Dayana Mendoza was gorgeous and poised and eloquent. She was comfortable in front of a camera, on a stage, in front of a crowd. She could eat just about anything and still stay trim.
But when she finally gave in, in 2007, to Osmel Sousa’s three-year pursuit of her to compete in the national beauty contest, she got a run-down of her flaws and told there was work to do.
This was, after all, Venezuela.
Beauty is serious business in Venezuela.
The annual Miss Venezuela pageant brings the South American nation to a halt – it is often the most watched TV program on the day it airs. Many Venezuelan girls grow up dreaming of being a “Miss,” and many Venezuelans can recite the names of winners of past Miss Venezuela pageants the way people in other countries rattle off the names of past presidents.
“It’s in the culture,” said Venezuelan journalist Monica Bustamante, who lives in New Jersey. “It's a part of the national identity, it’s a national resource, essentially.”
Venezuela expects – and, has come to be expected – to win international beauty pageants, or at the very least, place among the top runners-up. Recently, it clinched the crown for Miss International as well as Reina Hispanoamericana, and was a finalist in the Miss World contest.
Venezuela has won more international pageants than any other country, thanks in great part to the well-oiled Miss Venezuela franchise. Run by Sousa since 1981, the franchise leaves nothing to chance.
Sousa and his army of scouts search high and low in Venezuela for potential Miss Venezuela contestants. They go to fashion shows, local beauty pageants, malls and nightclubs, and approach beautiful women who appear crown-worthy.
The ones who survive the several rounds of head-to-toe scrutiny by Sousa and his scouts then move on to the beauty boot camp, where in March an inventory is made of each contestant’s imperfections.
Then the extreme makeover machine kicks into high gear. The beauty army at the camp includes hair stylists, makeup artists, physical trainers, speech and acting coaches, and dance and walking instructors. Dental surgeons straighten and whiten less-than-stellar teeth; plastic surgeons nip, tuck and lift whatever cannot be improved through diet and exercise.
“Miss Venezuela contestants train like Olympic athletes,” said Bustamante, the journalist. “In every sense, they are conditioned – physically and mentally. The regimen is arduous and everything is tightly calculated. The people who run Miss Venezuela want to have the Ultimate Contestant, the whole package."
Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, said Venezuela has almost "set a standard as a perennial front runner at Miss Universe."
"For anyone who doesn't really know the pageant business, I usually explain that Venezuela is to Miss Universe as Brazil is to the World Cup," Shugart said. "Everyone always expects Brazil to do well and they are often the team to which others are compared, it's the same thing with Venezuela and Miss Universe."
Mendoza, who was spotted by Sousa at a fashion show where she modeled, became Miss Venezuela in 2007, and ended Venezuela’s 12-year streak of no Miss Universe titles in 2008. Venezuela again walked away with the Miss Universe crown in 2009.
Mendoza recalls months of intense daily cardio and strength-training workouts, lessons in how to apply make-up and do her hair, Monday weigh-ins, and mandated weekend tanning by hotel pools.
“They encouraged eating salads and chicken with basically no condiments, but that was so bland to me,” Mendoza, 24, said. “I have never really had to worry about gaining weight, so I still ate platanitos and carne guisada that my mother brought to me.”
Pursuing a crown is more than a skin-deep mission to the Miss Venezuela franchise.
Pageant crew members speak with contestants about aspects of their personality that threaten to be turn-offs for the judges.
Sousa and his crew thought Mendoza was not warm enough. So they had her work on herself.
“It was a kind of therapy,” said Mendoza, who is a student on a two-year scholarship at the New York Film Academy. “They helped me to get to know myself. I can be too much of a perfectionist to the point where I actually don’t enjoy the moment. They worked with me on that, taught me to relax, not to be so uptight. We did that for many months before we actually focused on things like make-up and hair.”
If the training for the Miss Venezuela pageant was intense, it was a cakewalk compared to the preparation for Miss Universe.
“After I won Miss Venezuela, they said we had to get to work on training,” Mendoza said. “I said ‘What? I won Miss Venezuela.’ But they said, ‘We have to train for Miss Universe.’”
Training took place Mondays through Fridays, from 7 a.m. until, often, midnight.
When she arrived in Vietnam for the Miss Universe pageant, it became clear to Mendoza that her training was hardly the status quo in other countries.
“Venezuela prepares its contestants much much more than many other countries,” Mendoza said. “I found that many of the girls had not prepared the way Venezuela prepared me."
“Many win their country’s beauty pageants, and then they just wait for the Miss Universe competition without any training and other support from their country’s beauty franchise.”
The Miss Venezuela franchise equips their international beauty contestants with between six and eight suitcases full of carefully selected outfits, shoes, make-up and hair brushes.“The support is remarkable,” Mendoza said. “Some of the other girls arrived with suitcases full of clothes that were theirs, they’d been sent to the pageant almost as if they were being sent on a routine camping trip.”
Venezuela’s laser-beam focus on beauty pageants is not without its critics. Some have assailed Sousa for turning a beauty pageant into a plastic surgery competition.
(Mendoza declined to comment on whether she had plastic surgery.)
But in the past, Sousa has defended his use of surgical enhancements to improve Venezuela’s shot at a crown.
“This isn’t a nature contest,” said Sousa to a reporter in 2008 after Mendoza’s win. “It’s a beauty contest, and science exists to help perfect beauty. There is nothing wrong with that.”
To be sure, plastic surgery and cosmetic dental work is common among beauty contestants, and is increasingly popular among people in general in many countries.“Cosmetic dental work is common,” Mendoza said, “whether it’s teeth whitening or straightening. Models have it done, actresses have it done. It’s not a big deal.”
Winning, or placing as a finalist, in a beauty pageant swings doors wide open for girls in Venezuela. Many of the nation’s TV show hosts, news anchors and stars of telenovelas were Miss Venezuela winners, or finalists of international competitions.
“Winning upended my world in the most wonderful way,” Mendoza said. “The training I got from the Miss Venezuela franchise taught me valuable lessons that will help me in different parts of my life."
"I worked harder than I ever thought you had to for a pageant," Mendoza said. "I used to be a cynic about pageants, until I saw how dedicated you had to be and how disciplined the women are. That’s what I would like people to know.”
Bustamente, a self-styled feminist, said she is proud of Venezuela’s track record in beauty competitions.
“It puts us on the world stage for something positive,” Bustamente said. “Venezuela is more than a country that has a buffoon for a president.”