Since her name was used to shame Donald Trump at Monday night’s US presidential debate, the Venezuelan-born actress and beauty queen Alicia Machado has embraced her new role as a high-profile Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate. But while the renewed scrutiny has thrown fresh light on Mr Trump’s attitudes towards women and Latinos, it has also brought up a less savoury episode from Ms Machado’s own past.
In 1998, two years after she was crowned Miss Universe, a judge in Venezuela accused Ms Machado, 21 at the time, of having threatened to kill him after he indicted her then-boyfriend for an attempted murder. The boyfriend, Juan Rafael Rodriguez Reggeti, blamed his brother-in-law for his sister’s suicide, after she leapt to her death while heavily pregnant. He fired two shots at the man shortly after the funeral, wounding but not killing him.
The victim’s family said Mr Reggeti had fled in a car driven by Ms Machado, but she denied the charge and was never indicted. After judge Maximiliano Fuenmayor issued a warrant for Mr Reggeti’s arrest, however, he claimed to have received a threatening phonecall from Ms Machado. Ms Machado admitted she called Mr Fuenmayor but, according to a contemporary report in The Economist, insisted she had thanked him “for his unbiased pursuit of justice”.
This week Ms Machado was asked about the incident by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “You know, I have my past, of course everybody has a past, And I’m no saint girl,” she replied. “But that is not the point now ... [Trump] was really rude with me, he tried to destroy my self-esteem. And now I’m a voice in the Latin community. I’m in a great moment in my life and I have a very clear life.”
Ms Machado’s history with Mr Trump began when she was named Miss Universe in 1996, just after he had taken ownership of the beauty pageant. Mr Trump was unhappy to learn she had gained weight after her victory and forced her to attend a photocall at a gym in New York, threatening to strip her of her title if she refused. She was filmed exercising as the property mogul looked on. “This is somebody who likes to eat,” he informed the assembled reporters.
A CNN report from the time took Mr Trump’s line. “When Alicia Machado of Venezuela was named Miss Universe nine months ago, no one could accuse her of being the size of the universe,” the network’s correspondent wrote. “But as her universe expanded, so did she.” Mortified by the gym session and subsequent coverage, in the years that followed the aspiring actress struggled with anorexia and bulimia.
On Monday, Ms Clinton used the story to remind debate viewers of her opponent’s behaviour to women and minorities. “One of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” the Democrat said. “He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy,’ then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping’ because she was Latina… Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado. And she has become a US citizen and you can bet she is going to vote this November.”
Ms Machado, who lives in Los Angeles, recently acquired a US passport and has already appeared on the stump for Ms Clinton, tweeted her thanks to the former Secretary of State after the debate, writing in Spanish: “Thanks Mrs Hillary Clinton. Your respect for women and our differences makes you great. I’m with you.”
On the morning after the debate, invited to explain himself on Fox News, Mr Trump recalled that he had indeed been bothered by Ms Machado’s weight gain after her Miss Universe victory all those years ago. She “gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem,” he said.
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