Pimping Out Miss Venezuela

Some women resisted; many others complied. A few married their patrons. Debora Menicucci, now 26, met Mr. Sousa when she was 13, and went on to represent Venezuela in the 2014 Miss World pageant. Around that time, Mr. Sousa reportedly introduced her to her future husband, Maikel Moreno, 25 years her senior. He is a lawyer who went to prison for murder in the 1980s and who now, as president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, is known for imposing harsh sentences on opposition members.

Mr. Sousa, who claims a friendship with Donald Trump, the former Miss Universe owner, and is known for flaunting cellphone pictures of the two of them together, denies any knowledge of, let alone involvement in, the abuse and corruption. In a statement on his Instagram account in March, he wrote, “My only riches are the memories, my millions are the applause and my greatest satisfaction was the success and exposure the event gave to innumerable Venezuelan women.”

Although the exploitation of pageant contestants seems to have become more extreme in recent years, sex was always part of pageant culture. Rumors had circulated for decades that contestants were being pressured to provide sexual favors to “dark saints” in return for money to pay for the wardrobe, diction classes, dental work, breast implants and other cosmetic surgeries matter-of-factly required of would-be Miss Venezuelas.

Despite deepening poverty and the scarcity of basic supplies and medicine, Venezuela has one of world’s highest rates of cosmetic procedures per capita. For Miss Venezuela aspirants, the surgeries are considered part of the project of transformation and self-sacrifice. According to Efecto Cocuyo, the months of preparation can cost up to $32,000.

In her 2015 memoir, “Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey to Finding Her Truth,” the actress Patricia Velásquez, a 1989 Miss Venezuela runner-up, described entering the contest at 18. She had hoped a win could help her family, who lived in a run-down building that rarely had running water. She wrote, “I quickly learned that getting into the Miss Venezuela contest meant I would have to start prostituting myself in order to find a sponsor.”

She found one, a man roughly 20 years older, who paid for her expenses, including breast implants and an apartment in Caracas — “sort of my boyfriend, but not one I ever told anyone else about.” Ms. Velásquez’s story received little notice at the time, but she is now belatedly acknowledged as a whistle-blower whose book has helped substantiate the first-person accounts of recent months.

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