Dreams of beauty

Tal Abbady

Andreina Elias-Ellington gets ready for some hair spray from stylist Juan Calcano in as she preps for a pageant in Venezuela.

Robert Mayer|South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Credit: Ron Soltys

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With her stiff wave and glittery crown, Miss America is, for many women, a relic of bygone times.

But in parts of Latin America, beauty pageants present rare opportunities for fame and fortune. In countries such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, they draw television viewers with the same national fervor as the World Cup.

Wearing leopard-print pumps, black shorts and a black halter top, Andreina Elias-Ellington wants a piece of that glory.

The 6-foot Boca Raton, Fla., resident hopes her looks, long-legged strut and choreographed femininity will win her a spot in a new televised beauty pageant for Hispanic-American women to be directed by Osmel Sousa, director of Miss Venezuela and Latin America’s most revered beauty coach. The event will recruit women nationally and be broadcast from Miami as a rweality TV show.

Elias-Ellington, born in Venezuela, is among a group of pre-selected contestants working with Weston, Fla., talent agent Katty Pulido.

True to Sousa’s reputation in the pageant world, the women will undergo grueling training and be required to reach plastic-surgery perfection. Just to meet with Sousa, who will determine the final list of contestants, Elias-Ellington plans to undergo surgery to narrow the tip of her nose.

“Mr. Sousa is very recognized in my country, so I have some anxiety. But it’s also an honor. From the time I was little, my whole family gathered around the TV set to watch Miss Venezuela,” said Elias-Ellington, 21, before a training session with Pulido. She studies biomedical engineering at Florida International University in Miami and lives with her family in Boca Raton, Fla.

Sousa’s event is still in its planning phase, Pulido and others said. He has partnered with the Univision television network in Miami to broadcast the contestants’ months-long preparation in successive episodes, but a start date has not yet been set. The contestants must be United States residents between 16 and 26 years old and of Hispanic origin, including Latin American-born women who live in the United States.

Talent agents like Pulido are trolling restaurants, malls or any other place where an unsuspecting Sousa-worthy beauty queen might be passing through. Pulido discovered Elias-Ellington while the young woman accompanied her mother to get a haircut.

“These girls come to me disheveled, wearing flip-flops,” Pulido said of her Pygmalion-like effect. “I prepare them before they get to Osmel. I teach them how to dress, how to make themselves up. I also teach them how to be confident.”

Sousa, under whose direction Venezuela has won four Miss Universe and five Miss World titles, has godfather-like status in the pageant industry. Pulido and others say this event will bear his signature. That means the women will live in a confined space, similar to Casa Miss Venezuela, the Caracas training academy that churns out Venezuela’s beauty queens. They’ll undergo long hours of daily training, including modeling and dance classes, and follow strict diets.

As he does with his beauty contestants in Venezuela, where pageants are a kind of national blood sport, Sousa will have the right to prescribe surgical retoques, or touchups, for contestants if they want to make the final cut.

“We call it the glaze and the oven,” joked Pulido. “If it’s necessary, you do it. You get your eyebrows lifted, you shave the end of your nose. If you’re not OK with that, then you’re not OK with cutting or dyeing your hair.”

Once local, high-society events similar to debutante balls and meant to introduce beautiful women to prospective husbands, Latin American beauty pageants have become televised blockbusters in the past 25 years. In some countries, they rake in millions in advertising spots and top the ratings chart.

They also stir controversy. Pageant directors frown on Rubenesque physiques, once prized in Latino culture. Some national pageants have drawn criticism for excluding indigenous and black women from their shortlists, reflecting Latin America’s own troubled racial history, and sending primarily white or light-skinned contestants to compete for the Miss Universe title. Once they win, the women become political pawns, critics add.

“The ‘Misses’ in Latin America are used as tools for governments to sell a certain image to the world,” said Muu Blanco, a Caracas-based artist. “In Venezuela, people have become obsessed with the aesthetics of their supposedly perfect Miss.”