Osmel Sousa can look at the world's most beautiful woman and see a flaw in her nose.
With that kind of perfectionism, he has become the mastermind behind six Miss Universe winners — including the last two. His intensive training on how to walk, talk and smile, not to mention his eye for the right nip-tuck, are the keys to his success.
After making his country the first to win two in a row, Sousa is aiming for a Miss Universe three-peat next year with the new Miss Venezuela to be crowned Thursday.
"It may seem over-the-top," Sousa acknowledges. But being over-the-top in the beauty business is what Sousa is all about.
The so-called "beauty czar" likens his contestants to precious gems: he can tell when one shimmers from the start, and his job is to polish. Some former pupils liken the balding 63-year-old's penetrating gaze to X-ray vision.
He recommended a nose job for current Miss Universe Stefania Fernandez, though he said she nearly fainted when she had blood drawn and decided to pass on the surgery.
"I've always been a severe critic," Sousa told The Associated Press last week at a news conference ahead of the pageant, where the 18-year-old Fernandez will hand off the Venezuelan crown.
Catwalk sessions, gym classesSousa may seem an anomaly in a country where President Hugo Chavez has declared a Bolivarian Revolution that condemns consumerism and capitalist values.
But beauty contests are a national sport in Venezuela, with its big spenders on cosmetics and designer clothes. Even Chavez has congratulated pageant winners in the past, and Miss Venezuela is consistently the country's most-watched television event.
When the contestants take the stage Thursday, Sousa will be in the background — as he has been since 1981, when he took over as president of the Miss Venezuela Organization.
As Sousa tells it, the rigorous training he demands is what has given Venezuelan beauty queens the edge. During daily sessions lasting 10 hours or more, he and his team of specialists instruct the women on public speaking, posture, makeup and other details — including how to recover gracefully after a fall.
He runs a tight ship at the Miss Venezuela training school, overseeing catwalk sessions and gym classes where the women lift weights and ride stationary bikes. Contestants are weighed daily, and Sousa closely checks to make sure they aren't exceeding his strict limits.
A stream of young women are constantly leaving their photographs in hopes of meeting Sousa. Only a handful make the cut.
"I always tell them ... those who don't dedicate themselves to it wholeheartedly don't amount to anything," he said. "Those who fully dedicate themselves are the ones who have won."
'Just a little retouching'Sousa, who favors flashy styles and pastel-colored coats in his own wardrobe, is similarly strict about his looks and acknowledges he has had plastic surgery on his nose, ears and under his eyes. He exercises to try to keep a flat stomach — though a small belly still shows.
Shopping for the latest fashions is one of Sousa's favorite pastimes, and he can afford to be lavish since he has grown comfortably wealthy running the pageant.
He was born in Cuba, but his parents sent him at age 13 to live with relatives in Venezuela, which has been his home ever since. He talks little about the circumstances of his departure, but says his parents have been distant since childhood.
Sousa says he has never fallen in love, enjoys living alone and considers his contestants and cadre of hairdressers, makeup artists and other specialists his family.
Even as a boy, he remembers drawing "paper dolls" with crayons and selecting his most beautiful creations. He began his career as an illustrator, drawing women in advertisements, and then started advising beauty pageant contestants in 1970.
One of his first students, Maritza Sayalero, won Miss Universe in 1979. Sousa suggested plastic surgery to correct an "ugly nose." She also used hair extensions at his recommendation.
He said he never recommends "drastic surgeries," rather "just a little retouching."
"When I see a defect, I want to correct it," he said.
Two years in a rowThough Sousa always proposes fixing some details, Fernandez said it's always up to the woman.
"I wanted her to have her nose done," Sousa said. "But Stefania got nervous even when they drew blood and almost fainted. She didn't have anything done."
Sousa knows a star when he sees one, and he believed Fernandez had what it took to go all the way, like Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza in 2008. Still, he was surprised when Fernandez won Miss Universe in the Bahamas last month because no other country had ever managed to capture the crown two years in a row.
"That girl's triumph was a dream come true," Sousa said. "I've always wanted to see a Venezuelan turning over the scepter of universal beauty to another Venezuelan."