Before she became Miss Universe, McLean competed in Miss World 1991. In the preliminary competition, she was tied in second place with a score of 51 along with Miss South Africa, behind the eventual winner, Venezuela's Ninibeth Leal. McLean eventually finished in the top 5.
In the 1992 Miss Universe pageant, she finished second in the preliminary with a score of 9.147, right behind Carolina Izsak of Venezuela, who won all three preliminary competitions. Nonetheless, McLean's warmth and love for children helped clinch the crown over Izsak, Paola Turbay of Colombia and Madhushri Sapre of India.
In 1992, Michelle founded the Michelle McLean Children's Trust in Namibia which focuses on the education and care of underprivileged children.
Michelle was instrumental in bringing the Miss Universe pageant to her country in 1995. Michelle married her longtime boyfriend, Neil Bierbaum, but they divorced in 2006.
In 2009, Michelle co-hosted the Miss World pageant held in South Africa.