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By Josh Bailie

Arts & Life Editor

Gwen Elliot was born into a house that didn’t have running water. She didn’t have cable television or internet access. She shared a room with three younger sisters. But she wouldn’t change it for the world — Miss World, that is.

Elliot, 20, is one of 45 finalists vying to represent Canada at Miss World 2009, the world’s most watched beauty pageant. The third-year radio and television arts student wants to redefine what it means to be a beauty queen.

“I just want to show people that you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” she said.

In elementary school, Elliot fainted when she had to speak in front of her class. She was her high school’s star rugby player. She has never modeled, and she fears walking on-stage in a bikini.

“I want this journey I’m going on for Miss World Canada to be inspirational for people,” she said. “By challenging yourself and stepping outside of your comfort zone you can achieve goals and live your dreams.”

To prepare herself for competition, Elliot found a personal trainer to sponsor her for free workouts. She has also been taking advantage of free runway lessons offered by Miss World Canada.

The lessons are meant to level the playing field for inexperienced contestants. While many of the women have modeled, Sastee Bachan, vice president of Miss World Canada marketing, said the judges’ main focus is on personality, and everyone can learn how to present themselves with practise.

But this is little consolation to Elliot, who works three jobs to pay for school and who spends her free time volunteering. She also still needs to find sponsors for a dress, a bikini and the $2,100 fee for pageant entry.

“I would say underdog is an understatement,” she said. “The first girl I met when I was doing the runway training was a model who had been in St. Lucia recently. She was size two and super tiny and I was just like ‘Hi! I’m from Beaverton!'”

Elliot applied for Miss World Canada online, emailed her picture in and won her spot after a phone interview. While some contestants won regional competitions, Elliot’s hometown of Beaverton, Ont. wasn’t eligible. Miss World’s motto is ‘Beauty with a Purpose’ and in the past 25 years the organization has raised over $400 million for charity.

In the competition, five categories grant contestants automatic entry into the semi-finals. Elliot is aiming to be fast-tracked for raising the most money for SOS Children’s Villages Canada. She wants to raise more “than ever’s been done before” in the competition. The Miss World Canada record was set in 2006 by winner Daphne Choi. She raised $15,000.

Choi was the only recent winner who — like Elliot — lacked pageant or modeling experience.

“She was an athlete… she barely knew how to wear heels,” Bachan said.

If Elliot doesn’t win a fast-track award, she’ll need to be one of 15 remaining contestants to impress the judges. The 45 will be narrowed down to 20 after interviews, swimsuit and evening gown competitions.

The remaining 20 do another bikini competition, and 10 are chosen to continue to the second evening gown competition. From there, five finalists are chosen for the Q&A segment.

If Elliot does manage to beat the odds and win Miss World Canada, she’ll go from Beaverton to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the Miss World final at the end of the year. Last year, over two billion people tuned into Miss World 2008.

Miss World Canada, and Elliot’s fate, will be decided in March.

“If I fall on stage it’s a learning experience. No matter what happens throughout this whole journey I’m learning a lot — I’m excited.”

So even if the glass slipper doesn’t fit, she’ll still have a ball.

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