WHEN Venezuelans sit down to watch their national beauty pageant on TV Wednesday night, they'll see a bevy of women who have been snipped, carved, and molded into what their handlers, often male, regard as the perfect woman.
Venezuela is the beauty-queen capital of the world. Although its 21 million people make up just 0.3 percent of the world's population, Venezuela has churned out three Miss Universes and four Miss Worlds in the last 15 years, outpacing any other nation that sends women to such contests.
Its success is the result of an industry that knows what contest judges want and how to remodel women to create it.
In a country where feminism has barely left a mark, as many as 90 percent of Venezuelans are said to watch the televised show.
Personal appearance is highly prized in this Latin American country. Even the poorest women from the slums can scrape together enough money for the latest shade of lipstick. As one of the world's largest consumers of cosmetics per capita, Venezuela revolves around women's beauty.
Since the formation of the Miss Venezuela Academy in 1981, run under the watchful eye of founder Osmel Sousa, a Venezuelan candidate has usually placed among the top three contestants in both Miss Universe and Miss World contests.
Using night clubs, supermarkets, the beach, and even bus lines as spotting grounds for potential beauty queens, Mr. Sousa is always on the lookout for new faces.
Experience as an art director has taught Sousa to assess instantly if a girl has what it takes to compete for a major beauty title.
"I look for something that hits me - a girl who is sweet, smooth, is neither aggressive nor strong, but must be positive. She must have a bit of the actress about her," he says.
Given Venezuela's dazzling racial mix that includes Caribbean, indigenous Latin American, and European features, Sousa has a head start when it comes to the creation of a beauty queen. Taking what he calls his "rough diamonds," he works with this raw material, molding and polishing it in a factory-like process to generate a new winner.
From wobbly walk ...
One eager hopeful competing for the crown of Miss Venezuela is Lorena Loreto. Six months ago, she wobbled onto a shabby catwalk in high-heeled shoes during an amateur casting session.
A small team of prying professionals, greeted her. Their interest was akin to that shown by farmers at a cattle market.
"Do you go to the gym?" queried Sousa, kneading the muscles on her leg. At the same time, a plastic surgeon examined her face, running his fingers over her features. "Look at her chin - it juts out!" he cried gleefully as he handed her his business card - her passport to the world of beauty.
The chosen few go through a rigorous six-month training period including personal-appearance classes, elocution lessons, modeling sessions, and three-hour daily gym workouts. As the self-acclaimed "King of Beauty" says, "I run a business that is based on team work - it's a very professional industry."
During the process, most of the girls will also be given what plastic surgeon Alberto Pierini coyly refers to as "small adjustments." Of last year's 26 candidates, for example, 17 had gum operations - to produce a bigger-toothed smile - while the surgeon admits to at least a third of them having had plastic surgery.
Dr. Pierini, who has been a judge in Miss Venezuela competitions, makes a series of changes to the girls' bodies, including nose jobs, lip augmentation ("now very fashionable"), breast implants, chin reconstruction, and eyebrow lifting, along with liposuction (removal of fat). At the same time, orthodontist Moises Kaswan works to give the girls what he calls "Farah Fawcett teeth that are toilet-bowl white."
The use of surgery is justified by Pierini, who has benefitted from a nose operation himself. "It's not a natural pageant, it's a beauty contest.... If you can wear a better dress and put makeup on, why can't you fix something that is wrong with you to make yourself look better?" he asks. He points out that plastic surgery is widespread among competitors elsewhere in the world.
The academy is run on $500,000 in ad revenues from the television station that airs the contest. Plastic surgeons donate services.
Critics of this industry are scarce. The surgery, though, has started to draw criticism within Venezuela. Milka Chulina, Miss Venezuela 1992, reportedly failed to take the Miss Universe crown because Venezuelan juror Maria Conchita Alonso opposed her, claiming that Ms. Chulina lacked "naturalness." The following year, a headline in one Caracas newspaper read "All the Same" alongside a picture of the candidates' identical noses.
... to a confident stride
Now, her walk polished from hours of practice and smiling with confidence, Ms. Loreto (bearing the title Miss Guarico) will compete against 27 other young women to wear the Miss Venezuela crown.
The climax of the girls' instruction is the night of the pageant. But the crown that last year's Miss Venezuela, Denyse Floreano, will hand over to the winner comes at a price: The new queen faces another eight-month slog before the Miss Universe competition in May 1996.
The rewards, though, are great. Once crowned, the beauty queens here are almost deified, taking on an overnight celebrity status. Becoming a Venezuelan beauty queen opens the door to almost any career and can be especially handy for women wanting a head start in politics or business.
Former Miss Universe Barbara Palacios (1986), for example, now runs her own advertising and marketing company and is the current Revlon "girl."
Instead of following many other beauty queens into a role in a television soap opera, Irene Saez (Miss Universe 1981) turned to a political career. Now mayor of one of Caracas's upscale municipalities, she is the first to say that having a face that almost everyone knows - and many love - has been a boon.
"When I became mayor, there was no office because Chacao was a new municipality," she recalls. "I found one, and the owner said he wouldn't rent it to the mayor of Chacao, but he would to Irene Saez."
Her looks still receive publicity. With a recent survey placing her above President Rafael Caldera Rodriguez in popularity, Ms. Saez is rumored to be a potential candidate for the 1998 election for president.