As Miss India auditions begin, it is a good time to ask why this little South American country wins so many world titles
When Miss India aspirants walk in for auditions for the national beauty pageant in Mumbai at the end of January, they would all have prepared in their own unique way. Some would have gone to English speaking classes to express themselves clearly. Some would have spent hours in their neighbourhood gym, trying to reduce that 26 inch waist to 24 inches. Some would have practised a song for hours for the talent competition—Miss India has a talent round as one of its preliminaries—while many would just walk in because they are skinny and lanky, and expect to wow the judges with their ready wit. That’s what Miss Indias are made of.
Meanwhile, around 15,200 km away, in Venezuela, the preparation process is literally a world apart. The country has won 17 beauty queen titles over the past 30 years. News reports there insist that the annual Miss Venezuela pageant is often the most watched TV show on the day it airs, and most girls grow up dreaming of the crown. For a Miss Venezuela aspirant, such ambitions could start at the tender age of 13, when her parents gift the pre-adolescent girl her first cosmetic makeover. Or even at age 7, when she is enrolled at a beauty academy, where she will be taught the difference between a high street bag and a Chanel one, and where she will learn that the only fork she needs to use is the salad one. Breast implants, nose jobs and tummy tucks typically come a little later—post adolescence, for that is when they are rather more effective. A 2005 New York Times article on the country’s beauty academies quoted an 18-year-old Miss Venezuela wannabe admitting that her mother had insisted she get a series of nose jobs (four in all, the first when she was 14), apart from liposuction and her breasts reshaped.
Once a girl is chosen to compete in the Miss Venezuela contest, the drill gets stricter still. Under the guidance of Osmel Sousa, president of the Miss Venezuela Organization, the first step involves taking stock of the girl’s flaws, and then getting down to fixing them. This includes using hair stylists, make-up artists, physical trainers, speech and acting coaches, dental surgeons and dance and walking instructors. Plastic surgeons use their scalpel on whatever cannot be moulded through diet and exercise. And though most Venezuelan beauty contestants are tightlipped about the work done on them, Sousa had famously remarked in 2008, “This isn’t a nature contest. It’s a beauty contest, and science exists to help perfect beauty. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Gul Panag, who was crowned Miss India in 1999 and made the top 10 of that year’s Miss Universe pageant, says that there is an anthropological reason for South America’s dominance of beauty. “The craze for beauty pageants went down in the West a long time ago, and India has followed that trend,” she says, “But in these Latin American countries, like Venezuela, this contest is the best thing that could happen to these girls. They become national celebrities, some even get election tickets. The contest still holds the general public’s imagination there, while in India, there are many other ways to get famous now. We don’t want it as badly anymore.”
Adds Sarah Jane Dias, Miss India 2007, “There is an industry dedicated to making Venezuelan girls win these pageants. If they are putting in so much money, they need guaranteed results. And even though Indian girls could beat these women hollow in confidence levels and being articulate, Venezuelan women fit that beauty queen mould very well.”
According to Panag, not only does their manufactured appearance fit the Miss Whatever mould perfectly, their intense desire to win proves compelling. “They are taught to answer all questions aimed at them in a very smart way,” she says, “they twist every answer to make it about how they are ‘true to themselves’.”
The scenario in other South American countries is no different, she adds, citing a glib answer given once by Miss Brazil as an example of how they are schooled. “So there was this question round, where they asked her how she would dress if she was suddenly living in Scandinavia. She answered saying that wherever she would be, she would continue to be herself. How does that make sense?”
Answering exactly the way a beauty queen is expected to, as mentioned earlier, has more than mere fringe benefits. In Venezuela, winners are considered VIPs. As Venezuelan journalist Monica Bustamante has been quoted as saying, “[The Miss Venezuela contest] is part of the national identity. It’s a national resource, essentially.” Unlike oil, its other big resource and monopoly game (as an Opec member), beauty success may not help balance the national budget, but it sure gives these girls an entry to the glitzy world of lucre in a country under a socialist regime. Some go the usual route and win high-profile modelling contracts or become TV presenters. Others get more ambitious. Irene Saenz, who was crowned Miss Venezuela in 1981, entered politics and was elected governor of the state of Nueva Esparta. She even ran for president in 1998.
When you look at all the perks of winning the contest, a spot of cosmetic surgery suddenly seems like a trivial detail. “In Venezuela,” says Rukhsana Eisa, an image consultant who has been associated with the Indian beauty pageant, “it’s natural to go under the knife, and it all starts at a very young age. They are also highly motivated, as it is their ticket to everything they could have ever wanted, and so some cosmetic [work] doesn’t hurt.” In fact, it is so routine that Venezuelan banks even offer loans for such surgical operations. ‘Have your plastic on our plastic,’ goes one slogan.
Beauty as idolised by beauty mavens is not just mandatory in Venezuela, it is accessible to the vast majority, making the country all the more competitive. Breast enlargement surgery, for example, costs only about $2,000, a third of what it does in the US, thanks perhaps to ‘economies of scale’ (greater demand letting money be made on lower prices). In India, the surgery costs as little as $900, according to cosmeticsurgeonindia.com, thanks to lower medical costs in general, but even that is out of reach for most aspirants.
As a market for beauty products, Venezuela, estimated at a few hundred million over $1 billion, is smaller than India overall. But that might not be relevant now, as the dynamics of the beauty business shift to an era of global exposure to idealised body types. And Venezuela is ahead of the curve. “For anyone who doesn’t really know the pageant business,” Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, once said, “I usually explain that Venezuela is to Miss Universe [what] Brazil is to the World Cup. Everyone always expects Brazil to do well and they are often the team [with] which others are compared. It’s the same thing with Venezuela and Miss Universe.”