The eyes of millions fall upon contestants in national pageants in many lands, but few places revere their beauty queens like Venezuela.
Many go on to become popular entertainment figures — like former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, who was killed Monday night in Venezuela. The public expression of grief that followed showed the significance of these women to the masses in a country that can boast of seven Miss Universe winners since the pageant’s inception — the second most in the world behind the United States.
Year after year, young women aspire to the crowns. Fashionistas ogle the designer garments. Contestants become national treasures.
So where did this fascination with beauty and pageantry come from?
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José Rafael Briceño, who trains Miss Venezuela contestants in public speaking, is a university professor and noted radio and television personality who has worked with the pageant for five years.
He told the Miami Herald that the culture’s interest in beauty stems from centuries ago in Venezuela’s colonial days, when Spain maintained several administrative districts in northern South America.
By the late 1700s, Venezuelans — far removed from the crown, both socially and politically — felt the need to show off their class and sophistication through their appearance and clothing, Briceño said.
Besides that emphasis on feminine beauty comes the importance in Venezuela of the role of the woman.
“This is a matriarchal society,” Briceño wrote in an email from Venezuela. “The woman is the center of family life.”
He added that even with the advent of feminism in recent decades, Venezuelan women have not felt the need to pull back on the pursuit of physical beauty. Making a serious effort to look good doesn’t signify an abandonment of a strong sense of self.
“They see it as a mechanism for empowerment,” he wrote.
South Florida immigrants in the large Venezuelan enclaves of Doral and Weston rabidly follow the pageants they’ve grown up watching.
Since childhood, Maria Antonietta Diaz of Weston has watched Miss Venezuela and other beauty pageants.
“It is like when you are a fan of a sports team,” Diaz said. “You become completely involved with the team. You are always updated and sure to cheer for them.”
Diaz is the founder of Weston’s GBS Group, a company focused on integrating Venezuelans and other immigrants into the U.S. economy by creating business plans.
She has worked directly with former Miss Venezuela Barbara Palacios to help her embark on a career as an inspirational speaker. Palacios was crowned both Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe in 1986.
Palacios spoke for Mother’s Day at a conference involving Mujeres Latinas, a group dedicated to emphasizing sociocultural values such as health, education and culture.
She promoted her own book during the event and signed fans’ copies at the end.
Former Miss Venezuela contestant Maria Fernanda Briceño, who also lives in Miami, says she found her time training for the 1992 pageant the most valuable part of the experience.
“You have to work, work and work,” said Briceño, no relation to the pageant trainer in Venezuela. “You work on your walking, your makeup and how to speak in public.”
Pageant participants also learn about social responsibility, and many join charitable organizations after leaving the stage. Spear, for example, worked with Caracas-based nonprofit Asodeco, a group that works with mentally disabled adults and children.
Briceño, 41, was discovered by Osmel Sousa, president of the Miss Venezuela organization and the so-called “Czar of Beauty.” She says she doesn’t appreciate the depiction of beauty queens she has seen in the media.
“Everybody thinks if you are a Miss, you are a dumb person,” said Briceño, a Disney TV producer overseeing Latin American content. “That’s not it at all.”
Lorena Sepulveda, 50, who moved from Venezuela to Weston more than 10 years ago, has traveled from time to time to Venezuela as an image consultant. The mother of two, who modeled when she was younger, trains various companies’ employees on etiquette and appeal.
“Beauty is part of the Venezuelan culture, for both men and women,” she said.
Winners follow different paths after pageants. Irene Sáez, Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe in 1981, entered politics in Venezuela, where she was mayor of Chacao in the early 1990s. In 1998, she even ran for president. Sáez now lives in the Miami area.
But the most common post-pageant public career is to enter the entertainment business. Since the late 1990s, Alicia Machado, Miss Venezuela 1995, has starred in various Univision soap operas. Chiquinquira Delgado, who was crowned Miss Venezuela in 1990, also starred in Univision soaps and has hosted a number of other shows. Most recently, in 2012, Delgado was a host on Entertainment Tonight.
Although many pageant winners have stayed in Venezuela, others live in South Florida, New York and Los Angeles.
The pageants have become an immense industry. According to an NPR report, the practice of holding and promoting pageants is far from being the only cash cow.
Contestants spend thousands of dollars preparing for the pageants, forking out money for dresses, accessories, makeup and training.
Costly surgeries such as nose jobs and breast augmentations are common, as well.
“It is safe to say it has become an obsession,” said Andrea Peralta, a University of Miami biology student. “Women undergo risky surgeries just to look beautiful.”
The rise of plastic surgeries doesn’t sit well with all Venezuelans, regardless of their enthusiasm for pageantry.
Gastón Gonzalez, who moved from Venezuela to the United States in the 1990s, said he has seen a disturbing trend among teenage girls who aspire to become beauty queens — even including extended family members who have participated in pageants.
“Teenagers are asking for breasts for their birthday,” he said. “If they don’t have a butt, they ask for a butt.”
He said that along with the type of violence that claimed Monica Spear’s life, pageantry should take a back seat to education and scholarship in the perception of Venezuela on the world stage.
“Venezuela needs to be recognized for something other than the violence and beauty,” he said.
Maria Fernanda Briceño said that while she doesn’t approve of younger girls going under the knife for beauty’s sake, once a girl is 18 — the minimum age to compete for Miss Venezuela — a woman can do what she needs to do to achieve the look she wants.
“You can’t be fat,” she said. “If you go there fat, you have to lose weight. If your body’s not balanced, you have to do what you have to do.”
Echoeing Gonzalez, Diaz said that although pageantry is very popular, she would prefer to see her daughters focus on school.
“As a mother, I think that most mothers want their daughters to study and get a career to be able to contribute as professionals to Venezuela and the rest of the world.”
To José Rafael Briceño, the pageant experience can be positive or negative, depending on the woman. For those who want to learn about how to present themselves and communicate, it can prove fruitful. For those who think the pageant will set them up for life, it can prove frustrating.
For his part, he finds watching the growth among contestants to be the most rewarding part of his job — a personal growth that he feels shatters the unfair stereotypes of these women held by both detractors and fanatics.
To him, the reality is these women, aged 18 to 24, learn a lot as they enter a competitive arena with a great deal of discipline.
“I’m proud to be a part of their growth and to see them flourish as public figures,” he wrote.
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.