"Loin steaks" on the pageant stage

CARACAS, Venezuela — He calls them "loin steaks," you might know them as beauty queens.

With that attitude, it's no surprise that Venezuela is fast becoming known for an export other than oil and socialism: female beauty.

The South American country spends millions of hours and dollars grooming its candidates for beauty competitions, and no event encapsulates Venezuelans' obsession with the female form more than the annual Miss Venezuela pageant.

Beauty pageants have survived under increasing pressure from activist groups that say they are demeaning to women. But in a macho society like Venezuela’s such arguments are often met with bafflement.

During a press conference last week, Joaquin Riviera, producer and choreographer of the event, described the girls paraded behind him as “lomitos” or “loin steaks.” He seemed perplexed when asked if he thought comparing girls to cuts of meat was demeaning. “What would you call them?” he said.

But whatever he calls them, it seems to be working. Venezuela has won more international beauty pageants than any other country: six Miss Universe titles, six Miss World and five Miss International. When Stefania Fernandez, a 19-year-old communications student from Merida, won the Miss Universe crown last month, succeeding her compatriot Dayana Mendoza, Venezuela became the first country in the competition’s history to win the title in two consecutive years. And this year's prime cuts will take the stage Thursday night in the most watched program of the year on Venezuelan TV to determine who will represent the country in upcoming international competitions.

Many credit the Cuban-Venezuelan Osmel Sousa, a former illustrator for advertising agencies and now president of the Miss Venezuela Organization, as the mastermind behind Venezuelan pageant success. Often dubbed the “Henry Higgins” of Venezuela for his ability to turn young girls into fair ladies, Sousa presides over every casting, scrutinizing girls for their height and character.

Once girls are selected for the contest they are whisked to Caracas where, in a specially allocated house high in the hills dubbed the “Finca Miss Venezuela,” they receive lessons in elocution, make-up, dance and how to parade the catwalk.

And when breeding and grooming alone don't cut it, Sousa might suggest they go under the knife.

Marelisa Gibson, 21, the Miranda state candidate for Miss Venezuela, said dieting and cosmetic surgery are not compulsory but commonplace nonetheless. “It’s not like you do it or you’re out but if you start seeing the other one and they are thinner than you or they’re looking better than you then maybe you start [thinking] maybe I should be skinnier, I should do this … but it’s up to you,” said Gibson, who declined to say whether she had been operated on.

Sousa justified plastic surgery by arguing that it was necessary to correct “imperfections.”

“When I worked in an advertising agency as an illustrator and was a specialist in female figures, when there was an imperfection I corrected it,” he said. “I like perfection.”

The winner on Thursday night can expect instant celebrity. Many former contestants go on to lucrative modeling contracts or become television presenters. One, Irene Saenz, entered politics and was elected governor of the state of Nueva Esparta. She ran for president in 1998, losing out to Hugo Chavez.

Others enter Venezuelan folklore. Susana Dujim, Miss World in 1955, was the inspiration for one of Venezuela’s favorite snacks. The “Reina Pepiada” or “Curvy Queen,” an ‘arepa’ or cornmeal patty stuffed with chicken, avocado and petit pois was named in her honor.