An up-close look at the youngest members of the beauty system — and mentality — that has produced more Miss Universe winners than anyone but the US.
By FlÃ¡via Marreiro
FOLHA DE S. PAULO/Worldcrunch
CARACAS -Â “And how should one hold a wine glass?” asks Wendy Guillen, an etiquette instructor at the most famous Venezuelan school for young girls who one day want to become the new Miss Universe.
Sitting around a glass table, several students raise their hand at the same time. “You should hold it from below!”
Their ages range from five to 10 years old, but the school will also accept four year olds. Reviewing basic etiquette rules include how to sip cognac, the right place to put your purse and a strong recommendation to sit with the legs closed, as a proper little niÃ±aÂ should do.
Etiquette classes are the boring part for the young girls, but things were different moments before when they exchanged turns strutting down the catwalk and posing in front of our cameras.
“My name is VictÃ³ria and Iâ€™m five years old,” says a red-haired little girl wearing a dress, dividing her attention between the camera lenses and her mother, Vilma GonzÃ¡lez, who tries to give her some instructions from across the room.
GonzÃ¡lez, a 42-year-old company manager, took a break from her job to take Victoria on a Thursday afternoon to the University of Beauty, a large house in the wealthyÂ CaracasÂ neighborhood of Altamira.
“She would be the first red-haired Miss Venezuela,” her mom says confidently, explaining how her daughter is bound to win one of the more than 600 local beauty contests, a step before moving on to television, commercials, and even to politics.
Current Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez won election in 1998 by beating Irene SÃ¡ez, a governor and mayor of Caracas, who first gained prominence asÂ one of Venezuela’s six national Miss Universe winners (only the US, with seven, has won the crown more times).
Vilma GonzÃ¡lez does not see any problem teaching such little girls rules on drinking manners and makeup, nor does she think the prep courses will become a psychological burden on VictÃ³ria.
The mother complains of â€œdiscriminationâ€ against little Miss contests, and believes the training will imbue her daughter with the feminine side girls have been losing.
Do you know Gisele BÃ¼ndchen? “Yes”, answers the group, all seemingly quite familiar with the Brazilian supermodel. But a few more questions reveal they actually thought it was a different person.
This is Gisselle Reyes, owner of the University of Beauty and the official instructor for Miss Venezuela contest. She is the “queen of ‘tumbao,’” a local word for a perfect swivel of the hip.
Being able to please Gisselle Reyes is an important step to reach powerful Osmel Sousa, who makes the final choice about who will compete in the final rounds to qualify for the Miss Venezuela contest — an event owned by the powerful broadcasting group Cisneros.
Plastic surgery is not necessarily seen as a problem for the contest, and girls may change their nose, raise their cheek bones, and undergo liposuction.Â Even teens and pre-teens undergo surgery, a fashion which the University of Beauty says it opposes.
“We do not recommend it to those under 18,” saysÂ WendyÂ Guillen, surrounded by her students.
One of them is Luisana Pimentel, 5, proof of national saying “antes muerta que sencilla” — something like “Iâ€™d rather be dead than being just somebody.” The little girl points down at the little high-heeled silver shoes, with small shiny stones: “This is my first time wearing these”, she says.
Indeed, Gulillen explains, that to make it to Miss Venezuela — and maybe even Miss Universe — there is only one real physical barrier: being short.