Even at the airport, the women in Venezuela always look put together. From the passport and customs officials in fitted crisp shirts to the bathroom attendants in thigh-high uniforms and French manicures, the women take great pride in their appearance. Regardless of their socio-economic status, it is estimated that Venezuelans spend one fifth of their disposable income on beauty products, a startling statistic for a country in which 80 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. A study conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide revealed that 65 percent of Venezuelan women think about their looks "all the time," in contrast to the 27 percent of American women in the same category.
In Caracas’s shanty towns, jumping over puddles in sloping alleys of clapboard houses, high-heeled women in tight low-waist jeans work their way to the bus stop. A mixture of Amazonian Indian, African, and European blood has created a race that, although subtle to the foreign eye, is quite exotic. As women pass by, men will compliment them with
piropos—mostly well received, highly imaginative cat-calls. With highlights of blond and copper, lipstick and mascara, and a pair of dangling earrings, these women with golden to chocolate skin feel prepared to start their day.
As the recent economic crisis in Venezuela has shown, oil-rich countries need to diversify their industries. In Venezuela, over 80 percent of exports are provided by oil, leaving the government in a position of extraordinary power that would be diluted by a broader base of business. Beauty, at the moment, is one of the only alternatives. It has very quickly grown to be Venezuela’s second industry. As with oil, another natural resource, the development of Miss Venezuela as an export has proved beauty is simply another way for the country to process its raw materials.
It should come as no surprise then that Venezuela is the most successful producer of international beauty queens. Over the past decade, the country has won four Miss Universe tittles and holds the Guinness World Record for winning the Miss World competition the most times. But although it would be great to think that all Venezuelans are born so beautiful, the truth is that their international success is largely due to the hard work and strange ambition of one man and his beauty school.
Osmel Sousa runs the Miss Venezuela Academy from a 1950s house perched in the mountains. In a setting of faux zebra couches, chandeliers, curving stairs with gold verandas, and a room full of crowns and ball gowns of victorious past beauty queens, Sousa transforms pretty girls into knockout contest winners. Wearing a Paul Smith flowered shirt, ironed jeans and Gucci loafers, Sousa explains that after selecting twenty girls from over two thousand participants in a nation-wide scouting competition, he enrolls them in his academy for six months of intense training for the Miss Venezuela contest. Over the past three decades he has developed an eye that he claims can quickly pick a winner from a crowd. The girls will work with a team of professionals that will help them improve on all areas of their presentation. From the way they walk to the way they talk, after six months in Sousa’s academy, they ideally will emerge as confident, eloquent, elegant women with perfect bodies and promising futures.
Dr. Edurado Krulig, the country’s leading plastic surgeon, has been working with the academy for the past ten years. He says that although he usually works on half of the contestants "those ladies only receive very light and very small procedures." However, what he calls "very small" procedures would be considered major surgery in the United States. From his hyper-modern office that looks like a set from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, he explains that the most common operations are breast augmentation, thigh lipo-sculpting, and waist reduction. Plastic surgery, he says, is readily accepted as a valid means of beautification, because in Venezuela, the girls are judged on being "beautiful" and not on being natural. These surgeries are indispensable for most of the Misses (as the contestants are known) who are striving to have 90-60-90 bodies—the coveted measurement in centimeters (36-24-36 in inches) of the bust, waist, and hips, respectively.
In 2003, due to the country’s current economic crisis, the Academy had to cut back on its plastic surgery budget and rely on less invasive procedures. Dr. Sonja, the team’s dermatologist, and Dr. Moises Kaswan, the cosmetic dentist, combine their efforts in perfecting the face and smile of every Miss. Because they are working on a tight schedule, they have developed techniques which yield fast results. For example, says Dr. Sonja, "one of the contestants had a nose that went down which we could fix with the new collagen, all in ten minutes and for a very small price. Or, when you have childhood acne scars, you can fill them by destroying the scar from underneath and promoting the growth of their own collagen." One look at the Misses’ perfectly symmetrical wrinkle-free face with smooth, flawless skin, and you are convinced of the success of the techniques.
Dr. Kaswan calls himself a smile architect. For him and Sousa, a Misses’ smile is her most valuable asset. Because of the tight schedule, there is no time for orthodontics. Braces and retainers are out the question. Instead, he works with cosmetic dentistry techniques. During their first meeting, the Misses, Dr. Kaswan, and the rest of the team work on a "smile design." From there they will begin to modify crooked teeth with composites, which will make the teeth appear aligned; or they will cut back on gums to make the teeth appear larger. He explains that these non-traditional techniques are gaining popularity because of how much can be done for little time and money. He calls it "permanent make-up." Dr. Kaswan said that the girls are so pleased with the results that some have told him, "‘Maybe I won’t win, but you know my teeth look great.’ " "And," he continued, "that’s why they all want to be in Miss Venezuela."
Although the Misses undergo a considerable physical transformation, discipline will be their best companion during the next step of the process. Despite the fact that the candidates arrive at the Academy in good shape and at their desired weight, they are always asked to improve muscle tone and lose about twenty pounds. Television, they are told, has a tendency of making people look heavier and the studio lights also pick up flabby skin. Since the show is produced primarily for broadcast and is sold to other Latin American television networks, it is essential that the participants look good for the screen and not just for the audience.
The Misses stretch, run, lift weights, hike, swim and do yoga every day. Their diets consist of tuna, to promote muscle tone; as well as green leaves and pineapple, which is a natural diuretic and keeps their sugar levels high. Although the regimen is extreme, and the women often faint during their workouts, the academy swears by this formula. For the Academy, the hard work will pay off at the end of the week when the Misses are weighed in on medical scales and measured to the millimeter. And, as the Academy reminds the women, it’s only for a few months. Not surprisingly, the school doesn’t have a nutritionist on staff who would surely disapprove of such an unbalanced diet.
During the last three months, while still adhering to their regimen, the Misses begin preparing for the show. Pageant producer Joaquin Riviera, who fled Castro’s Cuba in ’68, explains that "Venezuela is the only country where the Misses in the contest have to sing, dance and perform rich choreographies. For three months, they take singing and dancing lessons so that on that day they can put on the show. I use the Miss Venezuela as an excuse to do the kinds of shows I used to do in Cuba, like the Tropicana and Capri, and that is why our contest is like a theatrical production." Perhaps having the girls on stage during the majority of the show accounts for the program’s high ratings. On that night of the Miss Venezuela Beauty Competition, 80 percent of the country’s television viewers tuned in for the contest.
Though the country’s racial makeup is 67 percent mestizo, 21 percent white, and 10 percent black, the winners at the Miss Venezuela Contest are mostly light-skinned. The racial makeup of the pageant is not a matter of discrimination on behalf of the judges. The popular vote, a nationwide effort where people of all backgrounds participate via phone and Internet, has almost always coincided with the judge’s decision. The results are perhaps best seen as a reflection of what many Venezuelans consider the "ideal." In a country where most people have dark hair, toasty skin and brown eyes, it is no surprise that being fair-skinned, blond and green eyed is considered exotic.
Participating in the pageant changes the life of each contestant. Their hard work will undoubtedly result in future job opportunities. The exposure they get through the pageant lands them jobs as television reporters, models and actresses. Some become politicians, such as the former Miss Universe Irene Saez, who became the mayor of the richest sector of Caracas before running unsuccessfully for president against Hugo Chavez in 1998. No matter what career goal the Misses’ have, the pageant allows these young women to advance their careers by adding discipline, knowledge and exposure to their beauty.
The Miss Venezuela contest is a matter of national pride. When a Miss makes it to the final round of the international circuit, the entire country celebrates. Just as Brazilians are fanatical about the World Cup and Americans about the Super Bowl, for Venezuelans, this is the most important event of the year. This pageant is of such significance that despite the current political and economic crisis in the country, Venezuela keeps producing Misses that continue to conquer all international titles. Aside from oil, the Miss Venezuelas are the only national product that continue to have a place in the international market.
Adriana Simoneta is a writer based in Manhattan.
Adriana Simoneta is a writer based in Manhattan.