Denise Garrido shares how it felt to lose the title; Riza Santos reacts to her belated victory
Credit: Nicholas Allum

Is it better to be a queen for a day than never a queen at all?

For Denise Garrido, whose Miss Universe Canada crown was taken away after 24 hours due to a paperwork error, the answer is clear.

“It’s definitely a blessing in disguise,” the 26-year-old brunette beauty from Bradford, Ontario, tells PEOPLE. “I had this dream since I was a kid. I had that moment to be Miss Universe Canada.”

For this pageant veteran – Garrido also won 2008 Miss Earth Canada and 2010 Miss World Canada (and has a degree in bio-medical sciences) – that moment meant the usual tears and congratulations, including hugs at an after-party by the judges who didn’t in fact vote for her to win last Saturday night.

The next evening, after a whirlwind Sunday of media interviews and video and photo shoots, a pageant official told her to come in for a meeting. “They had something to discuss with me,” she recalled.

“As we were sitting down, just the tone of the voice, I felt there was some sadness behind the tone. My heart sank, I thought, ‘Uh-oh,'” she says.

That’s when the pageant’s director dropped the bombshell that something went wrong when the scores were transferred from the judges’ paper forms to electronic tabulation.

Garrido in fact finished fourth.

“I was still on this adrenaline rush and completely exhausted. I was still sleep-deprived. So I didn’t know if this was actually real,” she says. “I was like, ‘No, there is no way.’ At the same time, I thought, ‘How am I going to face everyone at home, all the congratulations?’ I was feeling embarrassed and shocked and I was in disbelief.”

Meanwhile, the woman who had been named in second place, Riza Santos, 26, of Calgary, was sitting poolside in Las Vegas, where she had traveled after the pageant, her cell phone and computer turned off.

“I felt disappointed because I felt that I performed very well throughout the entire night,” Santos says. “I had executed everything to the best of my ability.”

The brown-haired model/actress and Army reservist felt good after the swimsuit and evening gown rounds and thought her Q&A session with judges went particularly well.

After she was named first-runner up, she skipped the official after-party, opting instead for a late-night dinner at a Chinese restaurant with her boyfriend and her parents, who had flown in from across the country for the pageant.

She was still reliving the night in her mind, trying to figure out what went wrong, when her mom finally reached her on Monday afternoon to say the pageant director was desperately trying to track her down. It turned out that he had left messages both on her Facebook page and phone.

When she called him back, he asked her if she was sitting down because he had good news and bad news. She asked for the bad news first. It was that she had a busy year ahead because the good news was she was actually the winner of Miss Universe Canada.

“I had already taken the time over the 48 hours to internalize what had happened and accept the fact that I hadn’t won. I was actually okay with it at that point,” she says.

Now, heading to the Miss Universe Pageant to represent Canada – plus a packed schedule of promotional appearances and charity work – Santos is numb, still trying to reconcile winning the crown but also being denied her moment in the spotlight.

“I’m not really sure how I feel about,” she says. “I’m not disappointed about it. I did miss the victory party. At the same time, people who were really close to me – they were the ones who reached out to me afterwards. I do appreciate that a great deal. I actually am content with everything that happens. My heart goes out to Denise.”

She need not worry. Garrido is savoring every minute of the experience, the worldwide media attention making her the most famous fourth-place finisher in beauty pageant history.

“I do enjoy speaking to people and inspiring people, inspiring women,” Garrido says. “I can tell them: You don’t have to be the winner to be a winner.”