Swelter 30

Show business, the new opiate of the masses, rife with ritualized pageantry and comforting recreational delusions, enveloping and pernicious as a cult. Everyone's favorite industry pursued with the fervor that English intellectuals of the Twenties once brought to the Catholic Church, communism, and buggery, the nuances of devotion lost in the floating bordello of modern America. A twisted Twilight Zone of maddeningly accessible trash celebrity, the celebrated and obscure alike convinced that life is a terminally fascinating Movie of the Week, endlessly lapped up by an ugly but gratifyingly adoring public. The catch being that in the crap shoot of dueling miniseries and conceptual stars, the available witness pool, content to remain quietly on the sidelines, dwindles considerably. The show-business-mirrors-life gestalt all the rage at Univision's fifth annual Nuestra Belleza Beauty Pageant, Latins having a knack for turning every facet of existence -- from politics to barbecues -- into one big Sabado Gigante street fair.

Lots of flash and flesh with an assortment of contestants from Hispanic-heavy cities, the small-town Misses Brownsville and Corpus Christi taking their shot at the beauty big leagues. The audience insistent on being simultaneously fabulous, spawning feeding frenzies of interactive glitz and participatory glamour, led by an amazing parade of fading hot numbers prancing about the Knight Center. On edge in the presence of so much flowering womanhood, wrestling time down to the ground and, by God, beating back the evil fucker. The never-ending oddness of Miami, akin to life on Mars, in full swing: a baroque Roman-Coliseum-meets-Mayan-ruin stage set; cohosts Javier Romero and Nina Sicilia -- attired in an Morticia-a-cha-cha sheer black dress -- providing nonstop ­Que linda! commentary for the cameras. In between the dazzlement of evening gowns and swimsuits, salsa singers and curious Spanish rap acts, mainstream street culture probably the coming thing in Bosnia as well. A highlight coming with teen idol Jerry Rivera, accompanied by smitten nights-of-Salome dancers in tiny miniskirts, sort of a Matt-Helm-goes-South-of-the-Border number.

An insatiable appetite for Pussy Galore exquisitely whetted, ready to wallow in bugle bead dresses and postpageantry splendor with the Latin glitterati in a downstairs banquet room. Jon Secada reminiscing about the "wild night" of the MTV Latino opening, the contestants having their sashes signed like yearbooks ("You are very beautiful") by glamour adjuncts/fey boys in kilts and construction boots, winner Michelle Odette Kindlund ready to carry forth a "New Generation" platform. A bit of Eighties nostalgia with trouper/television personality Mauricio Zeilic, the horn-of-plenty glory days: "It'll all come back, and anyway, we're still here." Geo Darder of Velvet anchoring a table of non-Barbie Doll beauty queens, one girl playfully constructing a faux cock from chorizo sausage and aping the motions of fellatio. Latin paparazzi swarming around and posing with pageant judge Laura Harring, a splendid cross between Barbi Benton and Anita Ekberg, oozing gold lame and cartoon sexuality: "Do you follow the pageants? First it was Miss Texas, then I was the first Mexican girl to win Miss USA, and after that came a two-year detour with Count von Bismarck. Castles, being called countess, all that stuff. He'd been hanging around before, but he just had to marry a Miss USA -- men are that way, don't you think? In '89 there was the International Spokesmodel championship on Star Search, and now Garry Marshall's new $50 million movie, Exit to Eden. It's a wonderful life, isn't it?"

The wonderful life taking curious low-budget turns throughout the week: a camera crew from 48 Hours shooting another come-down-to-Paradise-Lost story, various sordid invitations drifting in.

Bouncing back for a lavish study-in-chic dinner, fashion land survivor and new best friend Thomas Heidemann a long way from his days as a club kid in Berlin with Rainer Fassbinder and such: "This town is nothing but a B-movie, and now I'm a B-movie star." Sliding down the star scale even further with a visit to Warsaw's strip night, the club bringing in comeback legend Boy George this weekend. An enthusiastic Ruby Keeler-style amateur getting his big break in strip stardom, the little scamp offering an enormously erect member to patrons around the bar. Hungry fans reverently petting the beast like a particularly cute cocker spaniel, the truly committed offering fervent kisses of worship under a towel. Nasty enough, but then, the important thing in this business is to keep working.

On to the weekend, lots of work and commitment going into the "Music of the Night" benefit at the Tenth Street Auditorium, hosted by the new United Foundation for AIDS, providing sorely needed medical and counseling services at South Shore Hospital. All in all, a finely tuned evening: the room nicely done up by Barton G. with banners and costumed mannequins, a great Lyon Freres spread underwritten by Frosene Sonderling, the cast from the old-style-knock-'em-dead musical Phantom of the Opera, running at TOPA through December 4, bringing Broadway to the hinterlands, with romance-cum-show-biz laments like "Nothing is so good it lasts for eternity." The crowd A Richard Jay Alexander of the Cameron Mackintosh organization, UFA co-chairmen Al Evans and Martin Shaw, event co-chairperson Norma Jean Abraham, Phantom star Rick Hilsabeck -- in fine form, the dance of society continuing apace. A no doubt flattering remark in the men's room ("I've always wanted to pee next to a real man") followed by a strange encounter with a beyond-nervy woman, stealing a centerpiece -- the old charity ball scam -- before the end of the party. Always somebody ready to lower the tone.

Descending to clubs on Saturday night, somewhat less exalted circumstances. A sustaining dinner at 411, good rare steak and a platter of rich desserts, necessary complex fuel for a marathon run with a cub reporter from South Florida magazine, researching an article on getting into clubs. The depressing masses piling outside Bash, hurtling names onto the portals, one desperate soul insisting that he'd just watched a boxing match with Versace. Warsaw yet again, "Opus" promoter Michael Capponi pulling out of the club that night and setting up temporary headquarters at Les Bains, the usual irreconcilable creative differences. The evening taking a retro turn at Starfish, a 21st birthday treat for cook Scott Simon coming in the form of a dead-ahead stripper of the old school, something of an Ann-Margret type gone astray. Miss Sex lighting matches on her nipples and lap dancing, Simon looking as if someone had just proposed a discount lobotomy, his tormentor dangling the comforting fantasy that all of us pine for: "Hey, don't worry. It's only a movie.

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Tom Austin