'Military regime' in battle for Venezuela's beautiful prize

"It's not true that we only eat celery all day," said Eliana Calicchia, a finalist in the Miss Venezuela beauty contest, famed both for its strict rules and production of world-renowned beauties.

"There are sacrifices and sometimes you wish you could eat something, but then you think of the positive side," said Calicchia ahead of Thursday's final, where the latest queen will be selected from 28 slender, short-listed hopefuls.

Venezuela has long been a beauty factory - it has six Miss Universe titles which make it almost level with the United States overall, even though with only 26 million people it has less than one tenth of America's population.

Behind the South American nation's success is the Miss Venezuela franchise and its determined president, Osmel Sousa, who proudly supports cosmetic surgery.

Sousa, who has been at the helm since 1981, decides changes in weight, hair, make-up and teeth for each of the 28 finalists as well as the "errors of nature" which need to be corrected with surgery - financed by the competition organizers.

"This is a contest of beauty, not of naturalness," Sousa told AFP.

In one of the world's most beauty-obsessed countries, the Miss Venezuela competition each year attracts more than 7,000 women prepared to reduce their waistlines, go under the scalpel and follow tough fitness programs in what Sousa calls an "almost military" regime.

"You need a lot of conviction to do this," said Isabel Castillo, one finalist.

"The heels are the worst. I'm used to them but after a while I can't feel my feet," said Axel Lopez, a 20-year-old graphic designer practicing her catwalk moves with the other 27 candidates.

Before they even imagine the luxury contracts and prizes at the end of top international contests, the goal of parading on a catwalk in front of millions of people in the nationwide contest is enough motivation for many to completely change their lives.

From spending hours on basketball courts and athletics tracks, Andrea Escobar turned to strutting confidently in 12-centimeter (five-inch) heels.

"I used to wear shorts and T-shirts and I never did my hair or wore make-up or jewellery. It was quite a sudden change," Escobar said, smiling.

"Instead of a basketball, I now carry lipstick. Now I'm not a basketball player, I'm feminine like my family always wanted to see."

For those short-listed, the day starts at dawn and includes gym sessions, catwalk classes, choreography, public speaking and wardrobe classes.

"Miss Venezuela is known for its discipline. It's a great responsibility to be here," Lopez said.

The women soon realize that the role is no nine-to-five job, learning to be groomed and smartly-dressed for evening events to promote the competition.

"You belong to the Miss Venezuela organization and your time is at their disposal," said Escobar, who suspended her studies to take part in the competition.

In the 1990s, the organization was the local business which showed most international success, and it has won around 70 worldwide beauty crowns, according to its website.

"I feel the same as the manager of a tomato factory or whatever: I have to maintain a product line that is important for the country," Sousa said.