Catwalk queen trades pageants for power

LOCAL HERTOS: Irene Saez

Before 19-year-old Venezuelan Alicia Machado was crowned Miss Universe at the weekend, judges asked her whether it was better to be intelligent, wealthy or beautiful. Looking gorgeous and about to become quite rich, she did not bat an eyelid. "Intelligent, because then you can develop into many other things."

She might have been thinking about one of her compatriots and predecessors, 1981 Miss Universe Irene Saez. At 34, Ms Saez may no longer have the universe at her feet but she is living proof it's not all downhill from the top of the world. She is threatening to become the most famous Venezuelan since the country's 19th century liberator, Simon Bolivar.

The six-foot blonde is in her second term as mayor of the wealthy Caracas municipality of Chacao. She was re-elected recently with 96 per cent of the vote and is now a serious bet for president of Venezuela by 1998.

Ms Saez may have cast off the beauty-pageant image but "Irene" dolls, with cascading blonde locks, hazel eyes, ruby lips and pink lace frocks, are still top sellers, with a 5 per cent commission augmenting the mayor's salary.

Such is her reputation for running Chacao, a suburb of 185,000 residents, glitzy shops and upmarket restaurants, that the locals refer to it as "Irenelandia" (Irene-land).

Her secret borrows from Thatcherism and pre-Mandela South Africa, with a sprinkling of Marie Antoinette. But her constituents like it. In a country where around 60 per cent of voters usually do not turn out, they showed up massively in Chacao to re-elect her.

"No-one here's ever won 96 per cent. It's unheard of," she said. Like Baroness Thatcher, whom she met during her travel year as Miss Universe, she has a tendency to slip into the royal "we" or refer to herself. "Irene Saez has always said ..."

"People here didn't use to pay taxes. We showed them what the concrete fruits of taxes can be," she said.

Critics accuse her of a "let- them-eat-cake" mentality, looking after her own patch inhabited by "haves", while ignoring the vast majority of "have-nots". They say Chacao is the richest municipality in the country and that running it is a push-over.

Inside Chacao, however, "Irene" is Queen. Setting up her own police force she has slashed the crime rate and made her municipality one of the few safe districts of Caracas to walk in. Gone are the days when, instead of the wine list, you might be handed a piece of paper saying: "put your cash and credit cards in this bag - now!"

"If I go out to dinner, I don't stop at red lights and I always head for Chacao," said one middle-class resident of another suburb.

Ms Saez has filled in potholes and employed cleaners to keep her district clean. She has set up a team of paramedics to make house calls to ailing or elderly residents and established a local orchestra and ballet school.

She was never a member of any party. With an eye on the presidency, however, she has started her own group. Its title, "Integration, Renovation and New Hope", may be clumsy but then she had to ensure the Spanish acronym was memorable: I.R.E.N.E.

Phil Davison

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living