Miss Universe is power-walking across Rodeo Drive. She stops at an espresso bar for a bottle of water and a bottle of what she thinks is sugar-free iced tea but turns out to be the real stuff.
She chugs the caloric version with a shrug and continues her race across a blur of boutiques -- Cartier, Tiffany, Gianfranco Ferre. She does not linger.
This was hardly the plan. The Miss Universe people scheduled window-shopping on Rodeo Drive as part of a Day in the Life of a Reigning Miss. But this Miss, Alicia Machado, the beauty queen who rose to international fame by putting on a few pounds, is in no mood to follow orders.
"I laughed when they told me they were bringing us to Rodeo Drive so you could see what my day is like," the 20-year-old Machado tells a reporter in mid-trot.
Machado wants the world to know she is not a fixture in this prohibitively posh district. "It's not like they pay me enough to come to Rodeo Drive," she says.
"If you want to see a real day in the life,' you'd have to get up at 4 so that you can be in a limo by 4:30, go to the airport, get on a plane, fly for 13 or 14 hours to wherever so that you can be received by another boring press conference and whatever other duties they have planned for you, then get to your hotel room at 1 in the morning so that you can start all over again the next day."
If the crown she won sometimes causes her misery, at least she knows it won't last much longer. Tonight Machado will pass on the crown to the next Miss Universe at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
It's not a moment too soon, as far as she's concerned. She's tired of being beleaguered about her weight, tired of the endless personal appearances in the name of the crown, tired of holding her breath while her real career beckons.
She's raring to move on to an acting career, hoping to start out by doing Mexican telenovelas, like Thalia, the queen of the novelas. In fact, she's been told she bears a resemblance to Thalia, and this pleases her.
The only thing in her way is finishing the commitment she bought into when she took that satin-sashed victory walk down a Las Vegas runway last May.
"Don't get me wrong," says Machado, the fourth Miss Venezuela to win the title. Only the United States has won it more, with six Miss USAs who have gone on to be Miss Universe. "It's been a great opportunity. I have become known throughout the world, which is what I wanted."
She allows that the Miss Universe experience has been a great acting camp. She already knows what to do when she's in front of a camera. She has gotten plenty of experience dealing with the press. And she has learned that the fantasy of being in the limelight sometimes clashes with the reality.
All the attention she has gotten has been fine, but Machado says she is way over the whole Miss Universe thing by now, and she doesn't care who knows that.
"I am tired of depending on what this one or that one tells me to do," says Machado. "I am tired of finding time for my private life only when they say I can. I want to make a movie if I want, not make it if I don't. Right now, if they say, Alicia, throw yourself out of that window,' I have to do it. Because that's what they pay me for. If you endorse a product, they get the money, not you."
For their trouble, Miss Universes are set up with a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills for the course of their one-year reign. They get $200,000 in cash and prizes, including a $40,000 salary, another $37,500 in cash awards, plus perks like a $1,000 shoe wardrobe from Payless Shoesource, a "generous supply" of cosmetics from Jolie de Vogue, a "fabulous, fun-filled vacation" from the Stratosphere Tower & Casino in Las Vegas, and a new Saturn coupe.
Miss Universes are obliged to share their apartment with an appointed roommate (whom the pageant people prefer you not call a chaperon). Roomie pays the bills, does the groceries and otherwise hangs out to ensure that everything remains kosher. While Miss Universes are allowed to date, for example, sleepovers are a serious no-no.
"I'm not worried about that rule," says Machado. "It's not like they give me enough time to date at all."
Since shopping Rodeo Drive seems "ridiculous" to her, Machado instead heads for a discount place a couple of blocks off the ritzy drag. She's in search of the toner she uses to keep her complexion beauty-queen perfect. But the place is out of it. So she heads next door to Victoria's Secret but decides she can't really shop for underwear with a reporter, photographer and Miss Universe publicist in tow.
No matter, for according to the schedule, it's time for lunch. Machado, though, just says no. "I'm not hungry. I eat breakfast at 11. I don't eat again until 3 or 4. I'm not going to eat lunch right now because Miss Universe wants me to."
She's led to a hip Italian cafe anyway, just to get her to sit still for a while. By way of lunch, she sips the bottle of water she's been toting.
Sitting there in her black stretch workout clothes, accented by a piercingly blue warm-up jacket, the 5-foot-9 Machado looks downright thin.
She's skinny again, though not quite as skinny as when she won her title. But back then, when she was declared the most beautiful woman in the world, she was just beginning her fight back from what she describes as the beauty-pageant plague.
"I was anorexic and bulimic, but almost all of us are," Machado says without so much as a blink. "When I was preparing for Miss Universe, it was an obsession for me to not gain weight. By the time I won, I was actually recovering. But the year leading to it, I didn't eat at all. And whatever I ate, I threw up. I weighed 116 pounds when I won. I was skeletal."
The three weeks of events leading to the Universe pageant were torture, she says, because of all the meals she had to dodge. "There were lunches and dinners and just food and more food. I had to pretend to have headaches and menstrual cramps and anything I could think of to not come down from my hotel room."
According to American Medical Association charts, she was nine pounds below a healthy weight when she won. In fact, it was when her weight was reported to have started ballooning, and the rumors started flying about her losing her crown if she didn't drop some weight, that she actually was within the healthy range.
By February, Newsweek and People were saying she had swelled to more than 160 pounds.
"That's ridiculous," says Machado. "I gained 19 pounds. And now most of it is off again."
Donald Trump, a partner in the company that purchased the Miss Universe Pageant early this year, himself told People she put on more than that. "When you win a beauty pageant," he said, "people don't think you're going to go from 118 to 160 in less than year, and you really have an obligation to stay in a perfect physical state."
But don't get Machado started about Trump. She's still fuming about what he lured her into at the end of January.
"I asked him to please send me to a trainer or a nutritionist or something because I needed some orientation, and he sends me to a gym in New York," she says. "When I get there, there are 80 reporters waiting to watch me sweat. I thought that was in very bad taste."
No matter what the poundage actually was, the stories about Machado being on the verge of losing her crown were bogus, says Miss Universe President Maureen Reidy. "We did not consider taking away her crown," Reidy says. "We're not about being thin; we're about being physically fit."
She says Machado wasn't gorging herself back then; she gained weight because she had treated her body so badly her metabolism was out of whack. "She said her director in Venezuela had her on an unhealthy diet that did not allow her to eat after noon. She was put under unrealistic restraints."
"She gained weight," counters Osmel Sosa, president of the Miss Venezuela organization and the man who has helped Machado and three others win the Miss Universe title, "because she had no discipline. One time when she came to Venezuela, shortly after winning Miss Universe, she ordered a room service that left me crazy -- a club sandwich, French fries and ice cream!"
Sosa says he never knew Machado to be bulimic.
"She came to do Miss Venezuela after she won a beauty contest in her town," says Sosa. "I told her she had to lose about 10 pounds, and she did. She was dieting and exercising; she wasn't throwing up."
Machado was born and raised in Maracay, Venezuela. Her mother is from Cuba, her father from Spain. "My grandfather was Cuban," she says. "He owned sugar cane plantations, but the family left for Venezuela right before the revolution. We still eat Cuban food at home -- moros, yucca with mojo, things like that."
Machado says her sights have been set on acting from the time she was a little girl taking ballet at a private Catholic school. She won the Miss Maracay title when she was 17 and moved to Caracas to prepare for the Miss Venezuela contest.
"I wanted to compete in Miss Universe because I knew it would open doors," she says.
Now, what she wants more than anything is for the weight debate that has followed her all year to just go away. Not that she's stopped obsessing about her looks. She may be the picture of pulchritude at a size 6, but "if I'm going to have an acting career, I need to be a 4 because cameras make you look fatter than you are."
She won't say exactly how much she intends to weigh when she's finally done dieting, or exactly where she is now: "I don't think I need to be explaining how much I weigh or how much I'm going to weigh."
And beautiful? "I don't think I am," she says. "I mean, I don't think I am one of the most beautiful women in the world. What I think is that I'm talented, which counts for more than beautiful. You have to have talent to stand on a stage in front of 5,000 people and God knows how many cameras. I think that's why I won Miss Universe. But there are much more spectacular-looking women than me."
She plans to stick to the healthy approach to dieting that has helped her trim down in the past few months, she says. "After all of the crazy diets I've done, I think I have come to know my body. I eat a good breakfast, a healthy lunch with lots of protein and fruits and vegetables, and a light dinner. And I walk and jog and go to the gym whenever I have the time."
She plans to take her time, maybe a couple of months, to reach a size 4 but is hoping to shed a couple of pounds more before the internationally televised pageant. "I want the world to see that whatever Alicia Machado proposes, she accomplishes," she says.
Machado loves to cast her title year as the renegade reign.
"I know I gave a different image than most Miss Universes," she says. "I proved that Miss Universes are real women who gain weight and get skinny, who get tired, who get sleepy and, above all, who have opinions. They would prefer Barbie dolls."
But the Miss Universe folks say they are pleased as punch with her.
"She is a champ. I am very proud of her," says pageant president Reidy. "She was 19 when she won. She left her family and her country and her friends and moved to Los Angeles without speaking English. She is a smart girl, she is ambitious and she is hard-working. Probably her only drawback is that she is very young."
Though perhaps not so young that she didn't learn lesson No. 1 of show business: Controversy sells. CAPTION: Outgoing Miss Universe Alicia Machado at her coronation, and at Donald Trump's press setup for her workout, which she found to be "in very bad taste." CAPTION: Outgoing Miss Universe Alicia Machado says she was a "skeletal" 116 pounds when she won. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)