September 21, 2009
It is a temple of beauty where 20 women have spent a gruelling six months on a programme of diets, weigh-ins, personal trainers, catwalk classes and lessons in dance and elocution. Welcome to the Miss Venezuela villa.
Inside the mirrored walls — and ceilings — of this salmon-pink monument to kitsch, the competitors in this week’s national final are honed to the image of perfection envisioned by Osmel Sousa, the president of the Miss Venezuela Organisation and self-proclaimed “specialist in the female figure”.
The girls are examined on arrival by Mr Sousa and his team and given a list of flaws to address — often with the help of cosmetic surgery, one of the country’s largest industries.
Critics of Venezuela’s beauty factory say that this is taking preparations too far, but Mr Sousa — imagine a permatanned Henry Higgins in silver trainers — defends his pursuit of female flawlessness.
“When I see a defect I want to correct it,” he told The Times. “If I were advising you” — he reaches out to indicate my facial flaws — “I would say to inject a bit here and here.”
In any case, he insists, there is no time to perform any major surgery, although former winners have reportedly had everything from nose reshaping to liposuction and breast implants.
This is a country where plastic surgery is a common 18th birthday present — despite the Government’s proclaimed socialist values, materialism is the rule — and a visit to the surgeon is relatively cheap.
A willowy 5ft 10in (1.78m) with impossible statistics, Mariangela Bonanni, 21, admits that the pressure to live up to Mr Sousa’s ideal is great.
On her arrival at the Miss Venezuela house, Miss Bonanni was told to lose weight and tone up.
“It has cost me a lot,” she said of the strict diet and exercise regime. “But I think it’s worth the pain.” She was coy when asked if she had surgical assistance. “Judge for yourself,” she said.
The 20 finalists will step into the glare of the stage lights at Caracas’s Poliedro Stadium on Thursday night and she who is crowned Miss Venezuela will carry the hopes of a nation on her lovely shoulders.
Venezuela is determined to cement its reputation as home to the world’s most beautiful women with a record third consecutive Miss Universe title.
Ms Bonnani — also known as Miss Táchira after her home state — is one of the favourites to succeed her celebrated compatriots, Dayana Mendoza and Stefanía Fernández, whose unprecedented, back-to-back victories have taken Venezuela to the top of the international beauty league.
Staying there is a serious business. Whoever assumes the mantle will have just one day to bask in glory: on Saturday the work towards another universal title begins. “Everyone in the world will be watching to see who wins Miss Venezuela this year,” Miss Bonanni said.
For many girls the beauty contest is a springboard to stardom. The host network, Venevision, propels the winners into key spots on talk shows or telenovelas.
“Practically everyone who has come out of Miss Venezuela has ended up being an actress, an entertainer or presenter,” Miss Bonanni said.
Joaquin Riviera, the Miss Venezuela producer, said that Venezuelan women were not necessarily more attractive than other nationalities, just more dedicated.
He dismissed suggestions that the contest was a distasteful hangover from a more chauvinistic age and denied that his references to the girls as “loin steak” were derogatory. “The loin steak is what I like the most, the tastiest of cuts,” he said.
Likewise, Miss Bonanni has no time for the idea that she is being exploited. “It is my dream,” she said. “God put me on this path for a reason — I have to take advantage of it.”