In a speech on the podium during the parade, Sandhu urged young people: “Know that you are unique and that is what makes you beautiful, stop comparing yourself to others.
“I believed in myself, and that’s why I’m here today,” she added, to loud applause from the audience.
The pageant was held in the seaside town of Eilat, with 80 women from around the world competing for the crown. Sunday night was the final day of the competition, with eliminations narrowing the number of finalists until the final two were left.
Nadia Ferreira from Paraguay and Lalela Mswane from South Africa were first and second runners-up respectively.
The contest was hosted by comedian Steve Harvey, who at one point in the night asked Sandhu, “I hear you do some pretty good animal impersonations, let’s hear your best.”
Harvey was later criticized online for picking her out with what many have suggested was an inappropriate question.
“Oh my god, Steve, I didn’t expect to do this on the world stage. I have to do this, I have no other option. Brace yourself, everyone,” she said in surprise, before demonstrating a few meows.
At a later question-and-answer session, when Sandhu made it to the top 5, she took the opportunity to spread a message about climate change. “Now is the time to take action and talk less,” she said. “Prevention and protection is better than repentance and recovery.”
After her win was announced, she celebrated with other contestants on stage, shouting to a camera, “Chak de Phatte India,” a Punjabi exclamation similar to “Let’s do this, India!”
This year’s contest marks the second Covid-era Miss Universe pageant. Israel’s borders would open to vaccinated tourists ahead of the main event this year, which would have seen thousands of fans in attendance.
But with the emergence of the new Omicron variant, the Israeli government closed its borders to foreigners two weeks before the game, sending travel plans and preparations into chaos. One contestant, Miss France, tested positive for the virus upon landing in Israel and had to be quarantined – just in time for the preliminary competition on Friday.
The election was also wrapped in a new layer of political controversy, with some critics and countries calling for boycotts – as with previous international events staged in Israel.
The South African government withdrew its support and called on Mswane to back off, citing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and calling it “apartheid,” an accusation Israel has vehemently denied. But Mswane – with the support of the Miss South Africa organization – chose to travel to Israel and participate.
Other figures, including Miss Israel, Noa Cochva, responded with a common refrain that pageant organizers and contestants heard: Miss Universe shouldn’t be about politics.
Israel was one of the first countries to start vaccinating its population and had achieved high vaccination coverage by May this year, according to a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, when the country was approached to host the competition in December.