June 04, 2003 03:14 PM

The world has a new Miss Universe: Miss Dominican Republic Amelia Vega, who’s 18 years old and 6’0″ tall, and topped a field of 70 smiling contestants to pick up her title in Panama City Tuesday, reports Reuters.

Vega’s victory marked the first time a Dominican contestant nabbed the crown. The Spanish-speaking country shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with impoverished Haiti.

The runner-up was Miss Venezuela Mariangel Ruiz, 23, an economics student. Miss South Africa Cindy Nell, 21, a management student, came in third.

In the final shakedown among five contestants (think “American Idol” in prom dresses), Vega clinched the crown with her reply to a final question: “What is the most precious gift you’ve ever given someone?”

“According to my grandmother,” she said, “it was a letter I wrote to her when she was once very ill.”

Now that the crown is hers, Vega will take home an estimated $70,000 in prizes and hold public engagements around the world that will include fund-raising and campaigning for AIDS research and awareness, says Reuters.

And, in “AI” style, she will also win an appearance on a Spanish-language soap opera.

“I am so happy,” she told reporters at press conference after her crowning. “I’m so proud to be able to work with (AIDS patients), to support them, maybe not as much as some people would like, but everything I can give, I will give.”

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