World's most beauty-crazed country
In Venezuela, not even the country's beauty goddesses are spared the violence that is tearing this country asunder.
Monica Spear was once Miss Venezuela 2004 and then a Miss Universe contender. After her modelling career ended, she starred in television soap operas.
But on Monday, aged 29, she was shot dead along with her British husband after her car broke down on a rural stretch of freeway north of Valencia, Venezuela's third-largest city. The attackers also shot her 5-year-old daughter in the leg, though the child survived.
In Venezuela an estimated 24,000 people were murdered last year - many connected to the powerful gangs which rule poor neighbourhoods and rural towns. Like Spear many Venezuelan girls see modelling as a way out of the fracas.
Per capita, no other country has won Miss Universe as often as Venezuela. The success of Venezuelan beauty queens such as Spear or Gabriela Isler, the reigning Miss Universe, is due to a mixture of ambition and desperation.
Ambition because winners are immediately regarded as living deities in Venezuela, a country where beauty pageants reign unchallenged as the most popular spectator sport. And desperation, because a pageant victory potentially helps poor and country girls escape Venezuela's gut-churning violence.
Stefania Fernandez was from a small town in western Venezuela. She began entering beauty pageants at 15. Her father, who owned a logging company, was also kidnapped that year.
Jose Luis' kidnappers, Fernandez later told interviewers, rang her family at 1.00am to tell them. The gang told Jose Luis they would murder him down at the river. They starved him for five days. And then they freed him.
When she arrived in Caracas to begin preparing for Miss Venezuela, friends say, Fernandez had to take the metro alone to her course at 5.00am.
Every day for weeks, a friend told Fairfax Media, Fernandez put on make-up, wedged her feet into high heels and tottered down the street towards the metro station, afraid of what would happen to her next.
It may sound mundane. But, in reality, hers was an act of quiet courage: Caracas is one of the most dangerous places in a violent country. And many of the killings here take place in the still hours before dawn.
Even so, Fernandez would do anything to win Miss Venezuela. So she was never late to her 6.00am preparation sessions.
She also overcame the animosity of competitors, who barely spoke to her during those practices. Only one would become a star - the others would be forgotten by history.
Fernandez was still a teenager when she won Miss Venezuela and then Miss Universe.
Today, in her early 20s, she has made it. Envied by many Venezuelan girls, Fernandez lives in a Caracas hillside neighbourhood of mansions, panic rooms and security cameras. And she dates the rich, handsome and powerful former media owner Carlos Zuloaga.
Stories like that of Fernandez arguably explain why Venezuelan women spend so much on beauty products and surgery.
Beauty is one of Venezuela's largest industries. And it continues to grow year after year: A recent Spanish study says Venezuelan women are increasing spending on make-up quicker than their peers anywhere else except Brazil.
And in 2011, Venezuelan women had nearly as much cosmetic surgery performed as their British sisters, an industry study says. Britain is over twice as large as Venezuela - and over three times richer.
Moreover, Venezuelan women submit to cosmetic surgery very early on. Many girls receive a cosmetic procedure for their 15th birthday, says Rita di Martino, who has founded a support group for the victims of faulty breast implants.
In Latin America, a girl traditionally becomes a young woman at 15.
"In Venezuela, we have this image of the beautiful woman," says di Martino. "To achieve that, you have to create and cultivate that beauty."
"So we are happy to change what nature bestowed upon us," she adds.
The social acceptance of plastic surgery in Venezuela means that some employers consider plastic surgery a good motivating tool for female employees and also that female friends often show off the results of their operations to one another, says Nancy Arellano Suarez, the owner of Caracas plastic surgery practice Dermolight.
"If he does a good job, patients begin to consider their doctor a friend," Arellano Suarez says. "After all, you don't just go once to a doctor. You have to return for check-ups and touch-ups."
Still, those who prepare contenders for Miss Venezuela stress, a nice new nose and pert new breasts do not assure contenders of victory in the world's most competitive beauty pageants such as Miss Universe.
Venezuelan entrants in international competitions have typically spent a year learning to walk and talk like a beauty queen, reveals Harley Torres, a former Miss Venezuela contender who now runs a modelling school in Caracas.
"That girl [the competitor] certainly comes from a modelling academy," says Torres. "So when a model enters an academy [you look at] if she has the right body, if she has the right demenour and the right qualities to become a beauty queen."
Those qualities perhaps include the ability to unite Venezuelans. Celebrating the victory of the country's beauty divas is one of the only rituals that Venezuelans, whether rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, share.
This year's Miss Universe was also from Venezuela: Gabriella Isler took the title on November 9. Her triumph briefly interrupted Venezuela's worst political and economic crisis in a decade.
"People were looting Daka when the news came through," recalls Nathalia Herrera, a local in Valencia, where that day people fell upon an electronics store after the government announced massive price reductions to combat inflation.
"When they heard [about Isler's win], they stopped looting and started hugging each other. And I thought: 'What kind of crazy country is this?'"
- Daily Life