Venezuela has produced many successful beauty queens, winning both Miss Universe and Miss World five times – and Venezuelans see nothing wrong in girls as young as four attending beauty schools to set them on the road to stardom.
Visiting Gisselle’s beauty school in the suburbs of Caracas can be an intimidating experience.
The 1960s style villa has been turned into a hot house for beauty queens, teaching everything from how to sashay down the catwalk, to the correct way to hold a wine glass.
Pupils from age four to 24 are immaculately turned out, the older girls in five-inch (12cm) high-heels.
For my visit, I’ve ironed my prettiest blouse and picked out my most flattering pair of trousers. Even so, I’m clearly not up to scratch.
“Hair must always be completely clean, make-up should look natural, and you should always, always wears high-heels,” says Andrea Reyes, who teaches catwalk skills.
A confident 21-year-old, Andrea is the niece of Gisselle Reyes, the school’s founder and a former beauty queen herself.
She describes beauty as the family business. “It’s our language because we’ve grown up with it since we were small,” she says.
Upstairs, I join one of Andrea Reyes’ classes. The older girls are being taught how to strut down a wooden runway studded with spotlights.
Reyes shouts directions over pounding music – “arms relaxed, hips forward!”
The girls come in all shapes and sizes, some having more success than others at walking confidently in heels.
The room is completely mirrored and the girls watch themselves as they give a hip swivel at the end of the catwalk, turn on the balls of their feet and set off again to the back of the room.
Among them is Lynette do Nascimiento, an 18-year-old aspiring contestant who is visiting Caracas for the summer from the nearby island of Aruba.
“I want to prepare myself to go to Miss Aruba and then to participate in the Miss Universe pageant and I think Venezuela is a really good country to prepare girls to go to these events,” she says.
Nascimiento is right. Venezuela has had extraordinary success in international beauty contests and clearly has a formula for choosing contestants that appeal to judging panels the world over.
Beauty contests are treated in Venezuela much as sporting competitions are elsewhere.
Many young Venezuelan girls are groomed from an early age to compete in pageants.
Of the 160 girls who take classes at Gisselle’s, the majority are between four and 11.
Parents often encourage their daughters knowing that if they can succeed as beauty queens, their future as celebrities and public figures is assured.
Successful alumni of Gisselle’s are household names in Venezuela, like Dayana Mendoza who became Miss Universe 2008.
After a warm-up exercise, Reyes asks the girls to walk the catwalk one by one, while their peers sit and watch.
Nascimiento is first up in a pair of black hot pants, a one-shoulder chiffon blue blouse and, of course, high heels.
“How does she look? Is she stylish?” Reyes asks the other girls.
They generally agree that she is, although they’re not keen on her gold accessories and black wristwatch.
The class offers a critique of Nascimiento’s walk and her general demeanour, before moving on to the next pupil.
Taking criticism of your appearance on the chin is a prerequisite for girls in the beauty business.
Andrea Reyes talks in a matter-of-fact manner about her own shortcomings.
“I don’t have the attributes to be a contender for Miss Venezuela. I’m 1.60m tall and you need to be at least 1.70m (5 feet 7 inches),” she says.
In this class of 20, perhaps one or two will be in with a chance of competing for the title, which is awarded each year in August or September.
It’s been run by legendary beauty pageant guru Osmel Sousa since 1969 and he is widely credited as the driving force behind Venezuela’s international success.
Girls who make it to the national competition need to spend hours in the gym and carefully watch what they eat. Dental work and plastic surgery could also be necessary for success.
So what does the school offer to those who just aren’t beautiful enough?
“I try to correct them as much as I can, to make them more feminine,” says Reyes. “Sometimes it’s about personal improvement, being able to establish a conversation with someone or to speak in front of a crowd.”
In Venezuela, there is almost no criticism of the beauty pageant phenomenon. When, in 1972, a feminist group from the country’s Central University interrupted the Miss Venezuela broadcast, it was the first and only demonstration of its kind.
President Hugo Chavez has spoken out against the culture of plastic surgery in Venezuela, calling breast enlargements a “monstrous thing”. But he has stopped short of blaming beauty pageants for the popularity of cosmetic procedures.
Acceptance of the contests is partly a result of the country’s machista culture. People are expected to adhere to traditional gender roles – women gentle and delicate, men strong and brave.
But it’s also because appearance is incredibly important here, not just for women, but for everyone.
Andrea Reyes insists that she encourages her pupils to also focus on valuable social skills as well as their physical attributes.
“A girl here who dedicates herself just to beauty, unless she becomes Miss Venezuela, she’s going to die of hunger.”