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Miss Universe crown up for grabs

A group of 89 beauty queens are set to don swimsuits, evening gowns and test their interview skills in the hope of winning the 2011 Miss Universe crown in Brazil.

Contestants have spent the last three weeks in Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, trying to learn samba dance steps, visiting impoverished children and kicking a football around for cameras as the globe's biggest beauty contest is held in Brazil for the first time.

"It's our 60th anniversary, it's a very big show, we're anticipating close to a billion viewers from around the world," said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe organisation.

She said it was fitting the globe's biggest beauty pageant be held in Brazil as the nation prepares to host some major events in the coming years.

"I don't think there is any doubt in the rest of the world's mind that Brazil is the place, between hosting the Olympics and hosting the World Cup," she said. "I love the fact we're going to kick it off. I always say we're the 'World Cup' of beauty."

The contestants, who must never have been married or had children and who must be at least 18 and under 27 by February 1 of the competition year, are competing to take the place of Mexico's Jimena Navarrete, who won the crown last year in Las Vegas.

Miss USA Alyssa Campanella, from California, will be trying to end a long losing spell for the US in the competition. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.

The pageant, hosted by NBC "Today" anchor Natalie Morales and the Bravo network's Andy Cohen, will air live on NBC and be distributed to about 170 countries. The contest, co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, will be judged by celebrities including Connie Chung, supermodel Isabeli Fontana and Indy race car driver Helio Castroneves.

The pageant started as a local bathing revue in Long Beach, California, organised by a swimwear company.

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