Dubai-based Nikita Preka is resolutely following in the footsteps of the most famous Albanian woman to have walked the earth – Mother Teresa.

Like the celebrated social worker and Nobel laureate nun, this 28-year-old Albanian beauty too is chasing world peace, albeit on skyscraper stilettos as the incumbent Miss Albania World 2018. And while her shoes might be glamorous, walking gracefully in them has come with its own challenges and obstacles, says the statuesque blonde, fresh off her stint at the recently concluded 2018 Miss World Competition at Sanya, China.

Nikita’s starry-eyed dreams of becoming a beauty queen began where it always does for young girls — through the square-eyed world that is television. Growing up in the Albanian town of Lezha, Nikita was barely seven when she was mesmerised by the fairytale gowns, the dazzling beauty of the women and the poise and grace they exuded at fashion pageants. But what truly held her in thrall was the influence they wielded over millions of viewers to sit up and listen to them as they spoke on stage.

‘What got me interested is the power that pageants give you... to make people listen to you and express yourself and make the changes you want to in the world,’ says Nikita, in an interview with Friday, just before a fashion photoshoot at the Gulf News studio.

At age 16 Nikita won her first title as Miss Lezha, her city’s beauty pageant | T-shirt Dh680, Alice and Olivia Skirt Dh1,875, Pinko Shoes Dh199, Mango Earrings Dh69, Mango
Stefan Lindeque; hair and make-up: Emma Gambino

It would take her another nine years before she could, at age 16, realise that dream and get a crowd to listen and take notice of her ideas and thoughts when she participated in the annual Miss Lezha pageant in her city. Her parents were amused that their straight A-scoring youngest was interested in what was stereotypically considered a shallow pursuit. ‘I saw it as a platform for women’s empowerment, where women have goals and talk about social issues and try and make a change in the world,’ Nikita explains.

While the question that Nikita answered flawlessly when she won Miss Lezhe 2008 eludes her memory, she remembers the wonder, nervousness and joy of having people wait with bated breaths to hear what she had to say. ‘It was nerve-wracking to see all these people waiting for me to speak. But to know they wanted to hear what I had to say was so amazing.

‘It’s why I find pageants empowering,’ she emphasises.

Still, Nikita only participated in two pageants afterwards, competing and winning the title of Miss Motors Formula One pageant in Monaco in 2014 and the Miss Albania contest in 2011, where she was the runner-up qualifying her as the official entrant of the Balkan nation to the 2011 Miss World competition.

‘I was working as a model on the side as a hobby but my main focus was on my education in London.' | Pink dress Dh2,099, Pinko Necklace Dh7,900 and earrings Dh1,790, Atasay
Stefan Lindeque; hair and make-up: Emma Gambino

‘However, because I had other commitments and I was studying at that time, I couldn’t [participate in the competition],’ she says.

‘I was working as a model on the side as a hobby but my main focus was on my education in London — my courses were time intensive and required full commitment from me,’ explains the banking and finance graduate who, while pursuing her higher education at Anglian Ruskin University and The University of Sutherland in London, modelled for designers such as Roberto Capucci in Milan, Paris and Montenegro.

But an odd twist of fate allowed her to represent her country at the prestigious competition seven years later.

‘When the organisers of Miss Albania contacted me on Instagram out of the blue last year I was taken aback, as it had been a while since I’d participated in any pageants in the country.

‘I’m not sure what happened to the Miss Albania first runner-up this year but they couldn’t send the contestant. So, they conducted an open casting for the position and asked me to apply.’

After multiple interviews over video calls, emails, submitting headshots and photographs over the course of a month, Nikita was handpicked as Albania’s representative to Miss World 2018.

Nikita isn’t sure what tilted the scales in her favour but she knows that respected Albanian TV director Vera Grabocka, who has been a part of the team organising the first Miss Albania contest since 1992, had picked her for more than her good looks. ‘They look at your background, what you’ve achieved in life, how skilled you are and whether you can cope with the pressure,’ says Nikita.

Nikita requested a month-long leave from her work in Dubai to compete in the Miss World constest last year | Hair and make-up: Emma Gambino | Pink dress Dh339, Topshop Shoes model’s own
Stefan Lindeque; hair and make-up: Emma Gambino

Her employers in Dubai, Ellington Properties, a real estate firm Nikita has been working in since she moved to the UAE six months ago — ‘for the sunshine and it’s one of my favourite holiday destinations’ — happily allowed her a month’s leave to compete in China.

Nikita admits that she trained hard and followed a strict diet and skincare regimen in the UAE without a personal trainer or the bevy of experts who are a staple part of every beauty queen’s entourage.

Three run-ins with pageants and their excruciating demands had made a professional beauty queen of Nikita. ‘I’d already trained under experts the last three times, so I knew what works best for my body and skin this time. These are fitness routines I follow regularly as part of daily life too, so it was easy for me. I consumed a high protein diet with plenty of vegetables and my exercise routine involved four days of cardio interspersed with three days of weight training. My entire team [designers and organisers] was in Albania but we were constantly in touch via video calls and emails so I didn’t really feel the distance.’

Spending around 120 hours in heels was a breeze, but Nikita admits the expectations of an entire country was a huge burden

In China though, she was a long distance from home and left to her own devices with 120 other accomplished women each burning with a passion and fervour to realise their dream of sporting the crown on the big night. It might seem like a pressure cooker situation where tensions runs high and angelic women transform into mean girls, but Nikita’s experience was anything but that. What she describes, is in fact, straight out of the 2000 film Miss Congeniality. ‘All the girls were very supportive and positive. We helped each other with hair and make-up, our outfits and even emotional upheavals,’ she says with a laugh. Spending around 120 hours in heels and participating in photocalls around Sanya’s cultural and historical sites was a breeze but the burden of expectations of an entire country had all the women in a state of panic.

A week before the competition Nikita found herself in tears but she credits her newfound friends Miss Italy, Miss Poland and Miss Czech Republic as being her pillars of support at the time. Lady luck is a fickle mistress and yanked the rug out from under Nikita’s feet at the eleventh hour. Every year, based on public votes the Miss World contest shortlists maximum 40 members from the 120 contestants. This year, the organisers revised rules and set that cutoff number to 30. Nikita came 39.

‘I believe everything happens for a reason,’ she says with equanimity. ‘The fact that I got a fresh stab at an opportunity I thought I had lost out on also had a reason behind it. It gave me the exposure I needed to make my dream of setting up a business and a charitable organisation that helps underprivileged children and teenagers in Albania complete their education.’

While pursuing higher in London, Nikita modelled for designers such as Roberto Capucci in Milan, Paris and Montenegro | Jacket Dh1,675 and silk top Dh965, both Pinko Jeans Dh799, Diesel Ring Dh4,450 and earrings Dh1,300, Atasay Necklace Dh69, Topshop
Stefan Lindeque; hair and make-up: Emma Gambino

Meeting inspiring women such as Miss New Zealand Jess Tyson, a survivor of sexual abuse who started a sexual abuse awareness organisation, and Miss Lebanon Mira Toufaily, who as an abandoned child was raised by a non-governmental organisation and is working towards helping other such kids, reinstated Nikita’s hunger to make a difference.

These were women who were proof that trauma doesn’t define life and that these pageants can be opportunities to reclaim your life, and heal by making a difference. The exposure to these women and their stories helped Nikita to reflect on her own turbulent relationship with her body image and food while growing up.

‘One of the reasons I signed up for my first pageant was to shed the chubby tag people attached to me as a kid. I was bullied a lot for my weight,’ she confesses. While she proved a point to her tormentors by morphing from a tomboy who didn’t care about their taunts into a lissom young pageant winner, the internal struggle was far from over. ‘I was obsessed with my weight during my teenage years. I was doing all these extreme diets and eventually my stomach couldn’t hold anything; I’d throw up everything I ate. It wasn’t bulimia but I had serious stomach issues that left my parents and siblings worried.’

Reiterating the Miss World motto, Nikita tells Friday, ‘Looks are just the gateway, what really matters is the purpose you have.’

The obsession with losing weight reared its head again when Nikita was 23 and competing in Miss Motors Formula One 2014. ‘I was exercising more than I was eating, but I managed to curb it with the help of my family. I realised that ‘being skinny’ wasn’t my priority. It’s not what pageants were about.

‘Sometimes, it’s easy to lose track of what matters in an industry where looks play such an important part.’

Convinced pageants are empowering, she reiterates the Miss World contest’s motto: ‘Looks are just the gateway, what really matters is the purpose you have.’

And it is with renewed purpose that Nikita is stepping into the new year contacting organisations in Albania to kick-start legal procedures to establish her charity, while improving her public speaking skills so she can become a motivational speaker who can inspire people and address social issues. And she intends to do so indulging in her love of fashion and flashing the perfect pageant smile to boot.

Mother Teresa did say peace begins with a smile.