When Leila Lopes was crowned Miss Universe 2011, the 25 year-old put her native south-central African country of Angola on the map for the first time in the pageant’s 60-year history.
However, glamour quickly took a backseat to Lopes’ more pressing desire to use her newfound platform of beauty to illuminate one of the darkest shadows cast over Angola—and that of the world—the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In Angola, the fatal disease has reached pandemic proportions. According to the World Bank, HIV has factored into the plummet of the country’s average life expectancy rate to one of the world’s lowest—47.6 years when last measured in 2009. Meanwhile, the rate of infection has more than quadrupled from 1990 to the present day.
In spite of government efforts to educate people about protection, Lopes says the burgeoning infection rate has more to do with a mindset that is difficult to change.
“Most people in the world just don’t believe it will happen to them, but this is especially true in Angola,” Lopes told YouBeauty in an exclusive interview. “We have had a civil war from 1975 until just a few years ago. Because of the war, many people didn’t go to school. They’re uneducated, they don’t know about the disease, they don’t know about prevention. They think it is something that happens to someone else.”
Yet according to Lopes, the true ‘death sentence’ is not when someone is diagnosed with or even passes from the virus, but when the rest of the community finds out that a person is infected. “When people start to avoid and abandon them, that’s when their life really ends. I’ve even seen children left by parents,” says Lopes.
By bringing the spotlight of the Miss Universe crown to areas affected by AIDS, Lopes hopes that a picture will help expedite a powerful message. “By being with HIV patients, I want others to see that HIV people don’t change just because they are HIV positive. We need the discrimination to end,” says Lopes.
It may seem a different beat from the ‘world peace’ platform of your stereotypical beauty pageant contestant, but Lopes’ winning edge has appeared to be that she is not a manufactured beauty.
Competitors even took note of the difference—though some, perhaps begrudgingly. Miss France Laury Thilleman—who made the first cut, but did not advance into the last round of semi-finalists —openly complained to the press afterwards that Lopes “was often in jeans and not wearing makeup” during the nearly month-long competition in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
“Many girls made efforts that were not rewarded. I don’t know, something is missing in her temperament,” moped the French beauty queen.
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