A pageant winner's effort to change Venezuela's focus on beauty

Former Miss Venezuela Eva Ekvall, who died over the weekend, spent the last years of her life trying to educate beauty-obsessed Venezuelans about priorities.

Fernando Llano/AP
In this photo taken on Sept. 9, 2000, Eva Ekvall reacts after winning the Miss Venezuela 2000 beauty pageant in Caracas, Venezuela. Ekvall, whose struggle with breast cancer was closely followed by Venezuelans, died Saturday.

Throughout her life, former Miss Venezuela Eva Ekvall was known for her high cheekbones, a glistening smile, her flowing locks.

But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she took up another cause: trying to teach her fellow beauty-obsessed Venezuelans that far more important things, like health, should be their priority.

While Ms. Ekvall, who passed away Saturday at a hospital in Houston at age 28, rose to fame as a beauty queen, the photo for which she might be most remembered is the cover of her book, called "Fuera de Foco" (Out of Focus), in which she is photographed bald. The book is about her struggle with the illness.

"I hate to see photos in which I come out ugly," Ekvall told the newspaper El Nacional in an interview last year when the book was released. "But you know what? Nobody ever said cancer is pretty or that I should look like Miss Venezuela when I have cancer."

She told BBC Mundo: "It's absurd that there should be a taboo about breast cancer in a country of breast implants, where women have few reservations about showing off their surgically-enhanced breasts.”

Her words have resonance. In the United States, women look up to celebrities in Hollywood movies and magazine covers to form their ideals of beauty. In Latin America, it is beauty pageant winners, as we detailed in a story about beauty schools in Bolivia.

Venezuela has one of the biggest markets for breast augmentation in the world, as detailed in a New York Times story from this year. Between 30,000 and 40,000 undergo the procedure each year, reports the newspaper.

Ekvall was best-known for being crowned Miss Venezuela in 2000 at age 17. She was third runner-up for Miss Universe the following year, and later became a familiar face in Venezuela as an actress and television anchor.

Venezuelans have written their condolences across Twitter, including her husband, who wrote "Always together ... I love you wife."

SenosAyuda, a Caracas-based breast cancer awareness organization, wrote on its website: “Eva, you left an invaluable testimony that will help the path of thousands of Venezuelan women,” the group wrote in Spanish. “Thank you for so much in so little time.”

Newspapers have thanked her for her work in helping women get their priorities straight. “Her example and fight was a wake-up call for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who get implants,” wrote one.

In her book, she said it was her daughter that helped her fight. "That happiness, although [my daughter] may not know it or understand it, keeps me alive today," she wrote.

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