In Venezuela, Beauty Is Born ... and Made

Who better to explain the pageant's appeal than the contestants themselves? Zavala was representing the Venezuelan state of Vargas.

She explained why she thought beauty pageants are very much alive in Venezuela while having lost their luster elsewhere.

"It's our hobby, I guess," Zavala said. "I think it's a national hobby. And one of the things is that, I just really can't explain it, but since I was small, you've been listening about the Miss Venezuela. So maybe this is our Super Bowl."

The four-and-a-half-hour broadcast of the national pageant gets the biggest audience of the year on Venezuelan television, more than any sporting event. More than half the country watches.

Venezuelans will tell you that one advantage they have in the beauty game is their exotic mixture of people and races. The country boasts Mediterranean, northern European, African and indigenous bloodlines.

Gibson, representing the state of Miranda, is 100 percent Venezuelan, but her ancestors came to the country from Mexico, Panama and Sweden.

She joked that attending the Miss Venezuela School is like training for the Olympics -- except in heels.

"It's like a military field in heels and makeup," she said with a wink.

Gibson conceded that before she started grooming herself for the pageant, she looked and acted differently.

"I was heavier," she said, with a laugh. "In pounds, I don't know. In kilograms, like eight or nine."

That's almost 20 pounds. And that's how Sousa has run the Miss Venezuela School and Pageant for 28 years. With the precision of a sculptor, he examines near-perfect women for imperfections.

There is, however, a wrinkle in this story.

'We Polish the Misses'

As Sousa likes to say, "God created these beautiful women -- but he also created plastic surgeons."

Sousa is very open about the fact that women who train at his school get plastic surgery.

"Every country does it," he said. "They just don't admit it. I do."

It is said in Venezuela that there are as many plastic surgeons as there are dentists.

Dr. Petr Romer is the official plastic surgeon to the Miss Venezuela Pageant and -- not surprisingly -- one of the most popular plastic surgeons in Caracas.

He joked that his collaboration with the Miss Venezuela pageant was "too close."

"We work all the year," he said. "And we discuss the pre-selection even. Then we select the best group, and then we discuss what things are not very good -- and we change those things.

"For example, the nose, the breast, fat in different parts of the body. But the point is, we don't change the ladies, we just a little polish." Romer rubbed his hands to demonstrate.

"We polish the misses, we don't change the misses. The beauty is in the girls since the beginning, and my work is only to polish that beauty."

Major surgery, he said, is out of the question.

"I never need to. If you need big changes, you cannot go to the Miss Venezuela."

Romer said he did some discreet nips, ticks and lifts on about half of the 20 Miss Venezuela finalists, including five nose jobs, six breast implants and three liposuctions.

But try getting the women to tell you what he did.

"I'm not going to answer that," said Gibson, when asked if she had had plastic surgery. She invited a reporter to touch her nose. "It's soft ... It's real," she said.

But what about below the neck?

"Well, my arms are mine," she said mischievously.

Zavala was similarly reticent.

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