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The Catastrophes Issue

Socialist Child Beauty Parlour

German-Norwegian photojournalist couple Ben Speck and Karin Ananiassen recently spent ten days depicting one of Venezuela's most prestigious beauty academies, the castings, and the wildly popular TV-broadcasted "Miss" competitions.

A group of three-to-five-year-old girls in bikinis and high-heeled sandals at Gisselle’s beauty academy practice sexy beach picture poses.

Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela has won more international beauty contests than any other country on the planet, and has bred a record amount of Miss Universes. In recent years, beauty has quickly grown to become Venezuela’s second biggest industry—preceded only by its oil production.


German-Norwegian photojournalist couple Ben Speck and Karin Ananiassen recently spent ten days depicting one of Venezuela’s most prestigious beauty academies, the castings, and the wildly popular TV-broadcasted “Miss” competitions.

VICE: First off, how is this story different from the countless beauty-pageant-with-way-too-young-children stories that have been done a million times before?

Karin Ananiassen:

Well, we were originally commissioned to shoot a portrait of Hugo Chávez for the

Financial Times

. Before we went there we came across statistics about how Venezuelans, regardless of income level, spend around a fifth of their disposable income on beauty-related products. I guess that intrigued us: the absurdity of a poor, socialist country where—in relation to its economy—more money is spent on the beauty industry than anywhere else in the world. They’ve also won more international Miss competitions than any other country.

Ben Speck:

Against Venezuela’s anti-American Dream political backdrop, this obsession with wanting to be a glamorous star seems a bit out of place.

When we first arrived we bumped into a random guy and he knew the names of all the participants in recent years’ big competitions and all these details about them, like their eye shape. Then we realised that everyone knows those things in Venezuela. If there’s a big Miss competition on, everybody watches it. It’s like their equivalent of a Champions League football game.



I guess you could say beauty is their national sport. Even the men there take great care of their appearance. You notice it when you walk around in Venezuela, all the guys have fresh haircuts and clean, pressed clothes and probably spend an equal amount of time in front of the mirror each morning as the women.


The director of the Gisselle beauty academy, which is an academy in Caracas, said that “I had a liposuc-tion” is no different to saying, “I went to the hairdresser”.

When you walk around in Venezuela, are people particularly beautiful?


They’ve got this African, indigenous and Caucasian genetic mix and, you know, mixing different ethnicities usually gives better results. I don’t remember seeing any overweight people or anything.


A couple of times I was asked, “Why aren’t you wearing make-up?”

Some of the younger girls are starting to lose concentration, and some seem to have forgotten why they’re there. There are still several hours left of their Saturday class.

Do they share the skinny western beauty ideal?


No, it’s way curvier, far from the model ideal.


I’m sure they diet, but no one starves themselves. Also, plastic surgery—breast implants in particular—is very popular. Not only among the rich—even a cleaner will have her boobs done, only she’d have to save up for it for quite a while.

Does the beauty industry bring money into the country?



They have a fair share of medical tourism, especially from being geographically close to the US. People go there to have cheap plastic surgery and a Caribbean holiday at the same time. Also, other countries send their Miss contestants to be trained by Venezuela’s prestigious schools and academies, and the many Miss competitions broadcasted on national and international TV all have big corporate sponsors. But I think most of the revenue comes from the domestic market, and people sending their kids to the country’s countless beauty academies. They have more beauty academies and beauty parlours than cafés.


Oil stands for about 80 percent of the revenue and second to that is the beauty industry. There isn’t much else, it’s a very poor country.

How much does it cost to attend these beauty academies?


They have academies in different price ranges. At Gisselle’s, for example, you pay $100 to become a member, then a monthly fee of $150 for four-hour lessons twice a week. And it costs $2,000 for ten private lessons with Gisselle.

What about these photos of the tiny girls in bikinis? Wasn’t that amazingly creepy to shoot?


When we visite, the little girls in bikinis and high-heeled sandals were practicing sexy beach picture poses. The teacher was barking commands like “happy”, “thinking”, “sexy”, or “more attitude, please”.



They genuinely believe that being beautiful, which includes being sexy, gives you a confidence that enables you to become more successful. They openly say that girls who’ve attended beauty schools have a better chance of furthering their careers.


Venezuela is also a hub for international human trafficking. Do you think the beauty pageants could be in any way connected to the sex trade?


As soon as you arrive at the airport, you notice lots of posters warning about the strict penalties for being caught with any involvement in the sex trade, especially concerning children. We didn’t really see anything like that (children being sold into the sex trade) but what we did find a bit strange was how easy it was to photograph the kids. In the UK, photographing children is a big taboo, especially in a circumstance like this, when they’re wearing bikinis and make up. Here there were no questions asked.


It was also strange how they taught kids to spot their immediate competition by lining them up according to skin tone and hair colour.


It’s all about presentation. Even when it comes to plastic surgery, the big competitions and the sponsors will pay for it. In their eyes, it’s all about becoming a better woman.

To see more of Ben Speck and Karin Ananiassen’s work, visit

The four Miss Lara judges in the front row are all famous Venezuelan beauty scene personalities.

The Miss Lara contestants are university students, studying law, medicine or engineering. The prize is a 25,000 Bolívares (£3,850) scholarship towards a university degree.

The girl to the left who looks out of place was there to accompany her cousin, sitting next to her, who convinced her to join the Miss teen casting too. We thought she was cool and it was refreshing to see some individuality, but secretly hoped she’d turn the offer down. Still, we were impressed with her courage.


This group of girls start their day with an hour in a make-up class, learning things like how to get the perfect foundation. They are trained in posing, make-up, catwalk, diction and etiquette, and Gisselle’s has purpose-built rooms for each class.

The students are encouraged to scrutinise their rivals carefully, in class as well as in daily life.

In Barquisimeto, a group of loud and bouncy girls are preparing to perform on live TV. Twelve girls have been chosen out of 150 to compete for the state title Miss Lara.

This catwalk class is for grown-ups in progress. They learn how to walk correctly in different types of dress, as well as different choreographic presentations.

At this Miss teen casting it was required to wear a bikini, and the judges were a group of friends in their early 20s, calling girls in one by one, taking pictures on their BlackBerrys.

At castings, the girls are told how many kilos they need to lose, and where. But it doesn’t mean they won’t get chosen, only that it’s something they need to fix.

The girls holding their homework, which was to research and bring an image of a famous woman they find inspiring. Busty blondes seemed to top the hero list.

After hours of classes in the same stuffy room, the girls were easily caught looking bored and tired, but they ensured us that they’re having a blast at the beauty academy.

There were hardly any dark-skinned girls among the winner-images decorating the academy’s walls, even though a large percentage of the girls you see on the streets have dark skin.

This is the owner of Gisselle’s 20-something niece who spends pretty much every day of her life in this dingy room teaching the kids how to walk on a catwalk.