MISS UNIVERSE'S TUMMY IS BEtraying her. Even as Alicia Machado, slim and lovely, sits on a couch in her Los Angeles apartment and deals with the question of whether she has, or has not, gained weight—a question she has not chosen to address until now—there comes an unmistakable rumbling sound. "I'm getting hungry," she laughs. "But with everything going on, I am afraid to admit it."

Machado, 19, crowned Miss Universe in Las Vegas in May, had reigned for just three months when the rumors began, first in the press of her native Venezuela and, eventually, in gossip columns north of the border. She had gained so much weight, according to the stories, that she was in danger of losing her title, and pageant officials had ordered her to take off 27 pounds in two weeks—or else.

For Machado, daughter of a Maracay toy-store owner and a mother who sells real estate, all the gossip has been embarrassing—and very annoying. "I am not a monster," she says through an interpreter. "There are so many people who would like to look like me, at the weight I am now."

The weight she is now, says the 5'7" Machado, is about 125 pounds, up a mere seven since she became Miss Universe—and pageant officials profess to be quite happy, indeed, with the way she looks. "When these girls enter the competition," says pageant spokeswoman Amy Grey, "they are in tip-top shape. Then when they win, they are on a completely different schedule—on airplanes, going to big, gala dinners, with little time for the gym. But I've never seen anyone balloon—and Alicia didn't either."

Machado believes the whole brouhaha started in Venezuela, where beauty pageant winners are covered like movie stars. "I had four wisdom teeth pulled at the time the reports started to come out," says the aspiring actress and restaurateur. "I think somebody saw me with my face swollen and thought I had gained weight. Miss Universe is supposed to be perfect."

Happily, what Machado has lost in perfection, she has gained in poise. "I feel fine about my weight," she says. "When I go to restaurants now, people who recognize me stare at me eating. I laugh and invite them over to join me."