Miss World showdown in London in shadow of murder
Beauty queens from across the globe have descended on London for Sunday's Miss World 2014 final, a competition rocked by the murder of Miss Honduras.
Some 121 contestants from Albania to Zimbabwe are taking part in the pageant, but there will be no representative from Honduras following the fatal shooting of finalist Maria Jose Alvarado.
The bodies of the 19-year-old national title-holder and her 23-year-old sister Sofia Trinidad were found buried on a remote riverbank near the northwestern city of Santa Barbara on the day Maria Jose was due to fly to London.
Tears were shed when the Miss World contestants attended a special remembrance service in London.
They held candles and said prayers in their own languages in front of a framed photograph of Alvarado.
"We are devastated by this terrible loss of two young women, who were so full of life," said Miss World chairwoman Julia Morley.
The new Miss World will travel to crime-plagued Honduras to build a school in their hometown that will be named in their honour, the contest's organisers announced.
Police in Honduras accuse Sofia's boyfriend of shooting the sisters in a fit of jealousy after seeing Sofia dancing with another man at a party.
Three other people have appeared in court alongside him for allegedly helping him bury the bodies.
- Oxford University challenge -
The contestants arrived in London on November 20 for the 64th annual final, being held at the Excel exhibition centre.
The remembrance service was part of a series of events in the run-up to the televised extravaganza.
The contenders visited prestigious Oxford University to address the Oxford Union debating hall -- where some of the world's finest minds have honed their ideas.
"Miss World is not a celebrity; she is an ambassador," Miss United States Elizabeth Safrit told students.
"She tells women all around the world that it's OK to have an opinion. She makes changes happen. She identifies problems and she finds solutions."
Students threw questions at them, including if they thought there could be such a competition with no beauty element at all.
"Some of us run very fast, some of us speak very well, some of us have received the gift of outer beauty that's being emphasised by inner beauty," replied Miss South Africa Rolene Strauss.
British bookmakers Ladbrokes have the 22-year-old medical student as their 2/1 hot favourite, followed by Miss England and Miss India at 7/1, Miss Australia at 8/1 and Miss Russia at 10/1.
"It's always one of the hardest events to come up with odds for," Ladbrokes spokesman Alex Donohue told AFP.
"Fans think Miss South Africa ticks all the boxes and she has been the most popular bet to win, but Miss France at 14/1 shouldn't be discounted at all and she looks like a good outside bet to be crowned."
Venezuela tops the all-time leader board with six titles, ahead of India and the United Kingdom on five titles each.
- 'Beauty with a purpose' -
While beauty has always been at the heart of the event, brains, skills and commitment to good causes also play a role.
Contestants have to present their "Beauty With a Purpose" projects to the judges.
Miss Serbia has been coaching a disabled volleyball team, while Miss India founded an organisation which teaches slum children the importance of washing their hands.
Miss Bolivia has been helping to improve the lives of children living in prison with their jailed parents, bringing them books, other learning materials and even puppies to help them learn how to care for another living thing.
The contestants have already been put through their paces on the fitness front, with Miss Finland coming out on top of a test that included a tug of war.
Last year's final was won by Miss Philippines Megan Young. It was held in Bali in Indonesia after switching from the capital Jakarta following protests by Muslim hardliners.
Miss World began in 1951, a year before its chief rival Miss Universe.
Former Miss World contestants include Oscar-winning US actress Halle Berry, a 1986 finalist, and 1994 winner Aishwarya Rai, the Indian movie star. Twelve have appeared in James Bond films.
© 2014 AFP