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CROWNING TOUCH Colombians obsessed with beauty pageants
David L. Marcus

The Dallas Morning News
Page 1A
(Copyright 1991)

BOGOTA, Colombia—The rumors of political pressures started weeks ago. Then came whispers of “Mafioso money.’

The tensions signaled the coming of Colombia’s closest-watched election: the Miss Colombia pageant.

As the voting wrapped up two weeks ago, thousands of fans jammed ballrooms in the seaside resort of Cartagena. Nearly half the country watched on television. President Cesar Gaviria was one of the rapt viewers, and his top advisers at the Treasury Ministry organized such a complicated betting pool that the winner had to be decided by a computerized spreadsheet.

To say that Colombia is obsessed with beauty contests is to underestimate the passions that such pageants stir. Almost every day, there is a pageant honoring a town, a plant or a natural resource somewhere in this country of 33 million.

So far this year, judges have chosen Miss Potato, Miss Papaya, Miss Salt, Miss Steel, Miss Coal, Miss Coffee and Miss Coffee-Picker. They have deliberated over Miss Flowers, Miss Folklore and Miss Tourism. With no insult intended, they have crowned Miss Donkey.

Even the prison system has its own pageant. The winner, Miss Friendship-and-Solidarity, gets a few seconds in the spotlight, but she doesn’t get an early release.

Pageants in Colombia are sacrosanct, providing most Colombians with a respite from crime and guerrilla warfare. Hardly a peep of criticism is heard, even from the growing ranks of professional women.

But as the competitions have turned into a multimillion-dollar business, many Colombians believe that they have been tainted by the same drug money that is corrupting the rest of society.

None of the contests is in the same league as the Miss Colombia show, a 14-day binge of parties, parades and bathing suit displays. Simply outfitting a candidate with evening dresses and micro-mini skirts requires tens of thousands of dollars. Along with the usual sponsors—perfume and clothing companies—several candidates are believed to be backed by cocaine or marijuana smugglers.

Last year’s Miss Colombia contest finished under such suspicious circumstances that it quickly became to pageants what Tammany Hall was to New York politics.

While the final votes were being tallied, a computer short-circuited and television commentators had to fill an hour of live air time while technicians scrambled.

When it was all over, the count showed an unexpected winner: a longshot candidate from the Atlantic coast.

The odd circumstances raised cries of fraud from rivals. They grumbled more a few months later when Miss Colombia became Mrs. Colombia, violating the pageant’s strict rules against marriage within a year of coronation.

After her lavish wedding, she was forced to hand over her crown to the runner-up.

The controversy pointed out the paradox of the pageant mania. The women have to be sensuous yet sexless. They must appear naive on the bathing suit runways yet act sophisticated when interviewed.

As a former contestant said, “They have to be nuns and exhibitionists at the same time.’

One of the few pageant skeptics is Maria Victoria Uribe, who caused a scandal in the 1968 Miss Colombia competition by refusing to wear makeup, parading in a wet bathing suit and talking about women’s lib and “free love.’

“The main mistake of the pageants is that they take themselves too seriously, so all the stuffiness becomes a caricature,’ she told reporters last month.

Ms. Uribe is an anthropology professor at the prestigious University of the Andes and the author of four books, but she hasn’t lost the edge that made her the most talked-about contestant in decades.

This is how she defines a pageant:

“For the machismo, it is the perfect moment, where the pretty girl is in her place—complacent, voluptuous, attractive and housewifely, with an indispensable ingredient: She talks foolishness.’

Although such comments largely fall on deaf ears, promoters of the Miss Colombia pageant moved this year to clean up the contest’s image. For the first time in the pageant’s 39-year history, all five judges came from foreign countries. Promoters hoped to limit hometown boosterism and, worse, bribery.

The contest was refreshingly predictable. Ms. Uribe, the former Miss Scandal, forecast that contestants would select the pope and Mother Teresa as the answers to their “most-admired’ question. And so they did.

She predicted that they would chose novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and President Gaviria as the “greatest Colombians.’ They did.

“Their ambitions are simple: to get married, have children, a car, a mink coat, jewels and a cordless telephone so they can talk from the bathtub,’ Ms. Uribe said.

The winner was 20-year-old Paola Turbay, a model and psychology student at the University of the Andes. She is beautiful and charming. She speaks two languages and plays the piano. She enjoys aerobics and squash.

And—coincidence or not—she comes from what Colombians call a “good family.’

Her family is so good, in fact, that her victory added to the speculation about the importance of political pull. She is the great-niece of former President Julio Turbay, an influential politician.

Miss Turbay flashes a pearl-white grin when asked about her family.

“They elected me, not my name,’ she said the other day. “They wouldn’t have voted for me if I was ugly.’

She wondered why no one had fussed over the bloodlines of another contestant, whose mother was Miss Universe in 1957.

Miss Turbay does not suffer from a lack of confidence. Several months ago, she walked into the office of Bogota’s mayor and said she wanted to represent the capital in the national pageant. Instead of holding a contest, the mayor issued a decree, and she was crowned Miss Bogota.

Miss Turbay—who spent part of her childhood in Houston, Baton Rouge, La., and Iowa—added that with her command of English and her “Latin look,’ she would be a good candidate for Miss Universe next year.

The only problems this year arose when several of “the girls,’ as contestants are known, nearly came to fisticuffs behind the scenes.

And in an annual tradition, sniping arose over who had undergone plastic surgery.

Alo magazine, a favorite for reading at the hair salon, came out with an exclusive report on the candidates who benefited from tummy tucks, nose jobs and other creative operations.

Beauty contests can be brutal. The magazine berated several “plumpos’ with excessive cellulite.

Talk in Bogota high society is that one of those who went to the operating table was none other than Miss Turbay.

Again, the pearly smile.

“Silicone causes cancer,’ she said, echoing an opinion about breast implants that created a furor in the United States recently. “With all the operations going on, it isn’t going to be a beauty contest, it’s going to be a surgeon’s contest.’

Colombia’s magazines—the serious and the not-so-serious—always have their best sales during pageant weeks. All other news is overshadowed.

The news media were so caught up in the final days of this year’s pageant that they barely made note of the fact that Mr. Gaviria had changed seven of his Cabinet ministers—the first top-level shake-up since he took office more than a year ago.

All but lost was the detail that a woman had been chosen to head the Foreign Relations Ministry for the first time in the country’s history.

The talk across the country was about ever-so-tight bathing suits, showy ball gowns and, of course, those crucial measurements.

It seemed like a long time ago that Ms. Uribe had shocked the country with her public statements on legalizing abortion and euthanasia.

It was a long time ago. The pomp and pageantry are increasing, to her dismay.

One town used to celebrate a local holiday, Jan. 20, by letting bulls run through the streets. But the custom became so deadly that this year the bulls were penned up.

Looking for a new yearly event, politicians settled on yet another beauty contest: the Miss 20th of January Pageant.

PHOTOS 1.(Special to The Dallas Morning News: Ricardo Mazalan) Paola Turbay fields reporters’ questions after returning to Bogota from the Miss Colombia pageant in Cartagena, where she was crowned winner two weeks ago. 2.(Special to The Dallas Morning News: Ricardo Mazalan) Paola Turbay, who was recently crowned Miss Colombia, is the great-niece of a former president, prompting speculation about favoritism. MAP (The Dallas Morning News) COLOMBIA ; PHOTO LOCATION: 1. NR(C). 2. Colombia-Social Life & Customs (cf 49584).

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