Success in pageants is a source of national pride, and the man behind the beauties teaches them to walk, talk and smile — and picks their plastic surgeries.

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Eva Ekvall says she was 17, a little overweight and dreaming of winning enough to buy a car when she entered her first beauty contest. Plastic surgery was the last thing on the young Venezuelan’s mind.

Then she met Osmel Sousa, the Pygmalion of her country’s beauty industry. Three months later, weighing 22 pounds less, her nose reshaped and with breast implants, Ekvall was crowned Miss Venezuela.

“All of a sudden I was losing a lot of weight, so I needed boobs,” said Ekvall, now 25, who went on to take fourth place in the 2001 Miss Universe contest. “My nose looked bigger on my thinner face, so I needed a nose job,” she said. “Osmel just kept saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we can fix this and that. Everything will be fine.’ “

Venezuela has won more major international beauty competitions than any other nation. Much of the South American country’s success can be attributed to Sousa’s skills in preparing contestants, from how to walk, smile and talk to choosing cosmetic surgeries.

Cuban-born Sousa, 60, who has run the Miss Venezuela franchise since 1981, is responsible for most of the country’s five Miss Universe, five Miss World and five Miss International titles. He openly encourages surgery.

“This isn’t a nature contest,” Sousa said in an interview as contestants in swimsuits and high heels practiced choreography for the 2008 Miss Venezuela pageant, which took place in Caracas on Sept. 10. “It’s a beauty contest, and science exists to help perfect beauty. There is nothing wrong with that.”

Owned by TV station Venevision, the Miss Venezuela Organization employs a plastic surgeon and a dental surgeon. Dayana Mendoza, the reigning Miss Universe, is one of Sousa’s protégées.

“Venezuela has been able to create a production line of beauty queens like no other country,” said Ines Ligron, director of Miss Universe Japan, in a telephone interview from Tokyo. “Nothing is improvised in Miss Venezuela; everything is calculated. The girls are sculpted and rigidly trained.”

Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, questions Sousa’s endorsement of aesthetic surgery.

“No surgeon can say that giving breast implants to a 17-, 18-year-old for beauty reasons is ethical,” Caplan said. “It’s terrible that these pageants are turning into plastic-surgery competitions and are no longer about real beauty.”

Surgical enhancement is permitted and is common among contestants, said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, a joint venture between billionaire real-estate developer Donald Trump and NBC Universal.

“We don’t encourage it, but we don’t prohibit it, either,” Shugart said. “Miss Universe in the 21st century wants to be a reflection of the world we live in, so we really don’t have a problem with contestants that had some kind of procedure done.”

Sousa, who calls the enhancements “touchups,” runs a program to groom contestants. To get there, candidates need to catch the eye of Sousa or one of his scouts at the hundreds of fashion shows and beauty pageants they attend annually.

Around March each year, 300 young women head for Quinta Miss Venezuela, a salmon-pink villa with white iron gates where Sousa runs his boot camp. There, they come under the scrutiny of Sousa, his assistant Gabriel Ramos, dental surgeon Moises Kaswan and plastic surgeon Peter Romer. The three comment on the aspirants’ flaws and suggest what can be done to create a winner.

Fair-haired and blue-eyed, Sousa speaks with a soft voice.

“You are chubby and your nose is crooked,” he said in a meeting with a Quinta Miss Venezuela candidate last year, which was recorded on video. “And your teeth — Ugh! We need to do something.”

About 60 are selected to undergo training. It lasts from three to six months at the villa in Colinas de Los Caobos, the Caracas neighborhood where Venevision’s studios and headquarters are also located.

As well as surgery and weight-loss programs, the organization provides coaching in modeling, runway presentation, dancing and English. It pays all expenses, and in return receives 20 percent of any eventual winner’s earnings during her reign.

“Osmel is a rare artist,” said Mendoza, 22, whose prizes for winning the Miss Universe title included a $30,000 tiara with diamonds and pearls, and an apartment on Park Avenue in New York plus living expenses during her yearlong reign. “He transformed my life.”

Mendoza also received a two-year scholarship to the New York Film Academy for acting or filmmaking, a full wardrobe and shoe collection and a personal stylist. The prizes are worth $500,000, according to the Miss Universe Organization, which employs the titleholder during her reign.

Mendoza started working as a model at age 15 and left a job with Elite Model Management in Milan to participate in Miss Venezuela and then Miss Universe. She neither confirms nor denies having had plastic surgery, saying people should do what makes them feel good.

Daniel Slobodianik, the Miss Venezuela surgeon for three years until 2007, says he operated on Mendoza, enlarging her breasts, reshaping the tip of her nose and removing excess fat around her knees with liposuction.

“Yes, I did Dayana and so many others that I can’t even remember,” he said at his clinic in the upscale Santa Paula neighborhood of Caracas, while four young women flipped through fashion magazines in the waiting room.

Sousa’s concept of beauty could be seen in the similar upturned noses of most of the 28 contestants at September’s Miss Venezuela pageant.

“I’ve had an idea of the perfect woman in mind since I was a boy, and later on, working in advertising, I drew that woman over and over again for my clients,” Sousa said as he sketched a female face on a sheet of paper.

Beauty contests are part of Venezuela’s culture, and its success is a source of national pride, Slobodianik said.

Each year, thousands of beauty pageants take place around the country, some in prisons, schools and army barracks.

Girls in Venezuela grow up thinking that being beautiful is the most important goal in life, says Xiomara Rivero, a 32-year-old manicurist.

“This is the worst place in the world to be ugly,” said Rivero, who works in a beauty salon in Caracas’s Las Mercedes neighborhood.

Outside the Caracas stadium where the 2008 Miss Venezuela show was being rehearsed, Denise Trujillo, 18, tried to persuade security guards to let her through the glass doors.

Tottering on 4-inch heels, the tall, slim, brown-eyed brunette said she wanted to hand photos of herself to Sousa.

“I know I have potential, I have what Osmel wants,” said Trujillo, who works as a waitress. “I may need a few touchups, but he will help me.”

With reporting by Steven Bodzin and Daniel Cancel in Caracas.