THE STORY OF ZULEYKA RIVERA, MISS UNIVERSE 2006
(Malkovich is a pageant expert and is one of the best writers among the thousand members of missosology forum)
Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza of Salinas, Puerto Rico was eighteen years old when she won Miss Universe 2006 in Los Angeles, California, USA on July 23rd, 2006. She is often considered to be one of the most controversial Miss Universes of all time. We examine why.
Zuleyka Jerris Rivera Mendoza was born in Cayey, Puerto Rico on October 3rd, 1987 to Jerry Rivera and Carmen Mendoza. She has two brothers, Jerry Jr. and Jose. Zuleyka had entered the Puerto Rican beauty pageant circuit when she was a child, entering small pageants here and there. When she was a teenager, she entered the Miss Teen Puerto Rico 2002 pageant and placed as first runner up. Four years later, at the age of eighteen, Zuleyka entered the Miss Puerto Rico Universe 2006 pageant as Miss Salinas. The pageant was headed by Dominican-born Magaly Febles, who owned both the Puerto Rican and Dominican enterprises. Magaly had reached success with Miss Puerto Rico Universe 2005, Cynthia Olavarria, who was first runner up to Miss Canada, Natalie Glebova, at Miss Universe 2005 in Thailand. Magaly, feeling that she had been robbed in 2005, was hungry for a Miss Universe crown in 2006. While Zuleyka was a frontrunner for the crown, she faced strong competition from Miss Yauco, Lorenia Delgado.
Many pageant watchers saw Miss Puerto Rico Universe 2006 as a direct head-to-head between the two beauties from Puerto Rico's south coast. However, at the end, it was Zuleyka's confidence and edginess won over Lorenia's performance and a back-to-back win for Salinas was achieved. You all may notice that Zuleyka's dress in the picture above is much like her infamous dress at Miss Universe, and you'd be right. Many pageant watchers think the dress helped her win in Puerto Rico and then again in Los Angeles.
Zuleyka's life as Miss Puerto Rico Universe was not without controversy. Many saw Zuleyka as a complete downgrade to her predecessor, Cynthia Olavarria, who is still today considered one of the best Puerto Rico has ever sent to Miss Universe, if not the best. Zuleyka's features were said to be harsh; unlike Cynthia Olavarria, Denise Quinones, Dayanara Torres, Deborah Carthy-Deu, and Marisol Malaret who all have predominantly European features, Zuleyka has a very obvious mix between European, African, and Native Taino features. This is not seen very often in a Miss Puerto Rico. But Zuleyka maintained her confidence and left for Los Angeles with her head high.
Zuleyka Rivera went to Los Angeles determined to bring the crown back to Puerto Rico for the fifth time. She was going to attempt to succeed Canada's Natalie Glebova, a woman who, as thought by Magaly Febles, stole Puerto Rico's fifth crown at Miss Universe 2005 in Thailand. Zuleyka did not arrive to Los Angeles for the Miss Universe 2006 pageant as a major favorite but, as most Latinas are, she arrived very prepared. Very quickly, Zuleyka began to take the pageant by storm and was beginning to be noticed by pageant watchers everywhere. Before long, Zuleyka was declared as a frontrunner alongside Mexico's Priscila Perales, Colombia's Valerie Dominguez, Trinidad and Tobago's Kenisha Thom, and Switzerland's Lauriane Gillieron (who was considered to be THE favorite). At the Miss Universe 2006 preliminary competition, Zuleyka wore the same dress she wore at the Miss Puerto Rico Universe pageant, unprecedented for a Miss Puerto Rico, but she carried it with ease.
On the final night, Zuleyka was the first called out of twenty semifinalists. Her walk was spectacular in a year that found itself smack-dab in the middle of the fierce era, Zuleyka kept the tradition going. She was later called in the Top 10 at fifth and, with Bedshape playing in the background, emerged in her iron chained evening gown, an evening gown still regarded by pageant watchers as one of the best evening gowns ever presented at Miss Universe. It was designed by Puerto Rican designer Carlos Alberto and, not surprisingly, was incredibly heavy. But Zuleyka carried it wonderfully and, to no one's surprise, was called in to the Top 5. Her final question came from Miss Universe 2005, Natalie Glebova, and asked "what is your definition of success?"
"For me it's the satisfaction from the human being who has really fulfilled his or her goals and has realized all the work that they have done. Not withstanding whatever obstacles that you come across because obstacles are something that make you strong and make you know you do have those qualities to be successful." - Zuleyka Rivera via translator.
At the end of the night, Zuleyka Jerris Rivera Mendoza was crowned Miss Universe 2006 beating out beauties from Japan, Switzerland, Paraguay, and the USA.
About twenty minutes after her crowning, Zuleyka Rivera fainted and had to be taken away by a security guard. The Miss Universe Organization said it was from "exhaustion or dehydration" but, in reality, it was because Zuleyka's dress was so heavy that she could not breathe. Miss Brazil's fiance, who happened to be a doctor, assisted her by cutting her dress open which allowed her to breath more easily and regain her senses.
Before long, Zuleyka Rivera had put on some weight, not unlike Miss Universe 1996, Alicia Machado of Venezuela, and this was noted by the press. It was perhaps during her visit to India that the media became most harsh on her; the Indian press echoed sentiments about her weight gain and Rivera was often photographed looking sad or angry. After returning from India, Zuleyka was interviewed by Puerto Rican Grenda Rivera, and she talked about the hardships of being Miss Universe. She told Grenda that she had made the decision to give up her title, as she found the pressures of being an international celebrity and Miss Universe distressing and felt that she was too young to deal with the pressures of being Miss Universe. The Miss Universe Organization immediately jumped into action and started accommodating all of Zuleyka's needs and even got her counseling. With the help she received from the organization, Zuleyka decided to keep her crown and finished out her year.
When she crowned Riyo Mori at Miss Universe 2007 in Mexico, she did not hide her unhappiness with being Miss Universe. She never smiled and practically threw the crown at Riyo's head which was largely criticized by the press covering the pageant. Her crowning of Riyo Mori has been compared to Alicia Machado's crowning of Brook Mahealani Lee exactly ten years earlier.
Years later, Zuleyka would say:
There is a time in your life that you will feel lonely and you have to seek strength inside you. I am my number one fan, because if I am not, who will be? We have to seek the inner beauty inside us and value ourselves.
Zuleyka Rivera returned to Puerto Rico after Miss Universe and started acting on telenovelas including Dame Chocolate, Aurora, Alguien Te Mira, and Rosario. In her novelas, she often portrays a villain and she said she has no problem with that because she "handles them pretty well." She also had a small role in the 2013 film, Runner Runner. She has also done work presenting and has worked as an activist. In the fall of 2010, Zuleyka began dating Jj Barea from the Minnesota Timberwolves and, in 2011, they announced that they were expecting a child. Her son, Sebastian Jose, was born in February, 2012. Unfortunately, in April, 2013, Barea announced the relationship was over. It was rumored that he was dating a reigning Miss Teen Puerto Rico. Zuleyka had this to say about the incident:
Life goes on and I keep on going with my head held high.