September 26, 2014 / 5:25 AM / 3 years ago

Beauty-obsessed Venezuelans hunt for scarce makeup, implants

Jeweller George Wittels displays crowns designed by him and used in several Venezuelan beauty pageants at his store in Caracas September 13, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s famed models and aspiring beauty queens are struggling to doll themselves up as shortages turn eye shadow and breast implants into coveted luxuries.

In a country that glorifies voluptuous women and opulent beauty pageants, even basics like deodorant are now at times tricky to find as strict currency controls have led to a scarcity of dollars for imported goods.

Determined models and pageant competitors are doing their utmost to keep the show on the road.

“I exhaust myself visiting pharmacies, I look everywhere for makeup,” said Ileanne Davila, a 19 year-old civil engineering student and model.

“Once I couldn’t find red eye shadow... so I used lipstick,” she said as she took a break from a photo shoot. “I can’t find powder for my skin color. So sometimes I mix two hues.”

Her long dark hair straightened and her lips and eyes covered in black makeup for a rock n’ roll inspired shoot, Davila said she aspires to break into commercials or television because, she explained with a sigh, she’s not tall enough to compete in Miss Venezuela.

Davila is one of dozens of girls aged 3 and up who attend a modeling academy run by Gisselle Reyes, a former Miss Venezuela candidate who now prepares girls for the pageant, to learn how to strut down a runway and perfect pageant etiquette in the hopes of one day being crowned queen.

But even at this glamorous holdout in Caracas’ affluent Altamira area, shortages are crimping plans to follow in Reyes’ footsteps — sometimes quite literally.

Young girls don their mothers’ heels because they can’t find stilettos their size. Teachers usually make them work the runway barefoot — or strap them into their mothers’ oversized shoes with scotch tape.

Girls share makeup and look up YouTube videos on how to make deodorant at home. Even when they can find the beauty products they want, some are unable to pay for them as scarcity drives up prices.

Davila estimates the price of a good face powder, for instance, has increased 500 percent in the last 18 months.

Even aspiring Miss Venezuelas are having trouble getting their hands on makeup ahead of the pageant on Oct. 9, said an instructor who, like the candidates, is barred from speaking to the press in the run-up to the event.

‘LIVING FOR BEAUTY’

The quest for beauty is one of the rare pastimes that unites this polarized oil-rich nation.

The country boasts seven Miss Universes, a record only topped by the United States. Venezuela is thought to have one of the highest rates of breast implants in the world, and plastic surgeries are sometimes given away as raffle prizes.

But now, doctors say beloved Botox and breast implants can be hard to come by.

When Maria Eugenia Espinoza decided to replace her eight-year old implants, equivalent to bra size 36, she was told only implants equivalent to size 42 and up were available.

“Imagine!” said the 46 year-old mother of two. “I would have looked like one of those dancing girls!”

After searching for five months, Espinoza found implants in the nick of time for her scheduled operation.

Critics have long said Venezuela’s cult of beauty objectifies women and promotes shallow values. And Osmel Sousa, the president of the Miss Venezuela pageant, gave them more ammunition when he said last year that ugly women invented the concept of inner beauty to feel better about themselves.

The shortages of beauty products can seem frivolous when compared with the scarcity of medicines and basic goods from flour to diapers.

Venezuela’s scarcity index hit a record 28 percent in January, indicating that 28 of 100 basic consumer goods were scarce. The central bank hasn’t given data on shortages since.

Currency controls first enacted by former socialist president Hugo Chavez more than a decade ago mean companies struggle to get hold of the hard currency required for imports.

Chavez’s hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, blames the shortages on rapacious smugglers who scoop up price-controlled goods, including shampoo, to resell them on the local black market or even in neighboring Colombia.

Some government supporters scoff that a pampered elite is overstating the magnitude of shortages to try to weaken the president.

Venezuela is grappling with 60 percent annual inflation and sky-high crime rates, and is widely believed to be in recession.

Maduro says the country’s problems are the result of an “economic war” waged against him by Venezuelan business leaders and foreign companies.

But, paradoxically, some say the hardships are actually pushing some Venezuelans to dedicate even more time to their appearance.

“Venezuelans ... might not have enough money to eat, but they’ll have enough money to be beautiful,” said Miguel Torres, who runs a beauty parlor and used to work for Miss Venezuela.

Greisy Palacios, a 30 year-old receptionist, spends hours in lines for everything from soap to nail polish remover and says she would only leave her house without makeup if she were depressed.

“If you’re not made up, don’t go out,” she said as she got her nails done. But Palacios is finding it ever harder to abide by that mantra.

Recently, for instance, friends alerted her that razors had arrived at a nearby pharmacy. Palacios dashed out of the office.

“But the lines are like a kilometer long, just for razors!” she said. “I‘m going crazy waiting for the country to change. I regret voting for Maduro.”

BRUISED BEAUTY BUSINESS

The industry that caters to image-conscious Venezuelans is also feeling the pinch.

In a Caracas salon, beautician Janeth Canaveral points to a small table covered with a dozen pots of creams and wax.

“That’s what I have left.”

At this rate, Canaveral, a single mother of three, said she will be forced to shut down her business within a year. “How do I start again at age 50?”

Barber Daniel Eduardo said he spends Mondays — his day off —hunting down products. “If I don’t have wax I go out to walk and look for some,” he said, speaking above pulsating music in a buzzing salon in Caracas’ Catia slum.

“And if there’s no wax, well, I use gelatin,” he shrugged. “You have to be a magician here.”

Bigger companies are often better able to cope with red tape and expensive imports.

Nidal Nouaihed, a designer who has dressed the current Miss Venezuela, hired five people to help him import fabrics like silk and chiffon. Costs have skyrocketed, but he says his high-end business is still booming.

“During times of crisis, there’s a lot of anxiety and people want more luxury, want to be more glamorous, they want to forget,” said Nouaihed. “We create a parallel world.”

Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Kieran Murray

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