Natalie Glebova, the newly-crowned Miss Universe, a Canadian from Russia, said she hopes to be a role model for immigrants all over the world.
The dark-haired, green-eyed 23-year-old beat four finalists from Latin America in an 81-woman pageant watched by as many as one billion people in more than 170 countries. Representing the North American nation on the world stage was the last thing on her mind 11 years ago when little Natalie and her family stepped off the plane in Toronto not knowing anyone.
"We came with nothing, just our clothes and our bags, and started a new life in Canada," Glebova said just hours after winning the pageant.
Born and raised in the small Russian resort town of Tuapse on the Black Sea, Glebova said she recalls "being really scared of the unknown" upon arrival in Canada, where her family had no relatives or friends. Once there, she recalls being teased for her heavily accented English.
"At first it was difficult, just because I went to grade eight at the time, and as you can imagine, kids and teenagers can be cruel sometimes," she said. "I was one of the only kids in school with an accent and a different last name, so it was difficult for the first few years until I really perfected my language and started believing in myself more."
She quickly discovered the embracing nature of Canadians, and thrived in her new ethnically diverse surroundings in Toronto. She says now she wouldn't change her lilting Russian accent for the world.
"Everybody is from somewhere else, either their parents or themselves. That's what Canada is all about," she said.
Part of what motivates her for her coming year as Miss Universe is the aim to help those with similar immigrant backgrounds, but who may have more difficult adjustments from one culture to another.
Immigration "gives people an opportunity to start a new life just like my family," she said.
She recalled her friendship with Miss Israel, Elena Ralph, who emigrated from Ukraine just three years ago at the age of 18 and has faired spectacularly well in her new home. The pair speak Russian when they are together, along with the representatives from Georgia, Russia and Ukraine.
"I think it's great that countries are open-minded enough to let somebody who was not born in their country represent their country," she said.
Natalie's mother Anna Glebova, who abandoned her job as a Russian language teacher to become a computer software engineer in Canada, said the family moved in part to provide better opportunities for their daughter, yet she admits to pushing her child as a toddler.
"I was pressuring her a lot," Anna Glebova said. "English lessons at three years old, piano lessons at six, extra mathematics classes."
Enduring her mother's intense educational regimen seems to have paid off handsomely for Natalie, quipped her father Vladimir Slezin, a former merchant mariner who also recast himself in the computer sciences.
"Now, for us, it's just a constant feeling of happiness," he said.