By ILAN STAVANSOCT. – The New York Times
Venezuela isn’t only the country with the most Miss Universe winners, a whopping seven crowned since 1979. It is also fanatical about the contest in ways that run deep in the nation’s culture. The 1996 winner, Alicia Machado, with whom Donald J. Trump has been keeping up a very public feud, is considered a dissenter in that culture, in which she is both cherished and vilified.
The national contest’s headquarters, known as Quinta Miss Venezuela, are on La Salle Avenue, in what was once an affluent Caracas neighborhood. Millions of dollars pour through this place, the equivalent of a baseball farm, for which the country is also famous. Most years, the Miss Universe contest is televised throughout Latin America.
An army of scouts recruit hundreds of candidates for auditions. The aspiring beauty queens need to be single and aged between 17 and 24, stand at least 5-foot-8 and weigh around 120 pounds. Those selected are carefully groomed, from the dresses they wear to the statements they make. Sometimes, they undergo cosmetic surgery, another big business in the region.
This is a country where beauty pageants are ubiquitous, from schools to the armed forces. Electing Miss Venezuela is considered as important as choosing the next president. People follow the contestants’ every move in the media, and often bet on the outcome. One of Venezuela’s Miss Universe winners even became the model for a Barbie doll.
As a result, Venezuelan parents instill in their daughters from a young age the desire to be beauty queens. For a champion, success can mean a major TV career and lucrative endorsements. A few make it as business executives, but nearly all become ambassadors for charities, raising money for hospitals and other causes.
Occasionally, a Miss Universe contender even goes into politics. Irene Sáez (winner in 1981) was a mayor of Chacao, a district in the capital, ran for president and became a state governor. Marena Bencomo (first runner-up in 1997) considered running for municipal office before becoming an airline executive. If, in other parts of the world, beauty pageants have come to be seen as demeaning spectacles, in Venezuela finalists are still worshiped as icons.
Ms. Machado is something of an exception. Not political per se, she is a provocateur. Early in her training, she refused plastic surgery, flouting the submissive stereotype. And as the entire planet now knows, she gained weight. When Mr. Trump, who ran the contest in 1996, ridiculed her, she put on more — by some estimates, as much as 42 pounds.
Much like her adversary Mr. Trump, she appears unable to resist being on camera. Or getting into messy situations. In 1997, she was charged as an accomplice to her boyfriend in a shooting in Venezuela, though her charges were dropped. She apparently engaged in some risqué behavior with a fellow contestant in a Spanish reality show. In 2010, Univision reported that the father of her daughter was a Mexican drug lord, José Gerardo Álvarez, known as “El Indio” and now incarcerated. (She has denied the story.)
Mr. Trump can’t seem to stop tweeting about Ms. Machado. She, in turn, punches back in one interview after another. Her position, as she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, is that she is “not a saint girl.” Indeed, she has a feistiness that borders on the erratic. Since Mr. Trump went on the attack, the Clinton campaign has carefully stage-managed Ms. Machado’s media appearances.
Mr. Trump notoriously called her “Miss Piggy” and an “eating machine.” The insults aside, such views would not be exceptional in Venezuela, where a beauty queen is supposed to maintain svelteness at all times, and Ms. Machado’s weight gain was treated as a scandal. In her country, her willingness to part with the norms of Miss Universe winners marks her out as a nonconformist.
In her responses to the continued attacks from Mr. Trump and others, Ms. Machado seems to be taking the rebel’s part. For what cause exactly can be hard to tell — other than vowing to vote against Mr. Trump. But by insisting in having her voice, whatever she has to say, Ms. Machado does call into question the beauty pageant conventions that expect a beautiful woman to be seen and not heard.
In recent years, Latin America has not lacked for powerful women, figurehead leaders like Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, and Argentina’s former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yet alongside such admirable role models, the Miss Universe cult is still packaging women as consumer goods.
Ms. Machado’s scrappy attitude is refreshing — and enlightening: Her feud with Mr. Trump is proof yet again of his misogyny. But it’s also a reminder that he has no monopoly on that. There’s plenty to go around in Latin America.
Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin America and Latino culture at Amherst College, is the author, most recently, of “Quixote: The Novel and the World.”