'For me, it has always been Miss Universe'
Miss Universe 2017 wanted the crown since she was a little girl
Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters always had her eyes on the prize.
In an interview last week at The Biopolis in Manila, where some of this year's delegates including Miss Universe Singapore Manuela Bruntraeger were on a visit as part of a tour to promote the Philippines as a tourist destination, the South African stunner said: "For me, it has always been Miss Universe."
South Africa, like Russia, usually sends its winning contestant to both Miss Universe and Miss World pageants.
But when schedules are tight, the national winner gets to choose which international contest she will join.
In the case of South Africa, its candidates usually prefer Miss Universe, although Rolene Strauss won Miss World 2014.
The last time South Africa won the Miss Universe crown was in 1978. And when Nel-Peters snagged the title in Las Vegas on Nov 26, she told pageant organisers what Miss Universe stands for, its impact on women's lives and having the honour to be seen worldwide.
From the day she became Miss South Africa, pageant experts consistently declared the 22-year-old business management graduate a frontrunner.
But she did not get complacent, saying: "I appreciate the support that I got on social media, but the judges will determine the winner."
She added: "I have just always been hard on myself. I woke up every morning trying to be better than I was the day before."
On the night of the finals, she kept an open mind.
"I have given it my everything," said Nel-Peters.
"I wouldn't say that it was a surprise but you never know and it is never over until it is over."
When she was announced Miss Universe 2017, the audience remembered the powerful words she said every time she had the opportunity to speak - on topics from unity to gender gaps to female empowerment.
Nel-Peters, known as an advocate for breast cancer awareness in South Africa, has a stepsister with a disability.
Barely a month after becoming Miss South Africa in June, she was held at gunpoint in her car till she escaped by hitting one of her abductors in the throat.
Nel-Peters went on to train women in self-defence and plans to continue advocating it.
"I am really passionate about empowering women and children with skills and knowledge on how to defend themselves not just physically but emotionally as well," she said.
"I think it is a global problem that women face."
And like Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach of the Philippines, Nel-Peters has expressed support for HIV and Aids awareness.
She said: "It is a big problem in South Africa, and that is something I would like to get involved in, knowing that Miss Universe has great connections and relationships with organisations that raise awareness about HIV and Aids."
Nel-Peters said the Miss Universe crown was something she "wanted even as a little girl", and it was a motivation for excellence.
Her message to the little girls who want the same thing ?
"It is never just to win the title, but it is for every young girl to live in a way like a Miss Universe," she said.
"That is how previous Miss Universes have inspired me - to work hard in school, to take good care of myself, to be healthy and fit and take care of my body, to empower myself by getting a good education, the best that I possibly could."
- PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK