Monday, 10 February 2014

TV Review - Secrets of South America - Extreme Beauty Queens BBC3

Whilst the UK is a country obsessed with the weather, celebrity sex-lives and mediocre karaoke competitions Venezuela is a country obsessed with beauty. Girls of 4 don't play in the park but go to "beauty school" and practice putting on make-up and learn how to sashay down a catwalk. Having produced more Miss Worlds than any other country the obviously are doing something right but this pursuit of perfection comes at a cost.

Reporter Billie JD Porter spent 6 months in this peculiar part of Latin America following some of the aspiring beauty queens and the circus that surrounds them. Lets put it this way; if you are slightest bit ugly or overweight Venezuela is not the place for you.

Venezuela's equivalent to the X Factor is Our Latin Beauty (Nuestra Belleza Latina) and their Simon Cowell is Osmel Sousa, a camp beauty impresario with over 40 years in the business. Sousa knows about queens because he is one. He has the power to make or break careers and during his reality TV show contestants go through the mill until they are broken, emotionally and physically, until they fit Sousa's ideal of airbrushed "perfection".

With borderline OCD the smallest of details are seized upon and criticised. Ass not perfect? Get liposuction. Teeth too big? File them down. One contestant talks about him sotto voce.

"If you need a nose, face or voice changing he will tell you"

His show culminates in a grand final held in a huge sports stadium watched by TV audience of 50 million people. Despite Sousa being the paternal figure in Venezuelan pageantry his waspish comments do not show much compassion for the contestants. When one of them passes out due to lack of food his response is

"If you feint like a beauty queen, get up like one"

He is interviewed by Porter for his response to the feminists who protested against Miss World when it was held in London in 2011.

"Those protests were staged by Ugly Bettys who have no chance to be beautiful. All were horrendous"

His solution to virtually all flaws is to recommend plastic surgery.

"Nature has not been kind to some women"

To be fair to him he does practice what he preaches and has had so much work done he looks like Elton John and Barry Manilow's lovechild. You get the feeling he thought Zoolander was a documentary.

 In the UK beauty pageants died out with in 70's along with Tiswas and the "friendly" pat on the bottom so its curious to see why Venezuelan women still aspire to this Charlie's Angels image of plastic-breasted beauty. The answer may be that this beauty ideal is the one that wins competitions and doing well in Miss Venezuela opens doors in a country with very few opportunities.

Despite the poverty that affects large parts of the country families see expensive plastic surgery as an investment in the future the same way a public school education may be a short cut to a well paid job in the UK.

Porter interviews Maya an 18 year old aspiring beauty queen living in the run down Caracas slum of Santa Cruz. Her family saved up and forked out £7000 on new boobs, nose and dental work despite her looking stunning to begin with. The family make sacrifices not just because she is their daughter but because she is their meal ticket out of the barrio. Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world with on average of a murder every 40 minutes and you can understand its citizens desire to move up the property ladder.

Hugo Chavez may have died but his legacy of his radical Bolivarianism lives on. Food shortages are commonplace since the state nationalised all the farms and Porter films an angry queue of women hanging about on street corners for basics like eggs, milk and toilet roll. Its no wonder aspiring beauty queens will literally do anything to win competitions. Careers, boyfriends and health are all sacrificed.

Perhaps the most shocking evidence of their desperation is that in an effort to loose weight Maya had a plastic patch sewn onto her tongue that makes solid food too painful to eat. All her meals are taken liquefied. You thought the Atkins diet was bad?

Its is a relief to hear the mother of another contestant reject this surgical madness 

"She doesn't need surgery. Who is competing? Is it the most beautiful girl or the best surgeon?"

With the BBC3 docu-bar being kept artificially low by the lightweight Stacey Dooley, Extreme Beauty Queens was a fascinating glimpse into this anachronistic way of life. Despite being a self-confessed newby to Latin America, Porter comes across as Alan Whicker in comparison to Dooley.

Of course it helps having someone as unhinged as Osmel Sousa as the centrepiece for a documentary but the whole hour had the air of an episode of Louis Theroux Weird Weekends about it. I can pay it no higher compliment.

Whilst a little green around the edges Porter did not shy way from asking probing questions but did so with an easy charm that got her subjects to open up to her. Let’s hope the remaining couple of episodes on South America are equally as entertaining.

Catch it on iPlayer for the foreesable future.