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When Natalie Glebova was a little girl growing up in Tuapse, a small coastal town on Russian's Black Sea, the thing she treasured most were her Barbies.

"You couldn't just go to the store and find a shelf full of Barbies and pick one. My parents had to search for them. For me, Barbie was the best thing in the world. I was so careful with her. I remember counting all the accessories down to the last shoe and fork to make sure nothing was lost. I was obsessed."

The 23-year-old laughs, revealing a set of lustrous teeth.

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Indeed, it is funny. As the reigning Miss Universe, she has, in one sense, grown up to emulate her childhood plaything. Like the plastic bachelorette from Malibu, Ms. Glebova is cheerful, poised and possessed of unearthly physical proportions. She has a team of handlers, and much of her job involves standing around looking gorgeous in a variety of outfits.

But this is where the similarities end. Ms. Glebova is no talking doll. Her feet aren't moulded to her heels and her head doesn't pop off. When she wakes up in the morning her hair is a frizzy mess. There is no Ken in her life and she doesn't drive a pink convertible.

Not only that, she's smart -- a lot smarter than you might assume. Not that she's out to prove it. This beauty queen doesn't care if you think she's a ditz for walking around in a tiara and satin sash. She doesn't even mind if Toronto, now her home town, bans her from participating in events in Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall.

Last weekend she was invited to attend the Tastes of Thailand festival, only to have its organizers be informed that they were running afoul of a 1990 bylaw forbidding events on the square that "exploit the bodies of men, women, boys or girls solely for the purposes of attracting attention."

Even before that, Mayor David Miller had been notably absent from a very low-key news conference for her that was tucked away in the councillors' lounge. "It was a little bit silly," she says, shrugging. "I'm sure it was some kind of misunderstanding."

Perhaps, but the local papers splashed it on their front pages this week when Mr. Miller suddenly offered her a personal apology for the way she'd been treated.

Never mind: Natalie Glebova is just the second Canadian ever to become Miss Universe (Karen Baldwin of London, Ont., won the crown in 1982) -- and she's having the time of her life.

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"In the beginning, it was all about the win," Ms. Glebova says, sitting in a suite in the brand-new Cosmopolitan Hotel where she is holding her first in-person media interviews since returning home with the title won in Bangkok just over a month ago. "Now I've been Miss Universe for a while. A lot of people ask me what I've seen so far. And everyone asks me if I'm tired."

The answer to the second question is "yes," but Ms. Glebova is not complaining. Her whirlwind schedule since leaving Thailand has included a 10-day tour through South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana, visiting orphanages and hospitals to raise awareness for her official cause, HIV and AIDS awareness. While overseas, she saw things that disturbed her. Things that caused her, a young woman who had never travelled before except on vacation with her parents, to break down and cry during phone calls home.

"The hardest thing was the orphans. They're so innocent and yet there's this stigma," she says. "There was this one little boy who was a toddler. He was HIV-positive and an orphan and when he saw me, he grabbed onto my leg right away. When I went to go see the other kids, he started to cry so I picked him up. I ended up holding on to him the whole time."

Ms. Glebova herself is no stranger to hardship. The only child of working-class parents, she emigrated from Russia with her family when she was 12. They came, she says, with the sole purpose "of giving me a better life." She remembers arriving at Pearson International Airport with a single wicker case containing all their belongings.

"It was a cold day in November. I remember feeling very impressed by the tall buildings and all the lights. We didn't know anything or anyone. We had no family or friends or place to go. We were the first people we knew to come to Canada. We got in a taxi and asked the cabbie to take us to the nearest hotel. We lived there for about week while my dad looked for a place to live. It was hard, because he didn't have a job or references or anything."

After settling in an apartment, the Glebovas sent Natalie to Jesse Ketchum, a public school in the downtown core. "I could only speak a little bit of English. My dad left me in the classroom. I was terrified, but he must have been worried about me because he waited outside. When I saw him through the window, I started crying."

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When the teacher told the class to stand for the national anthem, Natalie got up like everybody else. She didn't know all the words, but she remembers feeling a rush of pride. "For the first time, I was like, 'Wow, I guess I'm a part of this.'"

After high school, Ms. Glebova attended Ryerson University, where she recently graduated with a degree in information technology management. Her parents, who both went back to university to become computer programmers in their adopted country and moved to Boston when she went to Ryerson, are proud of their daughter's decision to test the pageant circuit.

"The support me in everything I do," she says.

But everyone in her life wasn't so keen. "Before winning Miss Universe, I would tell people I was involved in beauty pageants or contests and they would give me this look. Sometimes they'd say things like, 'Isn't that a bit outdated?' or 'I bet you're working for world peace.' There's a stigma associated with it."

But after travelling extensively and meeting beauty queens from around the world, Ms. Glebova has come to terms with the fact that everything is culturally relative.

In Latin America, she points out, being a beauty queen carries something like royalty status. "That's what all girls aspire to and what all parents want their daughters to be."

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What's more, she insists that pageants have come a long way. All the other contestants she met in Bangkok were educated and ambitious. And intelligence was as much a part of the competition as looks. "I'm not trying to sound stuck up, but not just anybody can be in a beauty pageant," she says. "If you're inarticulate, you can't do it. They're looking for someone who can travel the world and communicate as comfortably with dignitaries as with regular everyday people."

A former part-time runway model, she marvels at the fact that we live in a society that elevates models to celebrity status, yet scoffs at beauty queens, who are chosen, at least in part, for their accomplishments and personalities.

As if to prove this point, on the day of her Toronto press conference, Ms. Glebova is introduced by Dr. Ruby Dhalla, a Liberal MP and former Miss India Canada.

"It's a great platform and it gives you a confidence in the ability to relate to people," Dr. Dhalla, 30, says of her pageant experience. "As a young woman in public life, it helped me a lot."

Indeed, while beauty pageants may not be front-page news in Canada, within individual ethnic communities they are considered culturally relevant and important.

"It's a stepping stone for something bigger," Ms. Glebova says, "As one of my friends put it, it's a very big, expensive life lesson."

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And the accommodations aren't too shoddy, either. For the duration of her reign, she has taken up residence in an apartment on the 30th floor of Trump Place on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The apartment is paid for by the Miss Universe foundation, which also pays her an undisclosed salary (she claims not to know the amount and her reps refuse to share it). Ms. Glebova lives in the eight-room pad with two roommates, Miss America and Miss Teen America.

Her schedule has been crammed full of activity. "There is," she says, "no such thing as an average day." Usually she rises early -- somewhere between 5 and 7 a.m. and does her own hair and makeup. ("I enjoy it. I've had a lot of practice.")

Then it's off to an interview or an opening or a charity event. Most days, she attends both a lunch and dinner reception before returning home and falling into bed.

The rapid pace of life, she says, leaves little time for dating. "I can't go out with random people like I did before. I can barely call my parents, let alone a guy," she says.

However, when pressed, Ms. Glebova does admit that she has met a few interested suitors along the way. The tricky thing is telling them what she does for a living.

"[Whether I tell them]depends on how involved I want to get with the person. Normally I'd just say I'm a model. If I want to get to know them better, I'll tell them, 'I just won the Miss Universe pageant.' It's a strange reaction," she admits. "I mean, what can they say?"

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As the only child of an immigrant family, Ms. Glebova grew up with her parents' hopes and dreams resting on her pretty shoulders. From an early age, her mother had her in piano school and taking gymnastics and English lessons. She was expected to work hard and do well in school.

But she denies feeling pressured into beauty queen perfection. "My parents taught me that failure is nothing to be afraid of. You have to fail in order to learn. I believe that."

For those who know Ms. Glebova well, however, the fact that she took the top tiara was no surprise.

"I kind of expected it," says Lucy Alymova, 20, an undergrad at the University of Toronto. She and Ms. Glebova have been best friends since they were children back in Russia. "She's tall and beautiful and she had all the qualities they were looking for. She's a genuine person. She has her bachelor's degree. You expect her to be a catty beauty queen, but she's not."

Watching the future Miss Universe over the years, Ms. Alymova says she has seen a significant change. "As a child, Natalie was very disciplined and well-behaved, but also quite shy. The pageants have helped her come out of her shell and be more social. She used to be shy about talking to grownups. Intimidated almost."

As for career aspirations, Ms. Glebova is interested in both business and acting, but says she is taking the year to "try all sorts of things."

While the future remains uncertain, she still considers Toronto home. Her ultimate goal is clear. "What I do should not only provide me with security but a reason for living," she says. "I'm all about finding your passion in life."

Leah McLaren is a Globe and Mail feature writer whose weekly column appears in the Style section.

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