Catwalk queen trades pageants for power

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