Crown of tears for Miss Peru

PITY MISS PERU, Rosa Elvira Cartagenas, a national volleyball champion turned beauty queen who lost her new crown to thieves and was then stripped of her title. When she protested that contest organisers were unhappy with her skin colour and were looking for any pretext for her dismissal, she ignited a debate on racial politics that jolted the nation.

Miss Cartagenas, 20, says the D'Elite Group, which runs the pageant, sacked her because of racial bias. "They never wanted me," she hissed. "This is just an excuse." Miss Cartagenas is the first black beauty with African features to be crowned Miss Peru, and comes from the lower-class neighbourhood of Mirones Alta.

When she returned to her portside home in Callao after losing the next stage of the competition in the Dominican Republic, her tiara was stolen from her luggage as she slept. A tearful appearance on television, appealing for money to replace the Miss Peru crown, which she claimed was worth $100,000, and the missing cash prizes from being placed highly in a Caribbean contest, backfired badly.

Pageant officials branded Miss Cartagenas a liar. The rhinestone tiara was barely worth $6,000, they said, then criticised Miss Peru for overstating her achievements in the Dominican Republic, where she was eliminated from the pageant before the semi-finals. Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani tried to intervene. "We all lie a little bit," said the highest-ranking Roman Catholic priest in Lima. "She should have been given a second chance."

But Jessica Newton, a former Miss Peru who works for the D'Elite Group, maintained that the statuesque Miss Cartagenas lacked decorum and already had been given warnings about her downmarket behaviour. Her unforgivable blunders were "judging a transvestite beauty pageant at a gay bar, and later autographing the bare chests of professional wrestlers from the United States".

Miss Cartagenas likens her plight to the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, who lost her title in 1984 when early photographs published in Playboy magazine surfaced, but went on to a successful singing career. The ousted Miss Peru said: "I am not going to feel bad because they took away my title. I am going to move forward."

Her replacement as Miss Peru is Wendy Monteverde, who is paler-skinned. "It has been difficult," she said tactfully. "I am grateful for the confidence people have in me."