Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
If there was a popularity contest for countries, Brazil certainly would be near the top of the list. The Latin American nation hosts the World Cup in 2014, the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, and the 60th annual Miss Universe Pageant on Monday (9 p.m., NBC).
Host Natalie Morales (NBC's "Today"), who spent a portion of her childhood in Brazil and speaks fluent Portuguese, is pleased to see such recognition. And spending time in a beautiful country with enthusiastic pageant contestants, well, that's just an added bonus.
"The appeal is for me also getting a chance to go home in a lot of ways because I am half Brazilian and I lived there when I was 10 - 7 to 10 years old - so I know the beauty of Brazil and I couldn't be more excited that, you know, it's resurgence as a world power is prime," she said. "I think a prime example is the fact that it's getting to host such a great event, which is the Miss Universe Pageant, on the 60th anniversary of the Miss Universe Pageant, so what a great way to celebrate that and all of these beautiful ladies. I mean, 89 participants and, you know, from countries all over the world.
"Brazil is an incredible country ... and it's taking the world by storm again. And it's an incredible opportunity for these ladies to showcase all they have to offer, as well, in a country that I believe is proving to the world that it's time they're taken more seriously."
Though Morales called Brazil home for a number of years, her own family has yet to see the country. She's eager to return with them - and looking to brush up on her language skills, too.
"I think it's a win-win because I get to hopefully practice my Portuguese a little bit and really have a chance to get back and see this beautiful country, which I'm so excited," Morales said. "And my family is coming as well, so it'll be my husband and my boys' first time going to Brazil, so it's pretty exciting."
In terms of the pageant itself, each contestant will compete in three categories (swimsuit, evening gown and interview) and work to increase HIV/AIDS awareness by focusing on women's health issues.
"The theme of this year, it's interesting because everybody's talking about, you know, not only representing well for the - you know, the HIV and AIDS education, you know, they've got to research and (get) legislation. Miss Universe serves as a role model, you know, and you've got to look for actually that kind of scenario (where the winner can raise awareness)," said judge, Indy 500 winner and "Dancing with the Stars" champion Helio Castroneves. "People just, sometimes, thinking about the model look, you know, picture and, 'Oh, this one looks fantastic,' but it's not only one thing, you know? In fact, I was talking even to Adriana, my wife, and she said, 'You've got to look for something that is actually the whole package.' And it's true, because she's going to be representing so many, many things, you know: beauty, tradition, accomplishment. And that's what I'm going to be looking (for). So, hopefully, I can see when I'm judging I was able - I'm going to be able to see that and it'll be pretty exciting."
Castroneves, who is also Brazilian, said, "This is an amazing opportunity. I'm really, really excited to be judging, first of all. I mean, for me, I - you know, being a race car driver, being an athlete, you've got to be focused; you've got to be determined; and I fully understand that all the contestants, all the ladies, I mean, they're going to do a pretty good job.
"They're working really hard in terms of, you know, to have their hair, makeup and eating the right things, and I believe it's going to be the whole package. It's not about only one thing, to be beautiful, but also as well, you know, you've got to represent well, you've got to be presentable."
Miss Universe tidbits
•The 60th annual Miss Universe Pageant will be broadcast live from Credicard Hall in São Paulo, Brazil. A live Spanish simulcast will air on Telemundo. Natalie Morales and Bravo's Andy Cohen will host the NBC broadcast.
•The list of judges includes:
•Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Bebel Gilberto, daughter of Brazilian legend Joao Gilberto, will perform her electronic bossa nova single "Close Your Eyes" during the evening gown portion of the competition. Meanwhile, Brazilian native pop singer Claudia Leitte will turn the heat up when she performs her new single "Locomotion" during the swimsuit competition.
•For the first time ever, fans in represented countries have been able to vote for their favorite contestant for an automatic spot into the semifinals at the 2011 Miss Universe competition. Fans can vote online at www.missuniverse.com or www.nbc.com. Online voting is taking place now through Sept. 11 (9 p.m. ET).