Miss Louisiana USA Candice Bennatt is a Loyola University law student, a former Houston Texans cheerleader, an advocate for victims of domestic violence and — perhaps most controversially in this year’s Miss USA pageant — a woman of Hispanic descent.
But Bennatt (pronounced ben-AY), 26, said she never thought about dropping out of the contest despite Miss Universe/Miss USA owner Donald Trump’s recent comments that many Mexicans coming to the United States are drug users, criminals and rapists.
Given her Puerto Rican roots, she said, she has felt the pressure and received messages from people asking her to explain why she is continuing to vie for Sunday’s crown.
“I don’t agree with everything that Mr. Trump said. And sometimes people misspeak,” she said, though Trump has largely stood by his comments. “He’s a politician and, hey, it’s politics at its finest and he’s running for president of the United States.”
Bennatt’s grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to Texas when she was a teenager. She’s thankful for what her ethnic heritage has given her — like the genetics responsible for her dark features and olive skin, and an NFL Mexico trip she got paid to attend as a cheerleader.
“Being a Latin American and representing Louisiana has really given me a stronger voice,” she said. “We’re extremely hard workers, and I think I’m a testament to that. ... I definitely know the work ethic that Mexican-Americans and other Latin Americans have.”
She said she does agree with Trump on one thing: bringing jobs back to America. Asked if she would vote for him for president, Bennatt said she wants to hear more from the other candidates in the race.
Her top concerns are national security, especially the threat of the Islamic State group, and health care, as a “zero salary” law student.
This year’s Miss USA pageant will be different from the ones before it. It nearly went up in flames after Trump’s inflammatory comments spread and Miss USA lost its national network exposure, all of its hosts and all of its performers.
Over the past week, an array of pageant heroes have come to Miss USA’s rescue. First, the Reelz channel stepped in to broadcast the pageant. WBRZ’s sister station WBTR also announced a local broadcast for the Baton Rouge area.
Organizers also managed to assemble a new cast of hosts, judges and performers this week.
With all of this going on, Bennatt has been introducing the 50 other contestants to the state she now calls home. She insists she has remained unfazed by the drama and controversy.
“It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that everything happens for a reason,” she said.
Bennatt described growing up in a “rickety old home” in Huffman, Texas, north of Houston. Her mother, who raised her, was a full-time teacher and often worked side jobs to pay for Bennatt’s dance and horseback riding lessons.
The family moved to Kingwood in northeast Houston when Bennatt was a teenager, and she finished school there. She went to community college and graduated from Sam Houston State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.
While still an 18-year-old student, Bennatt became a cheerleader for the NFL Houston Texans. She called the feeling of cheering in front of such large crowds exhilarating, and she wonders if she will feel the same way competing in Sunday’s pageant that she felt under the stadium lights.
“It was all about the experience, and because I was so young, I just thought it was really cool to dance and make a little money doing it,” she said.
Bennatt then moved to New Mexico to pursue a master’s degree after working as a plastic surgeon’s surgical assistant. She won the Miss New Mexico crown and competed in the 2013 Miss America pageant, a different organization from Miss USA. She credits the Miss America experience for teaching her public speaking and getting her more involved in philanthropy.
“But who doesn’t love to learn to be more beautiful?” she said when explaining the differences between Miss USA/Miss Universe and Miss America. “That’s what the Miss Universe organization really embodies in all of their women.”
She moved to New Orleans to be near her boyfriend, who brought her five pairs of eyelashes when she started running low a few days ago.
Bennatt spent a year working as a legal assistant in New Orleans before entering the Loyola College of Law, where she just finished her first year.
Last year’s Miss Louisiana USA, Brittany Guidry, said she is especially impressed by Bennatt’s ability to juggle holding the state crown with going to school.
“She’s relatable, and at the same time, she’s done all these spectacular things,” Guidry said.
Guidry and Bennatt met when Guidry crowned her, but the two quickly became close. Guidry — who finished last year’s Miss USA pageant as third runner-up — has been helping Bennatt prepare for this year’s competition.
“I feel like she’s been my sister forever,” Guidry said.
Bennatt testified at a Louisiana Senate Judiciary Committee meeting earlier this year in favor of a bill — later signed into law — to help domestic abuse victims. When she was 16, her boyfriend at the time physically and verbally abused her, she told the legislative panel.
A state ambassador for the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Bennatt she has traveled the nation to speak about domestic violence.
As one of the older and most educated Miss USA contestants, Bennatt considers Sunday’s pageant a celebration of her hard work both in and out of school. If the Miss USA crown with its 33 diamonds, 340 blue sapphires and 112 rubies does not end up on her brunette head, this will be her last pageant.
At the preliminary competition earlier in the week, Bennatt soaked in the spotlight. The home-state favorite drew the loudest applause as she introduced herself, sashayed in her swimsuit and glimmered in her Hollywood-reminiscent evening gown that she is “mildly obsessed with.”
Based on Bennatt’s performance in the preliminary competition, Guidry said, Miss Louisiana USA should once again make the final cut. The final 15 will be announced during the pageant at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Baton Rouge River Center.
“People are like, ‘What’s it like being Miss Louisiana?’ ” Bennatt said. “I couldn’t do it without the fans. I know that sounds really corny and like I’m a big celebrity, but I feel like a Saints player or an LSU football player. ... Louisiana gets behind its teams, and that’s what Louisiana does for me.”