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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Beauty and power in Colombia
Angelica Duque
Angelica Duque, 15, wants to be a model
As part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World series, Alicia Trujillo reports on the relationship between power and beauty in Colombia, where hundreds of beauty pageants are held every year.

In Colombia, being a beauty queen appears to have become a career choice. For many it leads to a lucrative job as a TV news presenter or a soap opera actress.

There seems to be a vicious circle: the higher the number of beauty queens or models who do well, the higher the number of girls seeking to enter beauty contests.

At Elite Models, in the affluent north of Bogota, more than 80 girls between the ages of 15 and 18 take part in a modelling contest to become the Elite Model 2005.

Angelica Duque, a 15-year-old girl at the contest, says she wants to be a model "so I can have a future afterwards".

"I would like to be a fashion designer, an actress or work in the media," she says.

Queens galore

Former beauty queen Pilar Schmit - who now works for a major television channel as an entertainment presenter and journalist - says that entering Colombia's national beauty contest in 1996 made a difference.

For women, who by definition belong to a group that has to struggle to make its way in society, one of the ways of getting ahead is by looking good
Nick Morgan
"It probably would have taken me longer to get into the media," she says.

"The national beauty contest made me famous, but I'm also a journalist, which I think helps. It also takes discipline and hard work to do a good job."

In his story The Funerals of Mama Grande, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez lists a few of the more than 300 beauty contests that are held in the country: "There is a queen for mango, for pumpkin, for the green pumpkin, for the green banana, for the yellow banana, for the cassava just to mention a few..."

Every town has a queen for something, for their vegetable, for their music, for their region or whatever... and of course there is the big one: the national contest.

Football equivalent

Chloe Rutter Jensen and Nick Morgan, lecturers at the Los Andes University in Bogota, have written a book called Parallel Catwalks: Scenes of the Aesthetics and Power in Beauty Pageants.

Miss Congeniality contest in a Colombian jail
Even prisons hold beauty pageants in Colombia
Nick Morgan believes that, because it is a chauvinist society, women want to draw attention to themselves and get ahead in society by looking good.

"The whole issue of beauty pageants has a lot to do with power and money," he says.

"You could draw parallels with footballers. If you come from a working-class background... if you are darker skinned, look more indigenous or Afro-Colombian, football is one of the ways you can get ahead.

"For women, who by definition belong to a group that has to struggle to make its way in society, one of the ways of getting ahead is by looking good. That says a lot about the kind of society we are living in."

Conflict

His colleague Chloe Rutter Jensen says there have been a couple of beauty queens who have gone on to take up public positions. One became a culture minister, another a defence minister.

"Undoubtedly it helps to have a beautiful woman in a position that is usually male-dominated. In a place like the ministry of defence, where they are barely going to relate to someone who is female, at least they can have someone who is beautiful," she says.

Ms Rutter Jensen believes that the token women they choose have to be pretty - you cannot have a smart-but-not-pretty person running some ministry.

Beauty in Colombia equals power, but it does seem more complicated than simply looking good.

Journalist and social commentator Maria Jimena Duzan believes she knows why Colombians find beauty so important.

She says it has to do with power and conflict, in a country which has been living in turmoil for the past 100 years.

"I think that the way we have learnt to survive is by showing things that are beautiful. We have assumed that the best way to survive is not to remember the bad things that have always occurred in Colombia and the conflict we haven't been able to solve," Ms Duzan says.



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