Music swells, lights flash and the contestants strut on to the stage, waving and blowing kisses. All wear high heels, bikinis and wide smiles.
It is another beauty pageant in Venezuela, a self-styled “beauty superpower” which worships physical perfection and has won the two most recent Miss Universe titles. But this show in Caracas is different. Even from the back of the theatre you noticesomething striking about the contestants. They are men. Large, chubby men.
Welcome to Miss Fat Gay Venezuela, a pageant with a new type of queen. The contest, the first of its kind, smashes taboos in a society that equates beauty with svelte, cosmetically enhanced women.
“We want to show that we too can be beautiful and sexy,” said Alexander Armas, 50, an organiser whose rotund figure has earned the nickname Compote. “We’re invaded by images of thin people. It’s time to do something about it.”
By flaunting homosexuality, cross-dressing and ample curves the contest embraces and subverts Venezuela’s passion for pageants.
Thousands of young women compete in contests every year. Winners go on to a “beauty factory” in Caracas which grooms them for pageants with a severe regime of dieting, exercise and surgery.
The inaugural Miss Fat Gay contest respects some conventions – there are evening gowns, swimsuits and talk of helping poor children – but annihilates others. Cellulite spills from fabric, the jokes are risque and same-sex unions are celebrated.
“I’m a queen-plus and I love my body. And I have a great boyfriend who loves me fat,” said La Maracucha, a veteran drag queen.
To be overweight is one social transgression.. Venezuelan men who cannot face the gym but want to show off at the beach get abdominal implants, yielding impressive if fake six-packs. A more serious taboo is to be gay. Venezuela outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation but there is widespread homophobia, including police harassment. Caracas’s gay scene is inhibited compared to other Latin American capitalssuch as Buenos Aires, Bogota and MexicoCity.
Transsexuals say the only jobs they can find are as beauticians or prostitutes, with the latter vulnerable to attack. More than 20 have been murdered so far this year, according to gay rights campaigners.
“There are a lot of macho types who don’t like seeing men in women’s clothing,” said Alberto Maia, 27, who on stage is transformed into Miss Aragua. “It’s not easy for us. Machismo is a disease.”
President Hugo Chávez has spoken in favour of gay rights but a push to legalise same-sex civil unions has stalled.
Like other pageants, the Miss Fat Gay contest steers clear of Venezuela’s polarised politics, although one organiser, Gabriel Silva, frames it in Chávez-friendly terms.
“As a socialist and a revolutionary I disapprove of pageants as a meat parade, but tonight’s show is different. It’s about transformation.”
In a backstage dressing room, Alberto Rodriguez, 23, was squeezing into a body-suit and morphing into Miss Lara, the name of his home state, with ruby lipstick, a wig, long nails and a frock.
“We are coming out of the shadows, we are more accepted,” said Rodriguez. The era of gays being lynched and skinny heterosexuals dominating the image of beauty was ending. “We all have rights, gays and fat people as much as anyone.”
The hair stylist had travelled to the capital with his family which was in the audience, cheering. “I’m very proud because this is his dream,” said his mother, Maura. “Look at him tonight. He’s gorgeous.”