Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela

Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela

by Marcia Ochoa


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Queen for a Day connects the logic of Venezuelan modernity with the production of a national femininity. In this ethnography, Marcia Ochoa considers how femininities are produced, performed, and consumed in the mass-media spectacles of international beauty pageants, on the runways of the Miss Venezuela contest, on the well-traveled Caracas avenue where transgender women (transformistas) project themselves into the urban imaginary, and on the bodies of both transformistas and beauty pageant contestants (misses). Placing transformistas and misses in the same analytic frame enables Ochoa to delve deeply into complex questions of media and spectacle, gender and sexuality, race and class, and self-fashioning and identity in Venezuela.

Beauty pageants play an outsized role in Venezuela. The country has won more international beauty contests than any other. The femininity performed by Venezuelan women in high-profile, widely viewed pageants defines a kind of national femininity. Ochoa argues that as transformistas and misses work to achieve the bodies, clothing and makeup styles, and postures and gestures of this national femininity, they come to embody Venezuelan modernity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822356264
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/19/2014
Series: Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Marcia Ochoa is Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Queen for a Day

Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela

By Marcia Ochoa

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7699-6


Belleza Venezolana


La mujer venezolana no tiene prototipo y por eso la Miss Venezuela tampoco. Yo creo que la mujer venezolana, por no estar tan marcada, es muy internacional y eso es lo interesante. Puede ser morena, negra, blanca, catira, pelirroja, de todo. Se destaca en los concursos internacionales por el garbo, la manera de actuar, la forma de moverse, la forma de caminar, de contornearse. Cuando la ven llegar todos dicen: "esta niña tiene que ser venezolana."

The Venezuelan woman has no prototype, and for that reason, neither does Miss Venezuela. I believe that the Venezuelan woman, because she is not so marked, is very international, and that is what is interesting about her. She can be morena [dark skinned], Black, white, blonde, redheaded, everything. She stands out in the international competition for her clothing, her way of acting, how she moves, how she walks, how she makes herself appealing. When they see her arrive, they all say: "this girl must be Venezuelan."

—OSMEL SOUSA, president of the Organización Miss Venezuela, quoted in Museo Jacobo Borges, 2000 Miss Venezuela; my translation

The missólogo (expert on the beauty pageant and its history in Venezuela) Diego Montaldo Pérez notes in his introduction to the commemorative series Un siglo de misses, "Rivers of ink have been written about beauty contests in this country." Missólogos, journalists, and cultural commentators alike have acknowledged the distinction and success of Venezuelan beauty queens on the global stage throughout the twentieth century and into the present. National and international beauty contests have been seen as sites for the production of a distinctive kind of Venezuelan femininity, one that, generation after generation, garners success for the Organización Miss Venezuela (OMV) and recognition for Venezuelan beauty. It is this kind of Venezuelan femininity, this femininity informed by the beauty pageant industry, that I first encountered when I witnessed the spectacle of that flight attendant in San Antonio del Táchira. And though beauty pageants were probably the last thing I ever thought I would study, I became interested in them because of how immediately recognizable this kind of gender performance is, how intrinsically connected to national ideology.

Belleza venezolana (Venezuelan beauty) is a catchphrase used to refer to this particular kind of beauty. The ideology of Venezuelan beauty and the processes that produce it reveal important elements in the production of nation through racialization, markets, and media. These four elements—nation, race, markets, and media—are sutured together on the bodies of misses and in the national imaginary throughout the history of the beauty contest in Venezuela, as they are in Osmel Sousa's declaration in the epigraph of the enigmatic allure of Venezuelan beauty. I first became interested in the beauty pageant precisely because of the ways these elements are sutured by and through the gender formation of the miss. Lauren Berlant has called this kind of suturing part of the production of the "National Symbolic" (1991, 22). Using Berlant's framework as developed in her "national sentimentality" trilogy (1991, 1997, 2008), I trace the development of the modern beauty pageant in Venezuela and its attendant discourses of nation, race, and production. These discourses are, of course, integral parts of the gender that misses inhabit and produce. While chapters 3, 4, and 6 focus on the implications of these formations to gender in Venezuela, here I will explore more centrally the suturing of nation, race, markets, and media as they pertain to the national beauty pageant in Venezuela.

Berlant proposes the National Symbolic as a space in which national subjects are bound together, not only through historical, political, or juridical mechanisms but also through "a set of forms and the affect that makes these forms meaningful" (1991, 4). These forms, which Berlant proposes are reflected in cultural production, become a site for "national fantasy." In her notion of national fantasy, Berlant suggests a way to understand "how national culture becomes local" (5), an idea that I have extended here beyond the national into the transnational frame. In the context of Venezuela, the beauty pageant certainly reflects national fantasy, but the character of this fantasy is simultaneously transnational; it is about participating on the global stage, and the miss is one key form and fantasy through which this participation takes place. This form is profoundly shaped by Venezuelan racial and national ideology.

The simultaneous production of both national and transnational fantasy foregrounds how these two senses of scale mutually constitute each other—to speak of the nation without its geopolitical context in a global division of labor is to ignore the audience of other nations and societies in which national projects are formed. The nation is thus a legible form of political existence, eclipsing other forms of solidarity and political deliberation, and it is always formed in the context of other nations. The structure of the two chapters in this part reflects the simultaneous production of national and transnational fantasy. This chapter focuses on the national fantasy of belleza venezolana. The chapter that follows further elaborates the idea of the (trans)national—embedding the production of nation in transnational and international processes, and at the same time understanding the trans and queer subject as a product of the nation rather than treating trans- and queer-subject formations as exceptional. The national fantasy of belleza venezolana has shaped the form of the beauty contest in Venezuela. Specifically, this form has become a site of social contention, of embodied notions of racial democracy, an articulation of Venezuela's place in the global market, and at the same time the form has become a way for the nation to imagine itself through various media. An abbreviated history of the national beauty contest in Venezuela demonstrates a shift from local beauty contests to international competitions in the media, beginning in the first years of the twentieth century. I also examine the discourse of race as it is employed in the production of misses and elaborate how the nation is defined through geography, media, and national industry in the context of the national beauty contest. Finally, the figure of the miss becomes what Berlant calls a "national brand" (2008, 107), a way to mediate national racial ideology through iconography, employing the body of the miss to accomplish what I call miss-ing race.

The Modern Beauty Contest in Venezuela

To consider the beauty contest as a form, it is important to note a difference between a narrative sense of the term form and a ritual sense. In Beauty Queens on the Global Stage, Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje (1996) consider the "ritual form" of the beauty pageant's performative structure. They analyze the sequence of events, conventions of performance, and players or characters of beauty pageants as they are conducted in diverse contexts. For example, in Robert Lavenda's discussion of the conflict between, and the ultimate hybridity of, the debutante cotillion and the beauty pageant models in small-town Minnesota "community queen" pageants, the pageant form is important but vacillates between two distinct genealogies to produce both local and regional meaning (Lavenda 1996, 40–42). But the history of the Miss Venezuela beauty contest includes a series of shifts more related to the narrative form of the contest over time than to the ritual structure of specific contests. The elements of the narrative sense of the form, or its mediation, include differences in the media employed to carry out the beauty contest, the kinds of rules employed in deciding the contest, the structure of the contest narrative itself, and the technologies assumed to bind the nation together in order to arrive at a decision. Thus, my examination of the modern beauty contest in Venezuela pays close attention to its mediations: the media, rules, structure, and technologies through which the beauty contest is produced and consumed.

Contests where women are judged for their physical beauty have been observed at many different points in time and in many places. Here I do not attempt to establish a universal chronology of beauty contests in Venezuela or anywhere else. Rather, I illustrate the beginnings of a modern beauty contest in Venezuela and examine the characteristics that distinguish it from its predecessors. This brief history of the beauty contest provides some context for understanding the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant's role in Venezuelan society. In particular, I focus on incidents in the life of beauty contests in Venezuela that reveal these as sites of contestation for conflicts over race, class, and social power.

Following the history of Miss Venezuela, we find changes in the way the contest is structured—the media through which it is contested and the kinds of performances that are included in its staging. A national beauty queen is only conceivable as the nation coheres and begins to see itself as needing a representative. This shift requires a form that selects the queen of the nation through a deliberative process. I trace the history of the modern beauty contest in Venezuela, meaning the first beauty contests held under the rubric of the nation—Señorita Venezuela or Miss Venezuela, rather than local or event-specific contests such as La Reina del Carnaval (Carnival Queen).

It is important to distinguish between beauty contests and beauty pageants. A beauty contest is an event in which the beauty of individuals is judged. A beauty pageant is a form of a beauty contest that involves pageantry. In the early days of modern Venezuelan beauty contests, the pageant form had not yet emerged. The first national beauty contest in Venezuela was carried out not as a pageant but as a contest held through various media and in several forms of publication and circulation. The beauty pageant form more clearly emerged when the national beauty contest entered the television era in the early 1950s. In the early twentieth century, Venezuelan national beauty contests were deliberated in the media of the nation—magazines, newspapers, and cinema.

The existence of national beauty contests in Venezuela has been dated back to 1905, when the tobacco producer La Hidalguía held a contest based on photo postcards (carte de visite) distributed where its cigars were sold throughout Venezuela. Customers collected these postcards and mailed the one representing their choice for Señorita Venezuela to the company. The 1905 Señorita Venezuela contest departed from other beauty contests of the time—primarily observed to crown local carnival queens—in its national character. This contest clearly established links between a national market (the cigars and their distribution method), national infrastructure (the post, a relatively new service at the time), existing media (the postcard), and the idea of national beauty. Although the nation-building project had existed for more than a century (and the nation of Venezuela for seventy-five years) by the time this contest was held, national markets were a recent development. What is significant about modern beauty contests is the primary role of commercial sponsorship and their national scale. Is a queen of Venezuela necessary or even imaginable before this point? La Hidalguía's Señorita Venezuela contest reflects the nation seeing itself through the circuits and technologies through which it can be imagined.

At this time, beauty pageants—that is, beauty contests that involved the physical presentation of all candidates on a stage rather than through photographic means—were held at the local, not national, level. The local pageant form became a somewhat safe place to express dissent because of the perception that beauty pageants were apolitical events. Elections of local beauty queens, such as the Reinas del Carnaval, become sites for the assertion or contestation of authoritarian rule. For example, Montaldo Pérez (1999) reported that the 1915 title of Reina del Carnaval in Maracay went to the representative from the entourage of then-president Juan Vicente Gómez, insinuating that Gómez's presence predetermined the outcome of the event. The most famous case of a politicized beauty pageant in Venezuela is the 1928 crowning of the Queen of the Students. That year, during Carnaval in Caracas, "Beatríz I" became the symbol for the emerging student movement against Gómez the dictator. The future Venezuelan president Raúl Leoni, a member of what is known as La Generación del 28, crowned Beatríz Pérez La Reina de los Estudiantes (Queen of the Students). Her coronation was heralded on the front page of the Caracas newspaper El Universal. A seemingly apolitical event, the coronation provided an opportunity for the student movement to make its presence known in the heavily censored national newspapers. The coronation took place in the Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater) of Caracas and the poet Pio Tamayo read a homage to Beatríz I, a foundational poem for Venezuelan democracy in the twentieth century. In "Homenaje y demanda del Indio: A su Majestad Beatríz I, Reina de los Estudiantes" (Indigenous demand and tribute: Her Majesty Beatríz I, Queen of the Students), Tamayo speaks to Pérez as an indio (indigenous person)—one who humbly submits homage and demand for liberty to his majestad (majesty). The poem was judged to be subversive by the Gómez administration and resulted in Tamayo's incarceration. The student movement's use of the Carnaval pageant form as a vehicle for its critique of the Gómez dictatorship set the stage for later uses of the beauty pageant as a site for the negotiation of power in Venezuela. Both local and national beauty contests are also an important site for the articulation of a raced and classed Venezuelan national public, as can be seen clearly in the early days of Élite magazine.

In the late 1920s, the then-aristocratic caraqueño magazine Élite ran photographs of many young, unmarried society women who were featured each issue as muchachas bonitas (pretty girls) (see figure 1.1). Élite, which later in its publishing life became a true tabloid for the Venezuelan masses, at this time served as a kind of high-society newsletter, documenting the parties and social life of Caracas-based elites. In addition to the young muchachas bonitas, married women were also sometimes featured in a series titled Damas honorables (Honorable ladies). Another monthly feature, Las reinas del Volante (The queens of Volante), exhibited young women showing off their family automobiles—among the first cars in Venezuela, which Élite proudly advertised from its inception. Élite also ran photographs of local Reinas del Carnaval from all over Venezuela. These pictorials were intended to demonstrate the beauty of aristocratic women in the most far-flung regions of the nation, as well as to center the wealthy and beautiful in Caracas—as if to its readers that aristocratic glamour could travel to all corners of the nation, and that Caracas, itself considered a far-flung corner of the world, could be just as glamorous as New York or Paris. This was accomplished by importing commodities and technologies (such as automobiles, cigarettes, and lip and nose shapers), and by reproducing European and North American fashion and glamour on the bodies of Venezuelan women. Photography was an important representational device in these efforts—it bore witness to the ability of the Venezuelan elite to produce glamour in Caracas and throughout the nation. An example of this is a feature titled Rincones de la república (Corners of the republic), in which photographs of aristocrats along with their families and cars holding picnics in all corners of the Republic were printed on special plates in the magazine.

In June 1929, El Universal (considered the national newspaper of record at the time) received a letter from the Buenos Aires periodical El Hogar, requesting that the newspaper elect a Señorita Venezuela to represent the country in the Concurso de Bellezas Interamericanas (Inter-American Beauty Contest). The contest ran concurrently in Élite and El Universal from June 1929 to the beginning of 1930 but was never finalized. No record of Señorita Venezuela's participation in the El Hogar contest, or of the contest itself, was apparent. Despite the lack of culmination in a crowning of a beauty queen of the Americas, the local and national contest received a great deal of mention in the press at the time. A Miss Universo (Miss Universe) pageant, held in Galveston, Texas, was also reported on in the pages of El Universal during this time, but there was no apparent connection between the El Hogar contest and Miss Universo, nor did Venezuela have a representative in this competition, which was known as the International Pageant of Pulchritude. The proceedings of the Señorita Venezuela contest suggest specific conditions for representing the nation and for constituting a national consensus. Although this ideal plan was never fully executed, it too reflects the ways the nation can be made manifest through media-consumption practices.

The announcement of the contest in Élite laid out an elaborate mechanism for electing the Venezuelan representative:

The different States of the Republic will elect a beauty queen that will bear the name of her State. On a date yet to be determined, every State will send its respective delegate to the General Contest that will be held in Caracas, to elect "Señorita Venezuela." The procedure to be used in the State elections will be adapted to the practices and customs of each one.


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Table of Contents

Index 279

Acknowledgments vii

Introducing . . . the Queen 1

Part I. On the (Trans)National 19

1. Belleza Venezolana: Media, Race, Modernity, and Nation in the Twentieth-Century Venezuelan Beauty Contest 21

2. La Moda Nace en Paris y Muere en Caracas: Fashion, Beauty, and Consumption on the (Trans)National 59

Part II. On the Runway, on the Street 95

3. La Reina de la Noche: Performance, Sexual Subjectivity, and the Form of the Beauty Pageant in Venezuela 97

4. Pasarelas y Perolones: Transformista Mediations on Avenida Libertador in Caracas 127

Part III. On the Body 153

5. Sacar el Cuerpo: Transformista and Miss Embodiment 155

6. Spectacular Femininities 201

Epilogue. Democracy and Melodrama: Frivolity, Fracaso, and Political Violence in Venezuela 233

Notes 247

References 269

What People are Saying About This

Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora - Martin F. Manalansan IV

"A gifted ethnographer with an eye for detail, Marcia Ochoa weaves rich narratives of contemporary Venezuela and its complex cultural geography of gendered, sexualized, racialized, and classed bodies and selves caught in the pursuit of alluring beauty and accomplished femininity. Queen for a Day is a queer diasporic ethnography that complicates practices of cultural consumption and production within the shifting terrains of normality and 'abnormality,' the nation and the global, and home and away."

The Day of Shelly's Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief - Renato Rosaldo

"Marcia Ochoa's engaging ethnographic meditation on femininity in Venezuela focuses on gays, women, and transgendered people who perform glamour in beauty pageants and as sex workers on the street called Avenida Libertador. This work reveals the social forces as well as the plastic surgery and injections that produce desired female bodies. Ochoa's world of high frivolity that many do not take seriously reveals much about Venezuela that cannot be learned from the earnest realm of male politics."

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