Her campaign slogan is “Laksmi for Literacy” and her chosen field of advocacy – which participants nominate in addition to strutting the catwalk – is improving reading and writing among under-privileged children.
DeNeefe described her daughter’s selection of the passion project as “the greatest compliment”.
“It was her choice,” she said. “She’s grown up in the writers’ festival …she’s more recently helped moderate [sessions] and she’s been a volunteer. But she’s also a big reader.”
The pageant is being held three months after the Miss Universe Organisation was bought for $US20 million ($30 million) by transgender Thai media magnate Jakaphong “Anne” Jakrajutatip.
It had been co-owned by Donald Trump from 1996 until 2015, when he sold out in the early stages of an ultimately successful presidential run.
While Miss Universe retains a swimsuit competition despite some other such contests having dumped them, Jakrajutatip, the chief executive of Thai conglomerate JKN Global Group, told Bloomberg last year she wanted to shift the focus of Miss Universe to recognise “transformational leadership”.
She also intends to concentrate efforts on rebuilding the brand, long associated with Trump, in South-East Asia, seizing on the popularity of pageants in the region with a line of products including cosmetics, underwear and vitamin water.
Beauty contests are all the rage in the Philippines and well-supported in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, but they have also been on the rise in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
Indonesian women were largely forbidden from entering international pageants during the 32-year rule of former president Suharto, who regarded them as anti-religious and in contravention of the country’s cultural standards. It is only since 2005 that Indonesia has regularly fielded contestants in major events. When Indonesia hosted the Miss World event in 2013, Islamic groups took to the streets to protest and the bikini-wearing round was abandoned.
There is greater acceptance now and President Joko Widodo’s two sons are married to former beauty queens.
In the US, Laksmi hopes to not only become the first Indonesian to win Miss Universe, or at least the first to progress beyond the top 10.
Leaving for New Orleans, she said her life purpose was “to serve others and be a force for good”.