Forget the sparkly tiaras and flowing couture gowns — pageant life isn't always as glamorous as it seems.
Especially if you ask newly crowned Miss Puerto Rico Universe Ingrid Marie Rivera, who says her competitors at last month's beauty pageant tried to sabotage her by spraying her outfit and makeup with pepper spray, causing her to break out in hives.
Rivera was reportedly the favored contestant in the island's pageant.
"At one point, I said, 'am I a masochist?'" Rivera said in a tearful news conference, where she explained to reporters how she had considered dropping out of the competition. "But I said, 'I am with God and this is my goal, regardless of the results.'"
But when the Puerto Rico Forensic Science Institute tested Rivera's belongings for traces of the chemical found in pepper spray, they came up empty-handed, according to Reuters, leading those who had been feeling sorry for the botched beauty queen to question whether Rivera had pulled the prank.
"I guess she has a lot of explaining to do," police spokesman Stephen Alvarez told the news service.
Beauty Pageant Pressure Cooker
While Rivera has yet to comment on allegations that the pepper spray incident never happened — or, if it did, that it was self-inflicted — people close to the pageant don't seem surprised at the unfolding controversy.
Fellow Puerto Rican pageant contestant Bianca Morales appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and said that there was certainly tension between the beauty queens, likely due to jealousy.
"We more or less know the girls who were very mad about [Rivera's ongoing success]," said Morales, who refused to be more specific about who may have sought revenge. "[S]ooner or later we'll know. Everybody's going to know."
Former Miss USA Shanna Moakler told ABCNEWS.com that pageants — especially those held in Latin countries — are extremely competitive and often lead contestants to do anything it takes to look good.
"The pageants in Latin countries aren't like [those in the United States] — they're like their version of the Oscars," said Moakler, who, since passing on her crown, has appeared on several television shows. "Presidents attend and they're huge events."
"[Becoming Miss Puerto Rico] isn't like becoming Miss USA — they become huge celebrities, and it doesn't just change their lives, but their whole family's life," Moakler said. "It's highly competitive."
Did the Beauty Queen Crack Under Pressure?
While there is no evidence that Rivera fabricated the pepper spray incident, psychologists told ABCNEWS.com that it is not uncommon that these stressful, cutthroat environments push contestants over the edge, spurring them to act dishonestly.
"In Puerto Rico and Venezuela — countries with even more emphasis on looks than the U.S. — pageants are close to life or death situations for these women," said Debbie Then, a social psychologist who specializes in women and appearances. "It can propel people to do untruthful things."
Ruthlessness and competitiveness is fairly common in beauty pageants, said Then, who added that, when so much emphasis is placed on looks and appearance, ethics are often overlooked.
"People who go into these pageants, to begin with, want attention — and [lying] is one more way of trying to get it," said Then. "The pressure makes you do anything to win and stand out."
But Rivera still won the competition, so why would she lie about getting doused with pepper spray, as some of her critics suggest?
In Rivera's case, the pepper spray ruse — if it isn't true — may have been a way for her to compensate for what she believes to be a lackluster performance and may have little to do with the crown.
"Sometimes, people lie to make themselves look better," said Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. "Perhaps she feels like she didn't perform as well as she should have, and wanted to explain why she didn't look as good as she wanted to."
"If you're in a beauty pageant and you say this pepper spray incident happened to you, you're going to get way more attention, and people will focus on you and [feel] sad for you," Kaslow told ABCNEWS.com. "People sometimes think it will buy you something better — maybe scores in future pageants."
Rivera will compete in the 2008 Miss Universe competition in Vietnam in the summer.
While psychologists say that the competitive environment of a beauty pageant will test the backbone of a contestant, there is no doubt that the individual's personality plays a significant role in how he or she performs under pressure.
"The more a person seeks and needs outside recognition in order to fill a void inside themselves, the more likely they are to engage in deceitful behavior," said Theirry Guedj, professor of psychology at Boston University. "And not only are you competing for approval and acceptance, but you're competing against other people for more approval than them.
"The chance that people are going to like the next contestant more is terrifying for someone who thinks winning that competition is their only success in life," said Guedj.
Despite this latest pageant controversy — which comes on the heels of several scandals involving beauty queens and racy photographs — former crown wearer Moakler still remembers her own pageant days fondly, with just a hint of skepticism.
"Behind the scenes, you usually have a good, solid group of girlfriends," Moakler said. "But like anything else, you usually have a few bad apples, and those bad apples are capable of doing really bad things."