Thong warfare and the kidnapped beauty queen

A tour of socialist Venezuela, where 98 percent of the people are poor and the other 2 percent ogle metrosexual Tarzans and silicone-perfect blonds at a well-lubed fashion show.

Published January 15, 2005 9:32PM (EST)

The New York Times doesn't know it yet, but it has a chief Venezuelan fashion correspondent. And I'm it. Models strut down the runway under an enormous white tent and wave to their sugar daddies. I'm not anyone's sugar daddy, but I wave back anyway. Through the sashaying legs I intermittently see a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ricardo Montalban. He has a blond on each side of him -- rib-removed, collagen-boosted silicone beauties. They wrap their pneumatic lips around fluorescent straws for hits of Bellini between jealous stares at the newer flesh up on the runway. The models come out one at a time in pink thongs, leopard-print thongs, jeweled thongs. Each thong draws a big cheer from the crowd until a bigger cheer is drawn by the next. Thong warfare.

This is the best assignment in the world, and I suppose I have Alex Deep to thank. His family owns the Casablanca Fashion Group, a chain of high-end fashion boutiques where affluent Venezuelans can get the latest from Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Versace all under one roof. They produce this show annually to publicize the spring lines.

Deep wears a retro-tailored Armani suit, steel chains around his neck and at least two tones of red streaked through his hair, swept up in the style of a David Beckham mohawk. The final accessory is an admiring coterie of Venezuelan princesses. Alex Deep wants to be a music producer. He has a recording studio in Miami and spins at Boston nightclubs. A drunken Mexican introduced us to each other at the Manhattan nightspot Hiro, where Deep appeared to have fallen into a vat of Dolce & Gabbana. A week later, he offered to fly me to Venezuela if I would write a piece about this show. He mentioned that his family was looking to expand their fashion business to the United States, and I imagine that they wanted publicity.

Of course, I don't know anything about fashion and did not pretend to. But I had followed Hugo Chavez's socialist coup of this country and even found amusement in his more colorful rhetoric. If Paris was well worth a mass, post-capitalist Caracas is certainly worth a fashion show.

I picked up a few back issues of Vogue and flew down.

Soon we are driving around the city in Deep's armored Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Deep Jeep is a unique automobile. It has a panic button to kill the engine and signal a satellite in the event of a kidnapping, inch-thick windows to stop bullets in the event of a shooting, and a hefty driver trained to speed like a madman if necessary.

We are headed into the mountains for a birthday party. In Latin America the upper classes say that bodyguards are like testicles -- big, hairy and always outside when the party happens. Alas, it's funny because it's true. Outside the house is a black-suited phalanx of armed men, big and grisly with indigenous features. The SUVs form a row of bulletproof chrome beneath a 10,000-volt wire of death suspended above the 9-foot fence surrounding the estate. Outside is the city, and outside it will stay.

Caracas is a city built into the jungle, but everyone I meet here looks perfectly European. Silken hair, porcelain skin, small nose. The young women spend a great deal of time, and surely money, achieving what is often described as an impossible body standard. One wears a lavender sweater so commensurately tight with her own body that you can see the outline of every abdominal muscle in her six-pack. The young men could have walked out of the Upper East Side or a European capital.

Alex Deep hands me another bottle of Polar beer, which the birthday girl's family has made several billion dollars manufacturing, and explains: "This is the top 2 percent of the country, what you are seeing. We have no middle class."

But they have a lower class. Squalid adobe towns flicker across the mountains on the other sides of the city. Each house does its best with a single light bulb while the teakwood pillbox shines, bright and cheery, an electrocution-prone pleasure dome.

Early on, Chavez sacked the entrenched management of Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil corporation, replacing it with his own supporters. Last year he redirected oil revenues to social programs to the tune of $1.7 billion.This sounds entirely humanitarian, especially when you consider that Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest producer of oil. It makes even more sense when you account for the persistent global energy panic; the cost of oil skyrocketed past $50 a barrel last year because of China's insatiable appetite for crude and threats to oil fields in the Middle East (namely, Iraq). To a socialist leader in an oil-rich country the arithmetic is easy. Why not share the wealth?

Critics, though, charge that Chavez implemented his programs to buy quick support from the masses -- at the cost of the large-scale capital reinvestment, which experts say the state oil industry needs if it is to continue producing the low-quality jungle oil that is this state's lifeblood. Analysts estimate that Petroleos de Venezuela requires $6 billion of reinvestment each year to remain competitive, and under Chavez in 2004, it received less than half that amount. The fear is that Chavez is acting recklessly to bolster his own power and that oil prices may fall, triggering an economic crisis. For the time being, Chavez's educational programs and subsidies have improved the quality of life for some poor Venezuelans, though the basic fabric of society remains unchanged.

In this crowd, the very mention of his name brings sour looks and rumors: Chavez has a private collection of Rolex watches and Armani suits that he wears to the same types of debauched parties that he once railed against. More: His sons have trust funds filled with the people's money and spend their days as bourgeois wastrels in Florida. Still more: His lieutenants fill entire sections of Miami with million-dollar mansions similarly paid for by the single-light-bulb adobes off in the distance. With power firmly consolidated, Chavez holds all the cards.

One man insists to me that a little over 10 percent of the country's leading families are represented on this single lawn. It is at first difficult to believe, but it seems more plausible after one girl invites me to her birthday party without ever learning my name.

"We are flying to Margarita on Sunday!" she says. "Three hundred of us!"

Lightning flickers over the Bantustan built into the side of a less fortunate mountain. Mud slides killed 25,000 and left 100,000 homeless in towns like this across the country in 1999, but no one outside Venezuela took much notice. No one takes much notice now.

The next morning the phone rings. It is Alex Deep. The fashion show is tomorrow and there is a press conference in the hotel lobby. I feel sorry for the press and wonder what sorts of questions they could possibly ask on the day before a fashion show. I then recall that I am the press.

I enter the lobby and soon meet Veruska Ramirez, who was Miss Venezuela in 1997. Her ochre skin is Amazonian, her pointed features European, and her unmoving breasts silicone. She is lost world, Old World, and New World. Before becoming Miss Venezuela she cleaned houses for $80 a week. Venezuelans take their beauty pageants seriously, and beauty is the only element of meritocracy that remains fully operative in this country, come junta or high water. Life is good for Ramirez, and she also recently experienced the ultimate Latin American status symbol: a kidnapping.

There is an awkward silence as I realize that she expects to be interviewed. As a fashion reporter it is my professional duty to inquire about her clothes.

"What are you wearing?" I ask.

It comes off sounding a bit pervy, but apparently this is how it's done.

"Max Mara," she says.

Right, then. "So ... tell me about your kidnapping." And away she goes.

"They left me in a very dangerous zone of the city, and when I got out of the car I said, 'Oh my God!' Because I had my high heels on! They wanted autographs!" she says. "When they got in the car, they said, 'Don't worry, cutie! We're not gonna hurt you!' -- 'cause they recognized me!"

We are now playing Latin American abduction survivor. Deep, again wearing head-to-toe Armani, one-ups Ms. Venezuela.

"My brother, he had a gun in his head! They were pointing at his girlfriend! They were saying, 'Let's spread this little girl! You'll feel bad this entire life if I rape your girl!'"

Ms. Venezuela defends her honor: "Well, I told them from the beginning, 'I prefer that you kill me than touch me.'"

She then joins Mr. Venezuela and several other models on the press panel with Carlos Dorado, a tan businessman in a navy-blue suit with gold pinstripes. Dorado is Deep's stepfather and many other things: bestselling author, firebrand journalist, currency-exchange magnate and, most recently, owner of the Casablanca Fashion Group.

I am initially inclined to sit in the back row nursing my Polar beer hangover until it is all over. But I am a fashion reporter, and in less than 24 hours will be the highest-ranking such reporter in this entire nation. I must ask questions about fashion; it is what I do. Soon Deep elbows me in the side. "Come on, man. Ask a question."

New media laws have made criminal any statement that "promotes, condones or incites disrespect for the legitimate authorities and institutions." This means that you can find yourself in jail for speaking ill of Chavez and his cohorts. The week before my arrival a decorated general was given five years for discussing the workings of flamethrowers on national television, in connection with their alleged use by the government as a torture device on soldiers. This is especially remarkable when one considers that flamethrowers are by and large self-explanatory. They throw flames.

Soon I have a question.

I ask Dorado how he plans to continue to retail European luxury goods as the most populist regime in Venezuela's history wages a war against elites. Pairs of $200 jeans don't exactly call out "Viva la huelga!" The room grumbles as the question is translated. Dorado launches into his reply:

"You have the liberty of asking that question, but I don't have the liberty of answering it. You can go back to New York and rest there tranquilly, but I have to stay here and face this president as the cameras are filming me ... I always have written with my heart in my pen, without considering the consequences. Today I made the decision to stop writing entirely. In this country we can no longer write with our heart in our pen; one must write now with his wallet in his pen. We're one of the richest countries in the world in resources and also the most poorly administrated country on the planet. Until we Venezuelans -- rich, poor, businessmen, workers -- understand that we will find the solutions to our problems through our intellect and hard work, and that we have to put aside the demagoguery and radicalism, all these resources ... will end up being used against us and turn us into one of the poorest countries in the world."

As a fashion journalist I don't really keep up on political theory. Still, there is no mistaking that this is a poignant defense of individualist capitalism offered in the face of totalitarian collectivism and the draconian media laws passed to protect it. Dorado may be a member of the oligarchy, but he is the only person in the room who feels entitled to exercise anything resembling a First Amendment right.

Everyone, that is, except for Mr. Venezuela, who has a song to sing.

Francisco Leon was selected as the country's most beautiful man in 2004. He has a metrosexual Tarzan look, with espresso hair dangling about his latte face and a Thrilleresque red leather jacket with black racing stripes down the arms. Around his neck is a set of dog tags from the army of Narcissus. These bear no marks of identity but serve as ever-ready mirrors for the chronic checking-out of self. He stares into the barrel of a live camera, twists his face with a longing scowl, and croons a ballad from the Julio Iglesias School of Angst and Longing.

There is no way they air this, I tell myself. But the very next morning I will turn on the news to see the entire painful episode replayed in its entirety. Following the serenade is a laudatory news item about Hugo Chavez receiving a humanitarian award from that great civil libertarian Moammar Gadhafi. Dorado's reflections on the flagging state of modern Venezuela are not shown.

More Deep Jeeps arrive at the hotel to take us to lunch at the Caracas Country Club, a retrofitted Spanish mission. As Dorado orders wine for the table, I notice a crucifix set above a small altar in a garden off the colonnade. This is not the Vatican II Jesus that I was brought up to know and love (and to know loved me); this is bleeding Christ, suffering Christ, wailing Christ. In Latin America, the hope of Christ's resurrection allows the poor to endure poverty without despair while the visceral and universal pain of his suffering allows the wealthy to endure comfort without guilt.

The Deep Jeeps are there after lunch to take us back to the hotel. Soon we pass what could be the campus of a small university, surrounded by tapered barricades and barbed wire. This is the home of Gustavo Cisneros, one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes at $4 billion, personal holdings that include AOL Latin America, and personal friends that include George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Most accounts put him at the center of the April 2002 coup d'état that briefly deposed Chavez, replacing him with an interim government friendly to U.S. oil interests, which is to say, the oil interests of Bush supporters. The coup was briefly successful, but Chavez found support among the military and the masses. Forty-eight hours later, Cisnero's new president, businessman Pedro Carmona, was quite literally history. All fingers pointed at the United States, which by varying accounts blessed and assisted the entire ordeal.

The next day we meet Dorado, his wife and the usual entourage for lunch atop Avila, the highest peak outside Caracas. The only addition to the party is the niece of Frida Kahlo, who is working with Dorado to license her aunt's name on products across Latin America. We go up through the clouds, and the city recedes until it is just a great pile of Legos left spilled and unattended in the jungle. Deep is particularly hip today, in a pair of wraparound sunglasses and an Armani T-shirt/belt ensemble inspired by the color yellow and the number 91. He points out the Venezuelan Twin Towers, one of which burned in a recent fire. The higher floors, which allegedly used to store election records that Chavez wanted torched, are black and sooty. American tourists ride in the other gondola cars, surveying the great vista of city below, not even pausing at the towers. Making things disappear isn't so hard after all.

At lunch Deep asks how the article is coming. I tell him that I think I have gotten some good material. He is encouraged.

"The New York Times is going to want this article!"

I have written exactly one article for the Times, and the Mexican must have mentioned this during my introduction to Deep. The mention of the Times draws approving looks and chatter from across the table. I think that this may have been the moment I was anointed Venezuelan fashion czar, but I cannot be sure; Spanish and Italian were the linguistic fare of the meal, and I don't speak a bit of either.

I find this fashion reportage to be quite taxing on my higher mental faculties. Political intrigue, class warfare, the constant threat of kidnapping, the future of socialism in Latin America -- these things can cloud the mind and make it difficult to focus on the issues that drew me to this field in the first place some 48 hours ago. Hemlines, fabrics, shoes. I'm talking about the real human drama. I take a nap back at the hotel and oversleep, rushing down to the lobby a bit after 8 p.m. to find an annoyed entourage waiting for me beside the armored Grand Cherokee. The man from Dolce & Gabbana, his Speedo-favoring lover, Frida Kahlo's niece; I have made them late, and they resent me for it.

And that is what brought me finally to the enormous white tent that Casablanca has erected in the center of the city. A spotless white runway cuts through the middle with perhaps a thousand of Caracas' most well-to-do sitting on either side. The press corps has had time to rest from its rigorous workout at yesterday's press conference and is in full form. I don't quite know where I fit into all of this, or even where I am supposed to sit, but soon all is clear. There is a seat in the very first row at the center of the runway. Upon this seat is a placard:

New York Times

I don't possess the language skills to protest or correct, so the matter is settled; I am chief Venezuelan fashion correspondent for the New York Times. And although I am a fashion reporter of the highest caliber, I have to admit that it is remarkable to have risen so far so fast. Like a rocket. As I take my seat I notice a 30-something businessman and an elderly couple looking at me with great respect. Even Frida Kahlo's niece is impressed. I put the placard away, but it is no use. They are welcoming me on the P.A.

"Bienvenido, Signor Dana Bodkin Vachon..."

There is no going back now. I give a nod to the crowd and the show starts. A grating industrial beat takes over as a group of break-dancers comes out on the runway. They go from worms to backflips to frontflips to head spins to armstands, and the room bursts into applause as the models start to strut. The women have giraffe legs and surgery perfect breasts. The men march top heavy, with pumped chests and arms atop little stick legs. I take out my notebook.

The steady thump of Deep's house beats pulse from the ground. Computerized lights change with the music and fill the white tent with purples, reds and blues. A million-watt spotlight blasts down the runway, and a thousand flashbulbs explode each time a model hits the end.

Then it stops. The lights die. The sound cuts. Montalban's blonds look about anxiously. The models bop in place. Venezuela is a country whose vast natural wealth allows the tank of a Jeep Grand Cherokee to be filled with gasoline for a little under $2, but somehow the power has gone out. Ms. Venezuela comes out to calm the crowd with beauty. Dorado goes outside to see what has gone wrong. And the wealthiest residents of the capital of one of the world's most energy-rich countries can only remain seated, completely in the dark.

By Dana Vachon

Dana Vachon is the author of the novel "Mergers & Acquisitions" (Riverhead).

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