Experiencing what may be the most serious beauty pageant in the world.
This photo of the Miss Venezuela contestant had been ironed onto the matching oversized T-shirts of the group of people standing in front of me in line to get into the Miss Venezuela pageant. So here the contestant was: powerful, cold and unattached looking, but in a picture that was rippling over the normal drooping breasts of a group of friends, relatives, and strangers who wanted to support her in her quest to be crowned Miss Venezuela.
In the Internet café before the event, I found myself drawn to these pictures. The 28 candidates had been styled to look as if puncturing your heart with their heel just might give them the thrill they needed to escape the unendurable boredom of being filthy rich. I also liked the video series that was used in TV advertisements and could be watched on the Internet, in which each lady — draped on office furniture in front of a white background — shed a fur stole to reveal a neon-colored bikini. For a few moments I was totally willing to buy the highly unlikely, but suggested narrative about young, powerful international jetsetters (ones who traveled in bathing suits and lived in a climate so complicated and sensual that it required simultaneous use of a bikini and fur).
I’ve been exposed by advertisements to that fantasy of a jetsetting lady who gets things done in a bathing suit, heels, and oversized earrings for so long that a part of me can’t help but think that eventually I’ll just evolve into her one day. It’s an extremely latent fantasy, and I’ve never made any conscious steps toward making it a reality, finding as I tend to do that attending to my outward appearance is some combination of beneath and beyond me. Yet when I see those kinds of photos, it does seem possible that some day I’ll just become freakishly tall, with a symmetric face and a dangerously low body fat percentage. With lips a shade of red richer than the color of blood, I’ll wear silk dry-clean-only strapless jumpsuits with incredibly high-heeled shoes, and stand up straight, and slap people, and get slapped back, and own a yacht.
In line on the street outside the stadium, though, the group of the contestant’s high school friends and cousins were blowing plastic whistles and beating on drums, jumping around and chanting “Miss Carabobo!” Bong bong. “Miss Carabobo!” Bong bong. I watched a girl stop to wipe the spit from her whistle onto her jeans, and then get back to bouncing. “Miss Carabobo!” Bong bong. “Miss Carabobo! Bong bong. The ironed-on faces started to stretch and look a little distorted.
My two dates — my friend’s mom Anna and Anna’s friend Carmen — and I counted ourselves as part of the crowd who had picked up more on the “semi” than the “formal” of the “semi-formal” dress code printed on our tickets, so when our feet hurt because they were grandmothers and I am just highly sensitive to discomfort, we sat down on the curb. I felt sorry for the suckers who had chosen vanity over comfort and hadn’t worn easy to clean black pants like I had — just one of so many thoughts that stands in the way of ever realizing my latent bikini-fur/yacht/slapping/standing-up-straight lifestyle fantasy. And although in line I had discovered that the skin above my elbows and knees had recently taken on a pudgy quality, when Carmen sat with me, I ate the cookies she produced from her purse.
Carmen pointed out the indelicate wrists and feet of transvestites in line, as if she had once fallen for them and didn’t want me to make the same mistake. I pointed out mesh shirts and stuffed animal backpacks a few people were wearing, in part to make my point that there are an infinite amount of ways to interpret semi-formal. Anna and several family members whose apartment I was staying at in Caracas had been worried during the week leading up to the event that I didn’t have anything dressy enough. Anna voted for me to borrow her mint polyester short-sleeve pantsuit along with her bronze chunky-heeled loafers with bows. We unfortunately wore the same pant and shoe size, but I feared that if I consented to the outfit in the name of new friendship and ended up finding it comfortable, I would never even be allowed to even fantasize about my latent bikini — fur/yacht/slapping/standing-up-straight lifestyle again.
In line, back in the dimension of reality, plenty of women were wearing the national costume of Venezuela, fit for all occasions and any age: a spandex top that barely manages your breasts and forgoes containing your stomach entirely, paired with tight rhinestone-bedazzled jeans and heels. And because it was one of the biggest nights of the year, women wore jeans bedazzled with more gems on the back pockets than normal and spandex tank tops that plunged harder and contained even less of their stomachs than usual.
All the outfits — from the heels, jeans, handles of love, and spandex-top outfit to lime green workout wear and ball gowns — were accessorized with special touches: fake fur-covered scrunchies, silvery pink eyeliner, slits in the sides of jeans, rhinestone studs on stretch pants, French manicured toes, corsets, baby blue mascara, and gum. But no matter how nice the outfits were, those whose outfits allowed them to eventually leaned up against the fence or had a seat on the curb with me, and I felt a little vindicated.
|Bedazzled crowds wait for the start of the Miss Venezuela Pageant.
Then we all came to an abrupt halt at a line of barriers. “No more people are allowed to enter for the moment,” the security guard might have been trying to say, but people yelling, “It’s a lie!” drowned him out. This was officially an angry mob. Or at least part of the mob was angry. A group beside me kept rallying for the beauty queen they thought was the most beautiful. They had worked themselves into such an optimistic state that they apparently couldn’t imagine being denied entrance. “Miss Sucre!” Bong bong. “Miss Sucre!” Bong bong. They had Miss Sucre’s face not only printed on their shirts, but also stapled onto posts, and they were waving them around dangerously. “It’s a lie,” more people yelled to the security guard. Then it got personal. “You’re a liar,” someone up front yelled at the security guard, and I was kind of embarrassed to be associated with the mob.
Clearly you shouldn’t try to stop a crowd who has washed, dried, and flat-ironed their hair from getting into the party they’ve done their hair for. If you know what’s good for you, you shouldn’t mess with a crowd that has tried on looks with and without sunglasses, with half-shirts and whole shirts. You can’t let women (or men dressed like women) stand in line for hours in high heels, and text everyone of their friends in their phone book that they are just about to enter the Miss Venezuela Pageant, and then dare to take it all away just moments before show time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “dangerous fire hazard” to have that many people in a stadium at once. It’s cruel to tease people. Especially people wearing breath-constricting push-up strapless bras with underwire.
I worried I was going to be the victim of one of the best smelling hooligan tramplings of 2008, until barriers were hopped by boys (who weren’t transvestites) and girls (in short spandex dresses over spandex stretch pants — talk about versatile!), and the barriers were pushed out of the way by the force of the crowd. The horde rushed past security and into the stadium. Carmen, Anna, 13,000 other spectators, and I had come to see a beautiful woman crowned the queen of Venezuela, and nothing was going to stop us from seeing a beautiful woman crowned Miss Venezuela that night.
When the misses, all 28 of them, appeared on stage in yellow-tiered dresses to march in place like marching dollops of custard with human heads, I got actual chills. Chills. I blamed the screaming in the stadium, the opening jazz dance number carried out in unitards, the smoke and lights, the “do-do-dooo-do” build up of music, but the fact is that when the misses arrived on stage, moving their hips-waists-busts in their matching custard dresses in a way that I could see from the cheap seats (well, the aisle actually, as there were no seats left in the stadium) I got chills.
Fireworks went off, the pageant cut to commercial, our ladies disappeared, and up on the TVs by the stage the station was trying to sell Fiberease, Johnson & Johnson lotion, and mascara. A husky voiced and brassy-blond MC in a gown, who the crowd knew and liked, asked, “How much noise can you make Caracas?” and the portion of Caracas that was lucky enough to be at the beauty contest went wild. The marching bands in each miss’s cheering section played, posters were waved, and teens — who had barely made it into the pageant and had something to prove about their enthusiasm and abilities — let the blonde know how happy they were to be involved in the night by screaming. “Esso es,” the MC coached. That’s it. “Esso es.” That’s it.
Despite the fact that 80 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, Venezuelans spend 20 percent of their annual income on beauty products. That’s the most per capita spent on beauty products in the world, and according to one study, 65 percent of Venezuelan women and 47 percent of Venezuelan men think about their appearance “all the time.” I hadn’t known people were really capable of such pure-hearted applause about something as superficial as a beauty contest until I was sitting in the midst of them, experiencing chills and clapping myself.
| The misses don butterfly wings.
In the bathing suit contest the misses bounced when they walked, and punched their hips right and left. They shrugged off their cover-ups and drug them behind. They kissed toward the camera. Esso es.
I have heard it said that the beauty pageant is so blatant a reinscription of dominant ideology as to be untheorizable. I agree with the blatant reinscription of dominant ideology part, but I beg to differ with the untheorizable part.
I’m not much of a looker to begin with, and the whole month I was in Venezuela there seemed to be a tiny curious piece of rump roast stuck between my molars. I was bloated, my hair was damaged, I was covered in sand fly bites I made no effort not to scratch until they bled, and I looked a lot like someone who was trying to save money on lodging by sleeping on night buses because that was exactly what I was doing. But several times a day, men got a good full body look at me and just said it like they had to get something off their chest: “You’re beautiful.” Sometimes they added a little kiss to the air, and although it usually struck me as absurd, at the Miss Venezuela Pageant I totally understood why they did it: It can be fun to objectify women.
My theory — and forgive me if this is common knowledge, but it hadn’t occurred to me until I was sitting in the midst of a beauty pageant and enjoying it — is that the pageant is a choreographed large-scale version of the kind of flirtation that goes on in the street every day. The misses go out of their way to look good for us, and we want them to know just how good they look.
Usually for flattery or catcalls to look sincere they have to be done one-on-one, but here, in the stadium, we all got to objectify/love/pursue/fetishize a woman together. And with whistles and drum kits, we could do it so loud and in such an obvious way that she was bound to know it was genuine. And if she missed the picket signs with her face on them, the cash prize (although it was awarded in Bolivares Fueretes) was sure to convey our love.
Don’t get me wrong: There were creepy elements to the Miss Venezuela pageant. Kids who are raised on it are understandably confused. When Anna’s nine-year-old granddaughter asked to borrow the tweezers she found in my backpack, her aunt told me she shaved her eyebrow off entirely last year. “Why’d you do that?” I asked her, and she shrugged. Pageants are by no means victimless.
And then there is the behind-the-scenes action of the pageant to consider. The contestants are so disempowered that they don’t even get to choose the plastic surgery they would like to have. That power goes to an ugly little man who wears a sweater around his shoulders and responds “What free time?” when magazine journalists (who I suspect he has fed the questions to) ask him what he does in his free time. He “harvests” beauty by deciding how a girl’s nose aught to be shaved down or narrowed so that it will look less ethnic, how to de-gum a smile that looks too gummy to be believable, and where on a body without much fat to begin with, fat should be lipoed from. The organization spends about $130,000 U.S. dollars per contestant on procedures, speech, etiquette, and dance classes for the girls in the seven months leading up to the contest, and the little man routinely replaces state misses who have won local competitions fair and square with women from Caracas who have attended beauty academies their entire lives.
|Things get formal.
Yet most people in Venezuela — the kind I spent the night with in the nosebleed seats, participating and enjoying a mass romancing; the pre-op-due-to budget-constraint-transvestites; the grandmothers; the teen boys — are not very critical about the beauty of beauty queens or of normal women. They like a good celebration, and if there is a little street dynamic reflected in the pageant, there is more pageant reflected in the relationships on the street every day of the year.
In the street, normal women packed into jeans that can barely handle their magnitude, in spandex tops and red lipstick, put on a show of their own just by walking. Clothing and accessories help them tell a story, their story, only just slightly more fantastic, as they move their ass like it was an instrument of dance down the endless catwalk of their lives.
And when men pass women they just say it: “You’re beautiful.” Because why wouldn’t you let a beautiful woman know she’s beautiful? And then why wouldn’t you add just a little kiss to the air after that? Just to let her know what the sight of her makes you want to do?
When Anna successfully returned from the bathroom with deep-fried cheese bread sticks and orange soda she said, “They’re delicious,” and I took one and said, “Yes, delicious.” I ate and scratched the open sand fly bites covering my legs and watched the show. The misses ended a number by touching their knees and then running their hands up their thin inner thighs. The production cut to a commercial.
The crowd rallied hard for their candidate while the station tried to sell smooth and sleek Pantene, Splenda, credit cards, plug-in Glade air fresheners, a new kind of fried chicken sandwich at McDonald’s, denture adhesive, super-stay lipstick that stayed on through kissing and eating spaghetti, calling plans with the nationalized phone system, telenovelas, and Coca-Cola. The crowd kept cheering their misses.
Then Wisin & Yandel, the Reggaeton act, beamed down into the stadium from space, via the magic of a video shown on the big screen, and then busted onto stage like they just came out of a space ship. They immediately started thrusting to (crudely translated), “I like the way your body moves…Sexy movement…follow me, follow me, how delicious.” Everyone was standing and clapping, and one of the duo, Wisin or Yandel, was pointing at his own crotch when he sang. The songs and the act were undeniably hot. Anna and Carmen clapped in time to “Your body…your perfume…delicious…sexy movement, follow me…follow me.” And Wisin and Yandel finished with fireworks and applause. Lots and lots of applause.
Then finally, after hours, after months of build up, Miss Trujillo, Stephanie Fernandez, (Miss Most Beautiful Face, Miss Elegance, and Miss Best Body) was crowned Miss Venezuela 2008. We all waved Venezuelan national flags, and when the fireworks went off again, we clapped even harder. • 9 December 2008
When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photographs by Emily Maloney.