KYIV— Ukraine’s contestant for Miss Universe 2023, Viktoria Apanasenko, says she will never forget “the painful pageant” that took place in New Orleans last week. On Saturday—the day of the finale—a Russian missile struck the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, hitting a nine-story residential building and killing at least 41 people, including four children.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Apanasenko said she had spent the morning of the finale watching heartbreaking videos of fellow Ukrainians dying in the aftermath of the attack. By evening time, she was doing her final pageant walk in a black dress—“symbolizing the grief of Ukrainian people,” she explained—on a stage she shared with the Russian participant, Anna Linnikova.
“I am more than grateful to Miss Universe for their support, but I am not sure the organizers understood what it felt like for me to be standing and smiling on the same stage with Miss Russia who was wearing a red dress, the color of blood,” Apanasenko told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. (The Miss Universe Organization did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast by time of publication.)
The 29-year-old Apanasenko is from the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, which was under Russian siege from Feb. 24 to April 4, while she was in Kyiv. During that time, her father, who was recovering from a heart surgery, had to be moved into the basement during bombings.
“Some girls at Miss Universe did not know there was a war in Ukraine,” she said. “Most participants support me very much, but it was hard for them to imagine how I spent nights inside [a parking garage] during the shelling.”
Apanasenko was working at a restaurant in April last year when she first heard that she was going to be Miss Universe Ukraine. She agreed to participate in the pageant, thinking it would give her a bigger platform to raise awareness of the tremendous suffering her people were going through.
It took Ukrainian organizers eight months to prepare for the National Costume portion of the competition: Apanasenko was meant to represent the Archangel Michael, a symbol of Ukraine’s capital. She wore a flowing white and gold dress with a spectacular pair of 16-foot-long wings spreading out behind her, complete with a crown of wheat spikelets.
“Archangel Michael is famous for defeating the demon and defending people, so I am glad the organizers supported my idea of being the warrior of light,” Apanasenko said. “But when I saw the Russian participant wearing a costume called the ‘Crown of the Russian Empire’, I thought: ‘How absurd.’”
The director of Miss Universe’s Ukraine branch, Anna Filimonova, had to make many important decisions on how to organize for the contest in the middle of a brutal war. “We learned about Miss Russia’s participation only one week before the competition, so we had two options: not to take part in the competition, or to go to the United States and carry our important message, our angel,” Filimonova told The Daily Beast.
It took Apanasenko three days to travel from her war-torn country to New Orleans. “Many participants were wearing high heels and fancy dresses when they arrived, and I had my sneakers and a sweatshirt on,” Apanasenko said. “Some people criticized me for that, but to me Miss Universe is not some queen—but simply a girl with a strong and brave message, an empowered character, a great believer.”
Apanasenko said she was still processing everything that had happened to her in New Orleans. Back home in Ukraine, many hoped that their blue and yellow angel would win, but Miss Ukraine did not make it to the top 16—and neither did the Russian participant.
“Until the very last moment I hoped that Miss Russia would come up to me and say sorry, but she only came up to me to get a selfie for what I think were propaganda purposes,” she said. “Miss Russia did not say a word about the war. People told me it would be dangerous for her.”
But the worst part of the pageant, Apanasenko explained, was that “they did not even give me a microphone for 30 seconds. I hoped so much I would have a chance to speak about the war. It was terribly painful.”