Reporter: Ray Martin
Producers: Sandra Cleary, Skye Gilkeson
When our Jennifer Hawkins was crowned Miss Universe, we all felt rightly proud. What we didn't know was that Jennifer had the odds stacked against her.
Because in countries like Venezuela, gorgeous looking women train for beauty pageants like Olympic athletes.
They've become the role models for every little girl and every woman in this part of the world where beauty is an obsession.
They're coached at special pageant academies and even given extreme makeovers by cosmetic surgeons.
Because having a pretty face is just the beginning.
RAY MARTIN: There's a colourful mix of salsa and soul about Venezuela. It's a multiracial country of 26 million people, where the Caribbean washes into Latin America. In this oil-rich land the only thing they love more than baseball is a gala beauty pageant. In fact, Venezuela has become home to the world's most beautiful women. Win the Miss Venezuela contest and it's a walk-up start to winning Miss World or Miss Universe.
RAY MARTIN: Why are Venezuelan women so obsessed with beauty?
MARELISA GIBSON: I think it's in our veins.
RAY MARTIN: In your veins?
MARELISA GIBSON: In the veins, yeah. We're really, really conscious about how we look and we always want to look perfect.
RAY MARTIN: A former architecture student, 23-year-old Marelisa Gibson is the current Miss Venezuela. And that makes her more popular than even the country's president, Cesar Chavez.
MARELISA GIBSON: Do you have to be tall to be Miss Venezuela? Yes. You have to be 170, at least. But, well, heels help.
RAY MARTIN: Were you the 5-year-old girl who would watch the competition on television and say, "I want to be like her"?
MARELISA GIBSON: We used to watch it when it was on and we talked about the dresses with my grandmother on the phone like, "Oh, did you see that one? Did you see that one? Oh, that was horrible. I loved this one. I loved that girl."
RAY MARTIN: But tonight Marelisa's 12-month reign as the queen of Venezuela is sadly coming to an end. She's about to hand over her crown to the next most beautiful girl in the land. And it's a highly competitive business.
MARELISA GIBSON: Like, this year for the Miss Venezuela there were 3,000 girls went online to go to try to be Miss Venezuela. And only 28 are selected.
RAY MARTIN: What's it like behind the scenes. Are the girls bitchy? Is it very competitive?
MARELISA GIBSON: Well, some are, some are. Some of them take it really, really serious. Because imagine - if you're thinking about it since you are four years old, of course you want to kill the people that's in front of you.
RAY MARTIN: This all-dancing, all-prancing 4-hour TV spectacular is a show that gets more viewers than the World Cup soccer right across Latin America. It's all under the watchful gaze of the pageant's great svengali, Osmel Sousa - the creator for the past 30 years.
RAY MARTIN: People say to me in Venezuela with great respect that you are the godfather of beautiful women in Venezuela?
OSMEL SOUSA (TRANSLATION): I believe half of the beauty you are born with and the other half is made. And it's true in Venezuela I have created an industry so women can be beautiful.
RAY MARTIN: And it's an industry that starts young - very young. Kids' beauty schools here are like Saturday morning sport for Australian girls. Even the tiny tots learn to strut the catwalk just like their home-grown idols.
DAYANA MENDOZA: My grandma, since I was born she used to say, "Dayana, you're going to be Miss Venezuela. You're going to be Miss Venezuela." That's the joy of every family whenever they have a girl. "She's going to be Miss Venezuela" is a very proud moment.
RAY MARTIN: Winning Miss Venezuela is really a ticket to the world. Just ask 24-year-old Dayana Mendoza, who's now living the dream in New York City.
RAY MARTIN: This is what the beauty contest got you? Gave you the chance?
DAYANA MENDOZA: Yes, it's so much fun.
RAY MARTIN: She is the ultimate beauty queen, exquisitely beautiful. As Miss Universe, Dayana landed a modelling contract with Donald Trump and a New York acting scholarship.
RAY MARTIN: If you were talking to a young Venezuelan girl, a young woman, would you say "Don't be shy about your beauty - exploit it"?
DAYANA MENDOZA: Of course. "Don't be shy about your beauty - use it." Totally.
RAY MARTIN: Why do you think Miss Venezuela wins time and again the Miss Universe, Miss World and all the other contests?
DAYANA MENDOZA: Because of the preparation we get. Because how ready they make us be when we get there.
RAY MARTIN: All the training?
DAYANA MENDOZA: All the training. It's a lot of work.
RAY MARTIN: Now all that hard yakka takes place at a kind of beauty boot camp. For nine months the contestants are locked away, put on a strict diet, coached in grooming and deportment, poked and preened. Competing in Miss Venezuela becomes their life's obsession. No pain, no gain - the girls suffer for their beauty on a rigorous training regimen.
DAYANA MENDOZA: You get up in the morning, you go to the gym, then you go to speech classes, you have English classes, you have dance classes, hair and make-up classes every day.
RAY MARTIN: But it's like you've been to university except it's a beauty school?
DAYANA MENDOZA: Yes, it's like a university. They teach you. I was very lucky to be there.
RAY MARTIN: You could say that this beauty is more than skin deep - much more. Controversially most of these girls have had, well, an extreme makeover. It all starts with the teeth and a man known as 'Dr Smile', Moises Kaswan, the cosmetic dentist.
RAY MARTIN: In Venezuela what's regarded as beautiful is plenty of teeth and big lips?
MOISES KASWAN: That's right - big lips, preferably big boobs, everything. But the teeth mostly, you know - it's big teeth.
MARELISA GIBSON: There are so many things in this beauty pageant world that if you're not in it you don't even know it. Like, yes, I had my teeth done too - and I am happy about it of course too. Sometimes I'm, like, "Oh really? That's me. Look at that!" (LAUGHS)
RAY MARTIN: Once the smile is perfect, the serious work begins. Around $100,000 is spent on each girl to mould her into a kind of living Barbie doll. Now unlike Australia's Jennifer Hawkins, who won Miss Universe without any nips or tucks, Venezuela's budding beauty queens are offered plastic surgery for free - breast implants, nose jobs, botox and liposuction - whatever it takes.
PETER ROMER: I cannot change an ugly girl in a beautiful girl. I can improve the beauty but I cannot change. OK?
RAY MARTIN: Dr Peter Romer is Venezuela's most celebrated plastic surgeon. And he's most proud of his scalpel skills polishing up the country's beautiful jewels - the Miss Venezuela contestants.
PETER ROMER: I think all the girls we work with in Miss Venezuela, for example, all of them are beautiful. But maybe the girl has, for example, an ugly nose. When the nose is not in combination with the other parts of the face if I change the nose I make a match, a perfect match, and this is the secret.
RAY MARTIN: Looking at Dr Romer's gallery, with the before and after shots, you can see what he's talking about.
RAY MARTIN: Is it wrong to go after perfection?
PETER ROMER: Wrong. No, I don't think so. If you feel very good with you, maybe you can be a better person too.
RAY MARTIN: Right now Marelisa is Dr Romer's prize exhibit. There's no question that she is a stunning natural beauty. But she's also honest about her botox, her dental work and, yes, her nose job.
MARELISA GIBSON: Well, my nose needed, like, a little... it wasn't that big. But I'm happy now, so...
RAY MARTIN: But is that you, or the organisers of the contest who say, "We think you should have your nose done?"
MARELISA GIBSON: They tell me, but, like, they don't force me to do it - it's my decision. Like, they tell me, "Hey, you want to, like, here, blah blah blah," and I thought about it and then, well, I'm really happy. I'm really happy about it.
RAY MARTIN: Dayana Mendoza is not quite so upfront when asked about what she's had done. Unlike other Venezuelan women Miss Mendoza is surprisingly coy.
DAYANA MENDOZA: About surgery, you can do surgery if you want to - I mean, I guess you're free to do it.
RAY MARTIN: I have to ask, did you have surgery?
DAYANA MENDOZA: I will definitely do it. (LAUGHS)
RAY MARTIN: You will?
DAYANA MENDOZA: You know, why not?
RAY MARTIN: OK. But you haven't?
DAYANA MENDOZA: Well, see. You figure it out by yourself. I don't know. It's not your business so why do I need to tell you? It's like when you ask a lady how old she is, which is very rude. You know? You don't say that.
RAY MARTIN: Yep, but all I'm saying is that you don't have to ask. I found I didn't even have to ask. People would say, "I've done this."
DAYANA MENDOZA: Like they walk around with a sign in the face like, "Hey, I've got done this and this." No, well, I guess in Venezuela people are just used to it.
RAY MARTIN: Does it matter that people overseas say it's not all Mother Nature, it's the surgery that helps makes them so special?
OSMEL SOUSA (TRANSLATION): The countries that criticise me for doing it don't have the resources I have to do it. They are jealous. And the moment there's a rule in an international pageant that says the girls cannot be operated on I'll invent something else.
RAY MARTIN: Meanwhile back at this year's grand pageant it's a case of 'the queen is dead, long live the queen'. Marelisa hands over her crown to 24-year-old dental student Vanessa Goncalves and with it she passes into beauty history.
RAY MARTIN: How do you feel?
MARELISA GIBSON: I am great. I am feeling great.
RAY MARTIN: Do you feel like yesterday's sweetheart?
MARELISA GIBSON: Not yet but I think tomorrow or the day after tomorrow I'm going to feel like that.
RAY MARTIN: So tomorrow you can eat anything you like. What do you dream of?
MARELISA GIBSON: I dream about so many things.
RAY MARTIN: Because you love eating?
MARELISA GIBSON: Like, a big hamburger. It would be great.