Oct. 8, 2009 -- The hunt for the perfect woman, it seems, is over. She lives in Venezuela.
"It's something in the air, something in the water, I guess," said Patricia Zavala, 24, tall and thin with impossibly long legs, perfect proportions and perfect teeth. One of 20 finalists for the annual Miss Venezuela Pageant, she smiles playfully as she sits in Caracas's El Paliedro amphitheater during the dress rehearsal.
Of course, it's not really the air or the water. In reality, Venezuela has learned how to manufacture beauty -- which helps explain how the beauty queens produced by this relatively small South American nation of just 26 million people win far more international pageants than contestants from any other country.
"Here we have that sparkle, you know?" said Merelisa Gibson, 22, another finalist.
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Venezuelans have been crowned queen in close to 60 international beauty pageants, winning Miss World five times, Miss International five times and Miss Universe -- the biggest of all -- a staggering six times, including the last two years.
And so, this summer there was Miss Universe 2008, Dayana Mendoza, a former Miss Venezuela, crowning Miss Universe 2009, Stefanie Fernandez, the current Miss Venezuela.
No country had ever achieved back-to-back wins before.
Known for its chaotic politics, its mercurial, red-shirted president, Hugo Chavez, and its abundance of oil, the country also seems to have an abundance of beautiful women.
"There is a saying here amongst women," said Jose Rafael Briceño, a media and speech coach for the pageant. "It's something like, 'I would rather be dead than look ugly.'"
Attitudes like that may not win awards for cultural sensitivity or political correctness, but those attitudes do help Venezuela win beauty pageants.
If Venezuela has a secret weapon in its quest to conquer the world -- or at least the world of beauty queens -- it can be found in a large pink building in northern Caracas. It is the home of the Miss Venezuela School, a kind of Olympic training academy for extraordinarily beautiful women.
Each spring, several thousand young Venezuelan women eagerly apply for the pageant. Their numbers are quickly reduced. Ultimately, a few dozen go through intensive training -- four months of rigorous drills in makeup, bikini modeling and walking effortlessly in four-inch heels (apparently, no easy feat). Twenty finalists are selected.
The King of Beauty Queens
Overseeing it all is Osmel Sousa. In Venezuela, and perhaps the world, he is the King of Beauty Queens.
"The secret," he said in Spanish, "is the preparation."
Sousa said he could transfer his formula for creating pageant queens to any country in the world and create just as many winners.
"Yes, of course," said Sousa, "and I'd have even more success in bigger countries. But you have to understand that, from a very young age, girls in this country grow up dreaming of becoming Miss Venezuela. In other countries, they don't care as much about things like this."
And make no mistake, in Venezuela, beauty pageants are a national sport. The scene outside the arena in Caracas last month on the night of the Miss Venezuela Pageant was par for the course. The streets throbbed with screaming fans waving signs with provocative pictures of their favorite finalists. Marching bands and a stilt walker added to the sporting atmosphere.
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.
"Umm ... is it that obvious?" she said when asked if she'd gone under the knife. "I guess everybody always asks you that, but I don't think it's a necessity to tell people what you have done. OK, maybe I had a little thing over here, over there, but I'm not going to tell you."
Women's Rights and Femininity
Contestant Adriana Vasini, a.k.a Miss Zulia? Also not telling.
"I think the most beautiful thing of a woman is the things that she never tells," Vasini said.
If the uniform answers from the contestants seem coached, it's for a very good reason: they are. The bootcamp-style training at the Miss Venezuela School is about more than simply looking spectacularly beautiful.
It is up to Jose Rafael Briceno, a former college professor, to teach the women how to carry themselves in public and how to answer questions from nosy reporters. "We've made a profession out of this," Briceno said, "because beauty is very special for the Venezuelan. The feminist revolution here was very particular, because in no way did we ever get to that point that, in order to win women's rights, you had to abandon femininity… which happened in some other countries, where women would consider the fact that they put on too much makeup or spent too much time on their hair, that would mean that they're in some way giving up to the macho side. That was never an issue here -- women won their rights and they kept on being very feminine."
In doing so, they have uncovered a formula for what the world -- or at least the world of beauty pageants -- considers perfect beauty.
So what is it?
"I can't put it into words," said Sousa, "but I have an eye for it, I have it in my mind."
Sousa spotted that perfection in Gibson, and so did the judges at the Miss Venezuela Pageant. Now she will represent her country at the 2010 Miss Universe Pageant. And the world will watch to see if she wins, giving Venezuela a triple crown and reinforcing the claim that this little country has created the most beautiful women in the world.