BOGOTA, Colombia – In a nation obsessed with soap operas, it's the hottest telenovela in years. Airing nightly in prime time, "Sin Tetas no hay Paraiso" — "Without (Breasts) There's No Paradise" — revolves around a 17-year old call girl who agonizes that her flat chest is a barrier to deliverance from poverty and a life of ease as a drug trafficker's pampered plaything.
The show, based on a best-selling, true-to-life novel by the same name, is presented as a faithful — albeit tragic — reflection of a Colombian culture rotted to the core by criminality.
Its legions of loyalists notwithstanding, many are upset with the show for the image it portrays.
In newspaper columns and radio interviews, feminists and family groups have decried the show's portrayal of women as a sexist affront, more inclined to satisfy flesh-filled male fantasies than generate meaningful debate about Colombia's unrivaled obsession with plastic surgery.
On Aug. 30, residents in the western city of Pereira, where the show is based and partly filmed, took to the streets to protest being singled out as a haven for drug traffickers, the flesh trade and hit-men (sicarios) on motorbikes — problems they say afflict all Colombian cities equally.
"We were provoked and this was a way to stand up and say that the women from Pereira aren't all prostitutes," said Juan Manuel Arango Velez, the town's mayor, who's also threatened a lawsuit against the Caracol network for airing the show.
Companies have also threatened to pull ads because of the show's explicit content.
But what nobody disputes is that the controversy caused by so much silicone has been a boon for ratings.
Since premiering in August, the show's audience has jumped 25 percent, surpassing the early rating success of homespun international megahit "Betty La Fea," whose adapted version, "Ugly Betty," premieres September 28 in the United States on ABC.
In real life, 25-year old newcomer Maria Adelaida Puerta, the actress who plays the series' protagonist, Catalina, is nothing like her air-head character. Most importantly, she vows to never follow the example of her buxom co-stars and go under the knife.
"I'm very happy with my body the way it is," said Puerta. "Self-esteem has nothing to do with having a big pair of breasts."
Capitalizing on her newfound fame, Puerta recently delivered that message to a public school in the poor, southern suburbs of Bogota — the very breeding ground for much of the hardened criminality portrayed in the show.
To a group of screaming 10-15 year olds — who judging by their attempts to rush the stage in hopes of an autograph apparently ignore the show's "mature audiences only" warning — she gingerly stepped around tough questions like "What's a pre-paga and traqueto (slang terms for a prostitute and gangster)?"
Another young boy asked if in the world they lived in such a thing as paradise even existed.
Holding out the example of Catalina, whose disillusionment following surgery eventually leads her to commit suicide, she tried her best to refute the well-ingrained myth of easy money.
"Happiness only comes from studying and working hard for everything you achieve," she said. It's unclear, however, whether her message will get through.
Colombia's passion for implants is almost unmatched. According to the Colombian Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than half of the 450,000 operations performed last year were breast augmentations costing an average $2,000-$3,000 per procedure — more than half a year's salary for the 58 percent of the country living below the poverty line.
That would seem to support not Puerta's view but rather what Catalina's catty antagonist in the series, Jessica, tells her: "What matters today is having a good pair of (breasts) — no matter if they're made of rubber, wood or stone."
The southern city of Cali boasts that it's the plastic-surgery capital of Latin America. Radio stations there have run contests in which the winner gets a free breast enhancement.
Recently, the mayor of Ibague, a city 80 miles west of Bogota, agreed to finance tummy tucks, butt lifts and other aesthetic operations for the city's secretaries and public employees. To date, more than 400 women have taken advantage of the offer.
"It's overwhelming in Colombia the pressure on women to have a voluptuous, artificially perfect body," said Puerta. "But it's the diversity of shapes and sizes that is the most delicious part of our existence."
Despite what Puerta defends as the show's moralizing lesson, not everyone is convinced of the show's merits. Said Florence Thomas, a researcher of gender issues at Bogota's National University: "The only thing producers were after in showing so much cleavage was a higher rating."