TORONTO - A transgender contender at Miss Universe Canada is unfairly taking the spotlight away from other contestants, complained friends and relatives of some rivals as the race began with swimsuit and evening gown events Thursday.
Wannabe beauty queen Jenna Talackova has dominated media attention for weeks, starting with her high-profile fight to enter the contest even though she was born male.
The leggy blond from Vancouver underwent a sex change operation four years ago and is the first transgender contestant to compete for the title of Miss Universe Canada.
Supporters of some other competitors complained during intermission that Talackova's sensational story has overshadowed worthy challengers.
"It's a little bit one-sided and there's a lot of focus on maybe Jenna and maybe the issues surrounding it," said Donavon Powell, there to cheer for 24-year-old girlfriend Vaughan Marr of Cremona, Alta.
"I think it's good there's attention brought to it but I think it might be outweighing and overshadowing the rest of the competition in general."
Organizers say interest in this year's race has been intense, drawing twice as many reporters as last year. A publicist said visiting media outlets include TV crews from two Tokyo broadcasters, CNN and the U.S. entertainment show "Inside Edition."
Still, the 800-seat downtown theatre that hosted Thursday's pageant appeared just two-thirds full.
The contest kicked off with 62 women donning skimpy white bikinis and glittering evening gowns for a preliminary round.
The 6-1 Talackova stood head and shoulders above some contenders, and gave a flirtatious twirl near the top of the show to display her curvy figure.
The swimsuit and gown categories each contribute 30 per cent of the score, while 10 per cent is drawn from the contestants' humanitarian work. The remaining 30 per cent comes from a private interview session set to take place Friday.
The winner will be crowned Saturday with a gala streamed online at www.beautiesofcanada.com.
Celebrity judges Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan of HGTV's "Home Heist" vowed to remain impartial.
"We won't be pushed into making her the winner just because we want to be involved in history in the making," said Ryan, one of 15 judges that include "The Kennedys" actress Kristin Booth and singer Kreesha Turner.
"We'll only decide if Jenna's a suitable winner if Jenna shows us that she's worthy of holding that crown. She's gorgeous, but she's got to be a whole lot more than gorgeous to be our winner."
Fellow judge and "Rookie Blue" actor Lyriq Bent said he's steered clear of media coverage to remain as unbiased as possible. He said he didn't even know the identity of the transgendered contestant.
"I've been hearing about it (but) I've not watched any TV or listened to any news," Bent said.
"At the end of the day, we all have opinions and we have an important job to make sure that we do not bring that opinion into our judging. So that's, I think, the best way to deal with anything."
Talackova created an international splash when organizers disqualified her because she isn't a naturally-born female.
But pageant owner Donald Trump overruled the decision and said Talackova could take part.
On Thursday, five women automatically made it to Saturday's final round by winning sidebar contests.
Calgary's Adwoa Yamoah was named best runway model, Hamilton's Marta Jablonska earned the humanitarian prize, Edmonton's Chelsea Bird won best body, Vancouver's Casar Jacobson got the night's most audience votes while the people's choice award, drawn from online votes, went to Mandi Gale of Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L.
Denis Davila, president of Beauties of Canada which runs the Canadian pageant, said he has received a lot of emails both for and against Talackova's run for the crown.
But he said this year's crop is a fair representation of Canadian women.
"This is Canada — we are diverse, we are a multicultural country, we have to come from all walks of life and this is the true Canada," said Davila.