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Swiss voted third-most beautiful of them all

Bronze beauty: Lauriane Gilliéron came third in the 2006 Miss Universe beauty competition

(Keystone)

Lauriane Gilliéron, a 21-year-old law student from canton Vaud, has come third in the 2006 Miss Universe competition – the best-ever result for a Swiss.

Gilliéron – vital statistics 86-60-91 – was "delighted and very proud" with the result on Sunday evening and said she felt like a diplomat for all of Switzerland.

Although Gilliéron, who turns 22 on Tuesday, was considered one of the favourites, she admitted she never thought she would get so far, saying she was "extraordinarily surprised".

When Swiss television viewers picked her in September, she became the first French speaker to win the Miss Switzerland title in 11 years.

Switzerland's previous best effort was the fourth place achieved in 1982 by Lolita Morena, who was later briefly married to German football star Lothar Matthäus.

Gilliéron is currently being courted by Swiss professional ice hockey player Michael Ngoy.

Although Switzerland has never won the competition, its women are apparently consistently beautiful – last year's entrant, Fiona Hefti, finished in the top ten.

All too much

The 2006 contest was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It was a homecoming of sorts – the first Miss Universe pageant was held about 40km away in Long Beach, California, in 1952.

After a tense build-up, the judges finally reckoned Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza, an 18-year-old from Puerto Rico whose dream is to appear in Latin American films, was the world's alpha female.

Mendoza shared a nervous emotional hug with first runner-up, Kurara Chibana of Japan, moments before the winner was announced, then clasped her hands to her mouth in amazement as her name was called out.

She beamed as the crown was placed on her head but 40 minutes into her reign she fainted at a news conference.

When she came round, Mendoza – "not one of my favourites", according to Gilliéron – said she would continue the pageant's mission of promoting awareness and education about Aids and HIV.

The field of 86, the largest in the event's 55-year history, was narrowed to 20 last week during preliminary judging in the contest's swimsuit, evening gown and interview categories, but finalists weren't announced until Sunday's show was under way, allowing all 86 to be introduced to the television audience.

The winner travels the world for a year on behalf of charities and pageant sponsors.

Hits and Misses

Miss Switzerland title-holders have a near mythical status in a country of seven million inhabitants but very few celebrities.

Switzerland has almost no internationally known figures from popular culture – Roger Federer and Martina Hingis are probably the only two living Swiss that most foreigners can name.

As a result, the Swiss media tries to manufacture celebrities from television presenters, folk musicians and beauty competitions.

Combining this with Switzerland's conservative attitude towards women - women only got the vote in 1971 - Miss Switzerland's face is rarely absent from newspapers or billboards, and Mr Switzerland doesn't do badly either.

Many ex-Misses have embarked on successful careers as television presenters and models.

The 2005 Miss Switzerland, Fiona Hefti, had a busy year in office and reportedly earned SFr400,000 ($320,000) during her tenure.

Lauriane Gilliéron, who will hand over her crown in a couple of months, has had a lower profile than Hefti and has not been as popular in German-speaking Switzerland as her predecessor, whom the public really took to their heart.

Gilliéron's cause has not been helped by speaking ropey German and by declaring just after her election that, as a vegetarian, she'd never eat a Bratwurst, prompting a spat with the editor of a meat-eaters' magazine.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

Lauriane Gilliéron was born on July 25, 1984 in Prilly, canton Vaud, near Lausanne. She is studying law at Lausanne University.
The daughter of the mayor of Prilly, a small town of around 11,000 inhabitants, Lauriane is a long-time vegetarian and former national Latin dance champion.
She is 168cm (5ft 7 inches) and her vital statistics are 86-60-91.
Her trademark is long varnished nails – "because otherwise I would chew them". She also says she has a "natural elegance" and a weakness for sweets.

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