SANTIAGO, Chile — When the Miss Universe beauty pageant takes place in a few weeks, Chile will be represented by a slender brunette who has a killer smile and speaks Spanish with an unmistakable Venezuelan accent.
Andrea Diaz was born and raised in Valencia, Venezuela, where from the age of 12 she learned to sway her hips and glide gracefully down catwalks at a local modeling academy.
At 19, she won a pageant organized by her hometown’s baseball team and became a goodwill ambassador for the squad.
But Diaz’s career changed course in her twenties as she moved to Panama and then Mexico for modeling jobs, which are now scarce in crisis-wracked Venezuela.
Three years ago she settled down in Chile, where most of her family has also relocated.
“I represent the new Chile,” the 26-year-old said as she was training at a local gym in Santiago for the upcoming competition. “This is an inclusive country where immigrants come in search of opportunities.”
Food shortages, hyperinflation
As thousands of people leave Venezuela each day to escape food shortages and an inflation rate that is expected to surpass 1 million percent, dozens of would-be beauty queens are also taking flight and finding work as models and media personalities overseas.
Some are even representing their adopted homelands in international beauty pageants.
Next month, Portugal will be represented at the Miss World competition in China by a former Miss Venezuela participant.
The recently concluded Miss Earth contest in the Philippines featured two Venezuelan models who competed on behalf of Peru and Spain.
“My dream of being a beauty queen was not going to stop just because I arrived in a new country,” said Jessica Russo, who represented Peru in the Miss Earth pageant just a year after she moved to Venezuela’s neighbor.
Russo failed to make it into the finals. But she said she would now train for more pageants, where she hoped to win a crown for Peru, the country where her mother was born.
“I’m still young,” said the 22-year-old. “And I want to be a global spokeswoman for good causes.”
Obsessed with good looks
Beauty pageants are followed almost as closely as baseball in Venezuela, which has long been obsessed with glamour and good looks.
The South American country is a world leader in international pageants, with seven Miss Universe crowns and six Miss World titles.
While critics have described the pageants as misogynous and antiquated, they are defended by many Venezuelans who say the events have helped hundreds of women from all social classes launch careers as models, actresses, TV hosts and news presenters.
One former Miss Venezuela winner even served as a mayor of a district in Caracas and ran—unsuccessfully—for the country’s presidency.
But as Venezuela’s economy plunges, the country’s many pageants no longer offer a direct path to employment.
Live fashion shows have ground to a halt, TV productions have slowed down and companies such as fashion brands increasingly refrain from spending money on advertisements.
‘University of beauty’
Giselle Reyes runs four modeling schools for young women in Venezuela that she touts as the “university of beauty.”
Reyes estimates around 70 percent of her graduates have left the country over the past decade to seek modeling jobs in Mexico, Colombia, the United States and other countries.
“I even have a tough time finding modeling instructors now,” Reyes said at a studio in Caracas that was lined with photos of celebrity Venezuelan pageant winners.
“People always tell me they will work for me for a few months while they find a way to leave the country,” she added.
Even Venezuela’s most competitive beauty pageant no longer seems to guarantee its graduates a job in their own country.
Beauty with a heart
The nationally televised Miss Venezuela contest chooses 24 participants each year and puts them through a grueling six-month academy that includes daily gym routines, modeling lessons and pep talks from instructors who sometimes coax their pupils into having plastic surgery.
But at least 17 members of the Miss Venezuela Class of 2015 appear to be working abroad in Mexico, Colombia, Turkey and even as far away as India, according to a web search of their social media profiles.
The number of 2014 contestants working overseas is about the same.
For her part, Diaz is preparing for the Miss Universe pageant next month in Thailand, and the model is hoping that the jury doesn’t just focus on her physical attributes but sees her as a cosmopolitan woman who has moved around the world in pursuit of her goals.
“A beautiful woman is not just a woman with perfect skin,” Diaz said, “but someone with a heart, with ideas and a sense of purpose.”