When I was growing up, in the height of the oil boom, few events emptied the streets of Caracas like the Miss Venezuela pageant. The show was broadcast live from luxury hotels most Venezuelans could only dream of entering for a whiskycito. The women stood in troop formation, sheathed in evening gowns or folkloric costumes or bathing suits. They were introduced by name, age, body measurements and eye color. Fans sang the show’s anthem by heart — “On such a lovely night as this, any one of us could triumph.”
The mission of the whole Miss Venezuela enterprise was, of course, to see the winner crowned Miss Universe. Since the Miss Universe pageant began in 1952, Venezuela has won seven times (second only to the United States), a much-touted accomplishment.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before the country’s beauty-queen industry, its mythmaking machine, broke down. This spring, the Miss Venezuela Organization temporarily suspended pageant operations after accusations that organizers had procured young women as sexual companions for wealthy sponsors, including officials at the highest levels of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.
Since the country’s golden years in the 1970s, when the oil wealth was pouring in, Miss Venezuela has been a source of national pride, an export once thought to be insulated from the flux and corruption of politics. Its swift unraveling is the latest indignity for a country in economic collapse, where hyperinflation has plunged millions into poverty and hunger. On Sunday, elections are being held, though Mr. Maduro has jailed his most popular opponents or barred them from running. The vote is widely seen as the latest effort by a strongman to consolidate power as the trappings of democracy fall away.
In November, the Venezuelan news website Efecto Cocuyo published a series of investigative reports into the pageant abuses.
Shortly after, the Spanish newspaper El País reported on a money-laundering scheme involving officials in the Venezuelan state-owned oil company and their associates, one of whom was linked to a former pageant contestant and a $1 million deposit she made in an Andorra bank.
This led to a backlash on social media, in which many former contestants accused one another of complicity in the corruption for having received cash, apartments and other gifts from men in or close to the Maduro regime. Other contestants, most of whom competed in the last five to 10 years, began giving interviews about their experiences of harassment and worse.
Ibéyise Pacheco, a journalist and the author of a novel based on the intersection of beauty pageants, prostitution and government corruption,” said she had talked to former contestants who ranged from willing participants in the sexual schemes to those who were “practically slaves.” Indeed, Efecto Cocuyo reported on one young woman who fled the country after a sponsor whose advances she rejected threatened to kill her.
At the center of the scandal is Osmel Sousa, director of the Miss Venezuela Organization for nearly 40 years, who stepped down in February. (He remains a judge on the popular, Miami-based Univision show “Nuestra Belleza Latina.”) Venezuelans are used to seeing photographs of the nation’s “beauty czar” dwarfed by his towering queens. Some of those former contestants say Mr. Sousa or his assistants pressured them to act as escorts or concubines for politicians and businessmen in exchange for money to finance their pageant runs. Mr. Sousa has also been accused of being paid by the men for his role in arranging these transactions.
Some women resisted; many others complied. A few married their patrons. Debora Menicucci, now 26, met Mr. Sousa when she was 13, and went on to represent Venezuela in the 2014 Miss World pageant. Around that time, Mr. Sousa reportedly introduced her to her future husband, Maikel Moreno, 25 years her senior. He is a lawyer who went to prison for murder in the 1980s and who now, as president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, is known for imposing harsh sentences on opposition members.
Mr. Sousa, who claims a friendship with Donald Trump, the former Miss Universe owner, and is known for flaunting cellphone pictures of the two of them together, denies any knowledge of, let alone involvement in, the abuse and corruption. In a statement on his Instagram account in March, he wrote, “My only riches are the memories, my millions are the applause and my greatest satisfaction was the success and exposure the event gave to innumerable Venezuelan women.”
Although the exploitation of pageant contestants seems to have become more extreme in recent years, sex was always part of pageant culture. Rumors had circulated for decades that contestants were being pressured to provide sexual favors to “dark saints” in return for money to pay for the wardrobe, diction classes, dental work, breast implants and other cosmetic surgeries matter-of-factly required of would-be Miss Venezuelas.
Despite deepening poverty and the scarcity of basic supplies and medicine, Venezuela has one of world’s highest rates of cosmetic procedures per capita. For Miss Venezuela aspirants, the surgeries are considered part of the project of transformation and self-sacrifice. According to Efecto Cocuyo, the months of preparation can cost up to $32,000.
In her 2015 memoir, “Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey to Finding Her Truth,” the actress Patricia Velásquez, a 1989 Miss Venezuela runner-up, described entering the contest at 18. She had hoped a win could help her family, who lived in a run-down building that rarely had running water. She wrote, “I quickly learned that getting into the Miss Venezuela contest meant I would have to start prostituting myself in order to find a sponsor.”
She found one, a man roughly 20 years older, who paid for her expenses, including breast implants and an apartment in Caracas — “sort of my boyfriend, but not one I ever told anyone else about.” Ms. Velásquez’s story received little notice at the time, but she is now belatedly acknowledged as a whistle-blower whose book has helped substantiate the first-person accounts of recent months.
A less acknowledged aspect of her memoir is the way it reveals the pageant’s fraught racial history. She is of Wayuu descent, and one of the few indigenous or African-Venezuelan women to have had success in the competition. Her book includes a description of being told by Mr. Sousa that she’d need surgery on her eyes, presumably to make her look more Caucasian.
“I understood the breast implants,” she wrote. “That didn’t change me.” But “my eyes made me who I was — part of being Wayuu, and common, and indigenous.” She refused: “I didn’t want to let go of my roots and be an outsider in my own body.” Her eyes untouched, she performed well at the pageant and went on to a successful modeling and acting career.
In a March radio interview, Maria Gabriela Isler, Miss Universe 2013, said she repeatedly resisted demands from men she called “sharks” during her pageant days, but does not fault the women who gave in. “You’re 18, from the hinterlands of the country, and they offer you villas and castles,” she said. “You don’t think about what’s good or bad or the future. You think about what’s within reach.”
This desperation increased as the economic situation in the country worsened. While middle- and upper-class Venezuelans have emigrated, young women from low-income backgrounds have flocked to regional pageant castings, desperate for any opportunity to help their families.
“We are living in a country where people will sell themselves for a bar of soap,” Esteban Veláasquez, a pageant coach, told Efecto Cocuyo.
In the United States, events like the Miss U.S.A. contest are largely seen as an anachronism, fodder for feminist scorn or amusement. But in Latin America, beauty pageants are a bid for relevance on the world stage.
It was Americans, in fact, who helped introduce the pageant in Venezuela. Miss Venezuela began as a 1952 beauty contest sponsored by the airline Pan American and a swimsuit company. It took place at the Valle Arriba Golf Club, a gated playground for expats and oil executives in Caracas.
Oil and beauty have been intertwined ever since. As Raúl Gallegos put it in his 2016 book, “Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela,” oil wealth “has nurtured a culture where looks have paramount importance.” That’s an understatement in a country where oil tankers were named for beauty queens.
Now the oil wealth is gone, and the Miss Venezuela bubble has finally burst. The pageant scandals have shaken Venezuelans who’ve already watched their country unravel in the decadence and strife of the governments of Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. There’s the sense that life is now a matter of just surviving the daily social unrest and the food and medicine shortages that are sending a flood of refugees to Colombia and Brazil. Many are asking, “Now this?”
But of course, it’s a grimly familiar pattern. Men who abuse power think they can do it everywhere. The last two decades in Venezuela have seen the creation of a puppet National Assembly and Supreme Court loyal to Mr. Chávez and Mr. Maduro; the end of term limits; the nationalization of private enterprise; and, above all, the rise of an elite governing class living on oil wealth. It’s no surprise that the men who’ve taken so much from their country assumed they could take its beauty queens, too.
Ms. Pacheco, the writer, appeared on a Telemundo show in March alongside the former contestants Migbelis Castellanos and Alicia Machado (Miss Universe 1996, whom Mr. Trump called “Miss Piggy” to shame her into losing weight). The women spoke of the scandal in terms of their country’s “moral bankruptcy.”
“As a Venezuelan,” Ms. Pacheco said, “it’s painful to see an institution we were all so proud of come down like this.”
Ms. Machado, through tears, said the pageant had been “our last glory,” now contaminated by “a revolutionary cancer.”
Venezuelan feminists are perhaps the only ones not mourning this particular loss. The journalist Elizabeth Fuentes was recently interviewed recalling her early activism against the pageant cult. Inspired by the writing of Simone de Beauvoir, Ms. Fuentes was among a group of women who stormed a Caracas theater hosting the 1972 Miss Venezuela contest. They held placards condemning the event, and attempted to spray-paint contestants’ dresses before the police arrived.
It would take much more than that to bring down Miss Venezuela. A 16-year-old contestant in that 1972 pageant reportedly asked Mr. Sousa what feminists were. The “beauty czar,” then just starting his career, responded, “Ugly women who don’t bathe.”
It’s bittersweet now, and a bit horrifying, to think back on generations of Miss Venezuela enthusiasts, myself among them, who were swept up in the pageant’s brand of nationalism. My parents were expats, and still a Miss Venezuela viewing at my house was a giddy affair of marathon snacking and catty laughter. Like most fans, we weren’t aware of how much the women were chiseled to meet Euro-American beauty standards, let alone subjected to more sinister treatment.
I remember 1981 as the double championship year, when Irene Sáez was crowned Miss Universe and Pilín León was crowned Miss World. Magazine covers of both blonde women were strewn about my house. Years later, Mr. Chávez stripped the Pilín León oil tanker of its name after its crew participated in a strike organized by the opposition. The Navy seized the tanker and Mr. Chávez, in the spirit of his “Bolívarian revolution,” rechristened it Negra Matea, after a female slave owned by the family of Simón Bolívar.
Ms. Sáez went on to become a popular mayor of the municipality of Chacao in Caracas, where my family lived. I once caught sight of her in the lobby of a government building greeting mostly male fans. She looked like nobody I’d ever known, in school or life. She was svelte, gracious — the only queen in the room, the queen I’d never be. But somehow, watching as she smiled humbly at the crowd of men in suits around her, I didn’t mind.
Tal Abbady is a freelance writer.