gone. German sex symbol Elke Sommer took her place, but was far from being as good as Helen. Bob Barker hosted the show and did an amazing job, as usual.
Among the 1981 judges, stars like Pelé, Julio Iglesia, Lee Majors, Kiriaki Tsopei and Mary McFadden could be found.
If some 20 to 25 candidates had enough beauty to fight for a top 12 spot, the reality was that the remaining girls ranged from mediocre to bellow average, a trend in Miss Universe in the late 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. The 1981 group was considered one of the weakest in history, confirmed with the low preliminary swimsuit scores the majority received from the judges (watch it here).
During the 20 days the 76 beauties spent in New York, two girls emerged as the absolute front-runners for the title: Venezuela’s Irene Saez, and Brazil’s Adriana Alves de Oliveira. Miss USA, Kim Seelbrede, was also a local favorite.
The main favorites from Europe were Misses Germany, Norway, Italy and Belgium. Canada, Tahiti, Uruguay, Colombia, Wales and Sri Lanka also appeared as strong possibilities. And that was about it.
In 2004, when Miss Universe 2004 was held in Ecuador, Miss Ecuador 1981 Lucía Isabel Vinueza Urjelles, was interviewed and asked by a local CARAS magazine reporter what had been her secret to get that far in the competition, to which she responded: “Please don’t publish it, but I only made it because almost all candidates were truly horrible, and I can prove it!”. Of course it was published!
Miss British Virgin Islands, Carmen Nibbs, accused the pageant organizers and press of being racist: “Photographers only look for the white candidates from Europe and Latin America. The blacks are completely ignored”. Asian delegates also complained about discrimination.
Their complaints did not achieve much for them: 10 of the 12 delegates were blondes. No Asian or black delegate made the cut. The two brunettes were from Oceania: New Zealand and Tahiti (one of the favorites, she did not go further in the competition for having the charisma of an oyster).
Since the show happened in Broadway, the candidates had to rehearse twice as much as Miss Universe candidates did in previous years, which caused them to complain about being drained and exhausted. The Latins also cried about the food: “It’s always the same lunch: cold chicken, potato salad and a soda! The only thing they serve warm is the soda!”.
During one of many rehearsals, Bob Barker was interviewing a Central American delegate who spoke no English. He asked her to say at least a couple of words in English, to which she responded: “NO CHICKEN!!”. All other delegates stood up and applauded her vigorously!!
A few awards were distributed at the Presentation Show: Miss Bahamas was Miss Amity, Miss Denmark was chosen as Miss Photogenic (to everyone’s shock), and Miss Brazil won the Best National Costume Award, with Venezuela in 2nd, and Korea in 3rd places.
After a few minutes into the pageant’s final telecast, the semi-finalists were announced: Holland, Ecuador, New Zealand, Sweden, Brazil, USA, Norway, Venezuela, Belgium, Germany, Tahiti and Canada. It was definitely the year of the blondes!
Top 12: the year of the blondes!
The two surprises were Ecuador and New Zealand. The exclusion of Miss Finland was a huge upset, and many expected Miss Sri Lanka to represent Asia in the semi-finals, but it did not happen, despite her high score in the preliminary swimsuit competition.
Miss Canada, Dominique Dufour, barely made it, with the lowest score among the semi-finalists. However, she consistently grew in the semi-finals (6th place in interview, 5th in swimsuit, and 2nd in evening gown), advancing to the final 5 with Venezuela, Belgium, Sweden, and Brazil.
Miss Venezuela led all three semi-final competitions, becoming the clear favorite for the crown. Her elegance and poise were unbeatable that night. Miss Brazil, the other press favorite, although many believed was the most stunning delegate of 1981, lacked proper grooming, did not control her nerves in many occasions, and did not shine as expected. By very little (0.06 point-difference), Miss Tahiti did not steal her spot among the 5 finalists.
Miss Belgium, one of the most beautiful face in the competition, who had charmed the audience in her semi-final interview, could not answer the final question, and finished in 5th place; Miss Brazil was 4th; surprising Miss Sweden was 3rd; Canada, with a great answer, had moved from 12th place in the preliminaries to a final 1st runner-up position; the undisputed winner was Irene Saez, Miss Universe 1981, and Venezuela’s 2nd winner in only 3 years.
After the pageant was over, Miss Costa Rica spoke to the journalist representing the Latin group saying that Miss Brazil was their favorite, and that she should’ve been the winner, and not Venezuela. But even the Brazilian journalists did not agree with Miss Costa Rica and the other Latin
delegates. One thing about Miss Venezuela that impressed everyone was her preparation. While Miss Brazil joined the group of girls who was always complaining about the food, the many hours of rehearsals, etc, Miss Venezuela never opened her mouth to complain and kept her poise from day one of competition. She also looked calm and collected throughout the competition.
In Brazil, the press pointed out the importance of a good preparation for the pageant, body and mind (something that up to today has never changed in Miss Brazil Universe). Osmel Souza, the man behind the Venezuelan beauties’ coaching, started being famous for his work. In that same year, Venezuela would also
conquer the Miss World title! Osmel is still around and collecting many important crowns. Venezuela has been ever since the unquestionable #1 powerhouse in beauty pageants, and shall remain as such for a while.
As a matter of fact, the dispute between Venezuela and Brazil in Miss U 1981 had a much deeper meaning: Brazil, the country that had had 2 winners, 4 1st runner-ups, and several finalists and semi-finalists in the 30 previous years, would step down from its ‘Miss Universe powerhouse status’ to, making room to the emerging power of Venezuela. In the next 30 years, only 1 Brazilian would be a Miss Universe finalist again, Natália Guimarães, 26 years later. As for Venezuela, other 4 women would conquer the Miss Universe title, and several would be runner-ups and semi-finalists.
As for Irene, she was a very good Miss Universe, very professional in all aspects. Years later she entered politics and even ran for the presidency of Venezuela. Saez was the governor of the state of Nueva Esparta, elected with over 70% of the votes.
Special thanks to Alberto Dubal for his valuable contribution, and to Belleza Venezolana for the great photos!
See more photos at BellezaVenezolana.net