Not Just Another Pretty Face

updated 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

One morning about six months ago, two Latino employees of New York City's Trump Tower spotted Irene Saez, the 1981 Miss Universe from Venezuela, in the lobby. They dropped to their knees shouting: "Saez! Saez!" Explains her close pal Donald Trump, whom she was visiting that day, "It was wild, but that's how huge she is in parts of Latin America."

Saez, 36, a stunning 5'10" blonde, hopes such fervor will help her become Venezuela's first woman president on Dec. 6. The centrist Saez, a two-term mayor of an affluent Caracas borough, is the only woman among 12 candidates for the presidency and she is campaigning on the issues of law and order, better education and smaller government. Her looks appeal to the electorate in the male-dominated, oil-rich country of 22 million that competes in beauty contests with the earnestness that most nations reserve for World Cup soccer. Venezuela has produced four of the last 19 Miss Universes and a half-dozen other top pageant winners. "She's the exception to the rule that these beauties are empty-headed," says Gloria Fuentes, general director of the Dearmas publishing group, which puts out 25 Venezuelan magazines. "Irene spent years preparing for this. I'm convinced she'll be president."

The youngest of six children of businessman Carlos Saez and his wife, Ligia, Saez, as a 3-year-old, lost her 40-year-old mother to cancer. "I used to look at the night sky and see my mother as the brightest star," she recalls. "Since then, she's my guardian angel, my inner voice." After a comfortable, conservative upbringing overseen by her two older sisters, Saez, then a 19-year-old university engineering student, says she heard that voice predict she would someday wear the Miss Universe crown. Though never before interested in such pageants, she entered the highly competitive Miss Venezuela contest only 15 days before it was held—and won. Soon after, in 1981, she was chosen Miss Universe. "I never modeled or had plastic surgery, never dieted, but I just knew in my heart and soul that I'd win," she says. "I only wish that my mother had been with me to share that moment."

After her obligatory world tour meeting leaders—Margaret Thatcher was her favorite because "she's a strong, impressive woman"—Saez switched academic majors and in 1989 earned a degree in political science at the Central University of Venezuela. "Early on, I realized you change a country through politics first, not engineering," she explains. At 28, she ended her romance with a handsome Caracas lawyer "because he wanted me to stay home and not work. I wanted a career."

Saez, a deeply religious Catholic who attends mass almost every day, has never married, though she explains, "I definitely want to get married and have children someday. But my own personal life plans will have to wait until after the election." As for her rumored past romance with billionaire Trump, she—and he—both say they are now "just good friends." Adds Trump: "She's got a real fight on her hands. But she knows how to compete, how to win. I wish her only the greatest success."

As a successful mayor for the past four years (she was reelected with 96 percent of the vote after drastically cutting crime and even outlawing "excessive kissing" in the streets), Saez has become a role model for her nation's legion of pageant wannabes, few of whom will ever get to compete. Of 1,567 walk-on entrants for this year's Miss Venezuela pageant, only three were selected to take part. The remaining 28 qualifiers who had the requisite sparkle, shape and poise came from the elite agencies that prepare the most promising hopefuls in grueling eight-month, mostly sponsor-paid programs that teach everything from diet to diction. "We're a nursery of beauty," says Rita Cordova, a top agency owner. Adds plastic surgeon Dr. Bruno Pacillo, who has "fixed details" of many contestants: "The best, like Irene, win naturally. As for others, it's hard to turn a Volkswagen into a Cadillac."

Though the precampaign front-runner, Saez now appears to be trailing Hugo Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel who led an aborted attempt to overthrow the government in 1992. Nevertheless, she remains positive. "He's won the first few rounds, but in the end, I will govern Chavez," she says, confident that Venezuela's 40 years of otherwise stable politics will ensure a fair election. But if she loses? "I'll keep on trying. Politics is and always will be my life."

Ron Arias in Caracas

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