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THE WORLD : DISPATCH FROM CARACAS

Venezuela again hits beauty spot

The nation ends a dry spell at the Miss Universe contest, a much awaited victory for top groomer Osmel Sousa.

August 11, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Osmel Sousa finally got his groove back.

Famous in the 1980s and '90s for producing international beauty queens at his school for pageant contestants, Sousa ended a 12-year drought last month when protege Dayana Mendoza took the Miss Universe 2008 crown in Vietnam.

After taking over as director of the Miss Venezuela pageant in 1981, Sousa went on an incredible 15-year tear, molding winners of dozens of international beauty contests, including seven Miss World and Miss Universe titles.

His record helped establish Venezuela's fame for beautiful women -- probably its second-best-known natural resource after oil.

"Sousa created a myth for Venezuelan women to live up to," local pollster Alfredo Keller said. "In the States, you have the feminine culture of Barbie. Here it's all about the Misses."

The legend of the Cuban-born Sousa as a Latin American Henry Higgins grew from an uncanny knack for picking women out of crowds or off catwalks and making them glamour queens. He accomplished it, he acknowledges unabashedly, with discipline, training, dental work and plastic surgery.

"I don't make ugly girls into beauties. That's not my job. Plus, it's not necessary. There are plenty of beautiful women in Venezuela. What I do is make them perfect," the 60-year-old said in an interview late last month, still basking in the glow of Mendoza's victory.

But before that victory July 14, many observers feared Sousa had lost his touch. No Miss Venezuela had taken the sine qua non title of Miss Universe since the 1996 crowning of Alicia Machado.

"If you don't score a goal in 12 years, naturally it's going to affect your self-confidence," said Carlos Bardasano, vice president of Cisneros Group, the media conglomerate that owns the Miss Venezuela pageant and finances Sousa's academy.

Various theories were floated in this beauty-pageant-mad nation about why Venezuela was falling short. "It certainly wasn't a problem with the raw material," said Keller, the pollster. "Beautiful women continue to exist here."

Some said the Miss Universe organization was gun-shy about choosing another Venezuelan in light of its experience with Machado, who put on weight during her year as title holder, later posed for Playboy and recently had a child with a married man.

Others thought that stridently anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez would be a controversial piece of baggage that any new queen would have to deal with every day of her reign.

"Two topics are taboo at any pageant: religion and politics," said Jose Briceno, a university speech and acting professor who is coach at Sousa's academy. "You can always rub someone the wrong way with those."

The preparation for the annual Miss Venezuela pageant held in September begins in March, when Sousa culls 5,000 applicants down to 70 and then, finally, to 26. This year's finalists were paraded before the media here recently; unlike Miss America contestants, those making the cut don't necessarily come from the Venezuelan states and other regions they represent -- they are assigned them. (Why? Sousa wants the most beautiful 26 candidates he could find, even if they all come from one state.)

For the next two months, the women will be trained according to an ironclad regimen to walk, talk, dance and express themselves in keeping with the Sousa formula. Noses will be narrowed, thighs reduced and breasts enlarged by exercise or surgery.

Sousa said the newly crowned Mendoza, an internationally successful model who has worked in Paris and Milan, didn't need much perfecting. But she had a "look" that was too icy and opaque.

So he ordered up sessions with a psychotherapist to help her discover the inner Dayana and teach her to "project a natural theatrical talent."

"Modeling is about showing off the dress, cosmetics and hair color but not yourself," Briceno, the speech coach, said. "Dayana had built a small wall around herself. We had to tear down that wall."

One of this year's contestants is Maria Veliz, 25, a tall former high-jumper who was making a good living as a personal fitness trainer in London before deciding to come home to go for the crown, "just to go for it."

"I'm the type of girl who doesn't smile much, so to act fresh, happy and relaxed under all this pressure is what I have to learn," Veliz said. Her other priority is to "reduce the muscle mass in my thighs."

Sousa and production manager Joaquin Riviera built the Miss Venezuela pageant into an important asset for Venevision, the Cisneros media TV channel that broadcasts the show. Most years, the September contest is the nation's most-watched TV program.

The Miss Venezuela pageant and Sousa's school have "an incalculable value," Riviera said, in keeping the talent pipeline flowing for Venevision's TV news and variety shows. Contestants also are cast in the eight to 10 soap operas called telenovelas that the media giant produces each year.

But executives acknowledged that they've missed the gloss of a Miss Universe title. It means added millions of dollars in advertising for beauty products and clothing that winners promote. Venezuelan women spend more on such products than those of any other Latin nation, Keller said.

Even Chavez, who has expressed disdain for beauty pageants, took note of Mendoza's victory and congratulated her during a broadcast in July.

The gap between Miss Universe titles has "taught us how hard it is to win," coach Briceno said. "But also to trust what we've got."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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