Men in white guayaberas starched parchment-crisp escorted women in evening gowns into the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana as night fell on November 15. Backstage, teenage girls twittered nervously in front of makeup mirrors, the scent of powder and hairspray floating on a chemical perfume cloud. By the end of the night, 800 elegant onlookers would crowd the theater, and one of the girls would be crowned the new Miss Cuban-American.
Some people familiar with the pageant say the lucky winner might not be so lucky. To her relief, Justine Llanes's reign as Miss Teen Cuban-American ended that same night. Llanes says pageant organizer Mario Princigalli beguiles contestants with talk of a "one-time entrance fee," squeezes as much cash out of them as he can with last-minute extra charges, and then, in some cases, fails to award a promised $2000 prize. "I never got my money," she says. Neither did Ely Viera.
Viera was actually crowned Miss Teen Cuban-American 2003, and Llanes, who was 16 at the time, won Miss Petite Cuban-American 2003 at last year's pageant. But Princigalli stripped Viera of her title and paid her no money. The Miss Cuban-American Website (http://reina_mca.tripod.com) contains this explanation:
"Unfortunately, the pageant directors had to make a tough decision of release her title and crown from her. Reason behind this action is because Ely was unable to fulfill her duties in participating and appearing in important events due to personal difficulties."
A former pageant judge, speaking on the condition of anonymity, echoes Llanes's complaints. "He always finds a way to strip his queen of her title, or there's always a conflict and either she walks away, or he strips her of her title. Either way, he doesn't have to pay."
Princigalli, a baby-faced 46-year-old, promotes his pageant as "elegant and cultured" and stresses an educational angle. ("Our target is girls in school with plans to continue their education," he says.) Somehow, though, Justine Llanes wound up appearing at such highbrow events as the Miami Motorcycle Show.
Lisa Llanes halted most contact between Princigalli and her daughter after several disagreements and what she felt was inappropriate behavior on his part. "He was always putting his arm around me and calling me sexy, especially if my boyfriend was around," says Justine. The only contact the Llaneses had with him for the last several weeks of Justine's tenure as Miss Teen Cuban-American was at the pageant where she handed over her crown.
The mother and daughter are no strangers to pageant culture. Justine has been, at varying times, Miss Our Town America, Miss Teen Hialeah, and Miss South Florida Sophisticate. They've seen most of what the South Florida pageant circuit has to offer, and they say they've never run into a character like Princigalli. Signs of trouble came early -- before the pageant, in fact. Despite having paid the entrance fee, the Llaneses were hit with unexpected charges for a bathing suit and dress to be worn in the show. "He charged $30 for the dresses, but when he handed them out he accidentally left a price tag on one of them," says Lisa. "It said eight dollars." Princigalli also handed out twenty tickets to the contestants, telling them that if they didn't sell all twenty for ten dollars apiece, they'd be disqualified. "Three girls didn't sell all of their tickets last year," Justine says. "He sent them home the day of the pageant."
The former judge says Princigalli takes all comers, including those whose connection to Cuba is dubious, and girls with no pageant experience who have no chance of winning. "He's looking for the money. He fills their heads with all this nonsense about how they could win and be a model. Some of them don't have much money, and I've seen their parents pay out a lot of money when they don't have a shot of winning."
The entrepreneur, whose height roughly equals his girth, was clearly in his element on the night of the pageant in November. Dressed in a black, long-sleeved guayabera, he caromed around the theater like an eight-ball, greeting nervous parents, welcoming visitors, rushing backstage to issue orders to "his girls." The contest consists of a pre-pageant interview by a panel of judges, evening gown and swimsuit competitions, and one onstage question of the generic, "If-chosen-how-will-you-represent-the-title" variety.
He denies any impropriety, saying all the girls are alerted to all charges in advance. He also says the Llaneses weren't due any money "because Justine wasn't the original Miss Teen Cuban-American."
"There are always going to be people who complain," Princigalli says. "We've been doing this for twenty years, so we must know what we're doing."
Nathalie Pozo, Miss Cuban-American 2002, backs up the pageant's organizer. Sort of. Pozo says her year-long reign was problem-free, but is vague when it comes to her compensation in prizes. "There was supposed to be one year of acting school, but I never really did that. And one free year of modeling school, but I was already involved with an agency, so I didn't really do that," she says. And the $2000 scholarship? "There was a $1000 scholarship I think, and I think it went to FIU (for tuition)," says the former FIU student.
Princigalli, when asked about prize money, didn't know Pozo was apparently covering for him, and admitted that he hasn't paid her. "She hasn't gotten her scholarship yet," Princigalli says of last year's Miss Cuban-American. He adds, inexplicably: "But I'm just about to give it to her, probably at a breakfast with a lot of people, because I want witnesses there." He is incredulous that Pozo would have anything decent to say about him, and mentions some hard feelings over a May trip to Mexico for a planned pageant appearance. Pozo left Mexico and came back to the States before the appearance. "She said the arrangements weren't right, but I think maybe she's a little spoiled. She wasn't woman enough to handle the situation." Pozo's parents financed the trip, paying for their daughter as well as Princigalli.
"I stayed and had a great time," he says. "Five days in Mexico. I had a blast."
According to the former pageant judge, contestants' parents subsidize a lot of Princigalli's activity. "The parents of last year's winner bought the crown for the winner this year, because they heard Mario complaining about how he didn't have any money. And the sashes were made by another girl's mom, with iron-on letters. She didn't charge him for the labor."
The pageant, founded by Mario Princigalli's mother Gloria, will have its twentieth anniversary in 2004. Her successor, though, still appears to be learning the business. For instance, although his Website calls the pageant "a non-profit organization," Princigalli says he's never filed for tax-exempt status. "We're a nonprofit, like we don't make a profit," he explains. "All the money from the pageant goes to the scholarships. But I am incorporated."
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He says about 800 people paid twenty dollars each to attend the pageant in November. The pageant cost "maybe about $4000, or maybe more," according to Princigalli. Even without the contestants' entry fees, sponsorships (there are no major corporate sponsors for the pageant), or program sales at the pageant, there should have been a considerable profit.
"Money gets eaten up with this kind of thing. Money and time," laments Princigalli. "But this year should be good. The girl I have this year, she's really great."
When pressed, he says times are hard for the pageant. "Sometimes there's not enough money for the scholarships. I'm definitely not making any money," says Princigalli, who claims to work part-time as a PBX operator at South Miami Hospital to support himself and his mother, with whom he lives. South Miami Hospital spokesperson Bethany Rundell says there's no record of any Princigalli working there. "He lives with mommy, and she gets some kind of check every month, and he lives off of the pageant," says the former judge.