Beauty offers a ladder out of poverty in Venezuela


By FABIOLA SANCHEZ

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela

At a small home with a leaking tin roof near Venezuela’s capital, Johandrys Colls proudly shows off two metal crowns with plastic gemstones and nine satin sashes won in local beauty pageants.

The 16-year-old daughter of a butcher and a teacher is pinning her hopes for a future free of poverty on a single goal: rising through the world of pageants and becoming an international beauty queen.

“These sashes represent a huge accomplishment for me,” says the skinny teen with dark brown eyes as she pushes her long black hair from one side to another. “I accomplished what I set out to achieve.”

While growing concern about sexism and the rise of the #MeToo movement recently led the Miss America contest to drop swimsuit competitions and emphasize personal accomplishment, in Latin America young women continue to flock to competitions where good looks are unabashedly championed above all else.

In Venezuela, competing comes at a high price: Elaborate sequined gowns and pricey cosmetic surgeries are out of reach for most in a country where inflation is running in the five digits and state workers earn about $3 a month. Earlier this year, the Miss Venezuela pageant was rocked by accusations that some contenders finance their journey to the crown by finding wealthy men to pay for gowns and surgeries in exchange for sex.

But even alarming charges like those have done little to deter young women like Colls, whose parents have enrolled her in one of Venezuela’s top modeling schools despite their modest income in hopes of transforming their daughter into a beauty queen.

“I hope the values and education I am instilling in my daughter serve her well,” said Lisbeth Linarez, the teen’s mother. “So that in the future if anything bad might come her way, she knows how to ward it off.”

After oil, beauty queens may be Venezuela’s biggest export: Women from the South American nation have captured seven Miss Universe titles and crown holders have gone on to notable careers as actresses, journalists and even presidential candidates.

When the annual Miss Venezuela pageant is aired on television, millions tune in, paralyzed in suspense as contestants parade on stage in neon-colored bikinis while their measurements are read aloud and they answer questions such as how they would draw people back to the waning Roman Catholic church.

As the nation plummets into economic ruin, even more young women are holding fast to dreams of becoming beauty queens.

At a recent casting for the Nuestra Belleza Venezuela contest, a pack of teens and 20-something women donned towering heels and coated their lips in glossy pink hues before strutting in front of judges. Among them was Oxlaniela Oropeza, a law student, who said the recent Miss Venezuela scandal hadn’t quashed her ambitions.

“My values are intact, and no one can take that away from me,” she said. “From the time I was 6 years old, my goal has been to become Miss Venezuela.”

In Venezuela, one man has ruled as king in transforming fledgling ingenues into flawless beauty queens: Osmel Sousa.

The so-called “Czar of Beauty” led the Miss Venezuela pageant for nearly four decades before leaving the organization in February as accusations spread on social media that organizers had arranged for some contestants to work as escorts for high-ranking government officials in exchange for jewels, gowns and cosmetic surgeries.

The Miss Venezuela contest suspended operations amid the outcry.

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