A Playboy Model's Cinderella Story

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"I was touched by a magic wand," says 28-year-old Maria de Lujan Telpuk of the incident that changed her life. Not that it turned the former kindergarten teacher into the sort of princess that appeared in the fairy tales she might once have read to her class — Telpuk's meteoric rise to national fame was consecrated by her naked appearance on the cover of February's Argentina edition of Playboy. But it's the suitcase she's holding in that photograph, bearing the flags of Argentina and Venezuela, and the cover line "Corruption Laid Bare" that reveal the story of how she became a household name.

The "magic wand" that touched Telpuk's life came last August, in the form of a suitcase crammed with three quarters of a million dollars. Not that she kept the money — on the contrary, it's the fact that she chose to blow the whistle on its owner rather than seek a bribe to remain silent that made her something of a folk heroine.

The suitcase in question came into Telpuk's life in the wee hours of a late shift she'd been asked to work as a security officer in Argentina's National Aeronautics Police (PAN), stationed in the VIP section of a Buenos Aires airport. Scanning the luggage of passengers debarking a flight from Venezuela, she noticed one that was densely packed with rectangular shapes. On inspection, they turned out to be bricks of bank-notes amounting to $790,550. "He didn't seem to be particularly nervous," says Telpuk of the bag's owner, Venzuelan-American businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a resident of Key Biscayne with alleged links to President Hugo Chavez and a taste for red Ferraris. "He acted perfectly natural until I ordered him to open the bag. Then he did become uncomfortable and at first he didn't react, so I had to insist, I made him carry the bag over to a nearby table and ordered him to open it. He then unzipped the bag halfway and opened it just slightly to let me have a peek."

Telpuk says she nearly fell over. "I had never seen so much money together in my life." Because the legal limit of undeclared cash that visitors are allowed to bring in to Argentina is $10,000, Telpuk alerted her superiors and Antonini Wilson was whisked away for questioning. Within days, however, the businessman had departed for Florida, amid rumours in the press that the money had been an illegal contribution from Chavez for the electoral campaign of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Both leaders denied the charge, with the Argentinean president suggesting it was part of a U.S. plot to embarrass Chavez. "People have accused me of being a secret CIA operative somehow involved in this alleged conspiracy," says Telpuk.

But for Telpuk, it was simply a case of doing her job. "I still don't understand what Antonini Wilson expected to happen when he opened that suitcase," she says. "Maybe he thought I would ask for a bribe and that would be the end of it." That may have been a fair assumption, on his part, given the notorious corruption among Argentine customs agents. But among her fellow agents, Telpuk had a reputation for naive honesty. "Once a passenger dropped a huge wad of dollar bills on my counter and didn't notice, I chased after him down the runway waving his money in the air. At the airport they teased me continually after that for being such a goody-good."

In a country where corruption is considered a dreary fact of life, Telpuk's simple decision to do her job rather than taking a bribe struck a popular chord. "I'm not unlike millions of other women who just do their job," she says.

Perhaps, although she has certainly used the incident to transform her life into something quite unlike that of millions of other women. She resigned from her police job, underwent breast augmentation surgery ("I had always wanted it, my brother paid for it, I am paying him back in installments") and parlayed her beauty, and the media attention she garnered over the suitcase incident, into the beginnings of a show business career. She has been training to become a professional ice-skater, hoping to join the cast of the popular Skating for a Dream TV program. "I am also being considered for vaudeville," she says. "I don't know if I want to dress up in feathers, but I'm seriously thinking about it. What I would really like is to become an actress."

Her next appearance, though, is on the cover of the March issue of the Venezuelan edition of Playboy, although she has declined an invitation to visit Caracas to promote the spread. "I don't know if Chavez would be pleased," she says. "Can you imagine Chavez or Antonini Wilson looking at the pictures of me naked? I'm sure they'll be surprised, I just hope they're not too mad at me."

On a darker note, Telpuk has received a series of threats. "I get death threats on the phone," she says. "Also, one day I arrived home and there was a bunch of yellow roses waiting for me. I thought it was a secret admirer." But when she looked at the note, Telpuk read: "Enjoy them while you can, because you won't be able to once you're in a coffin." Good thing she learned to shoot in the police academy.