If Laryssa Bonacquisti’s plans go as expected, she’ll likely spend her career speaking in front of television cameras. Compared with what the 2017 Miss Louisiana does in pageants, that may seem easy.
After all, TV news networks let broadcasters move their lips. Not that she would have to.
Bonacquisti is a ventriloquist, a talent the student at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and Shreveport resident will be showcasing when she competes in the Miss America Pageant on Sept. 6-10 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
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An entertainment genre that had its heyday in the vaudeville era, ventriloquism was a staple of golden-era television children’s and variety shows.
Bonacquisti, 22, is too young to have experienced that. But she’s spent most of her life working on the skill, which she learned in a pageant world that she was pretty much born into. Her mother, Lynette Falls Bonacquisti, was Miss New Jersey 1990, and the young Laryssa participated in children’s competitions.
When Bonacquisti was 6, she met Cindy Elizondo, who was competing for Miss Texas and was a classical pianist who also did ventriloquism.
“One day, this girl looks at me and says, ‘I want to teach Laryssa ventriloquism,’” Bonacquisti said. “Of course, I could barely spell my last name, much less ventriloquism, but she was, like, ‘I really want to teach you this skill. I don’t want this art to die out.’
“I picked it up fairly quickly. My mom saw the uniqueness of this talent and saw that it could impact a wide variety of people and take me far. It was something that was different. I enjoyed it.”
One of the tricks to ventriloquism, she said, is replacing consonants that require lip movement — like b, p, m and v — with similar sounds so that the audience doesn't hear the difference.
Bonacquisti developed her skills to the point that, at 13, she was discovered by former “America’s Got Talent” winner Terry Fator, who invited her to open a show he was having in Fort Worth, Texas, shortly before he started performing in Las Vegas.
Like Elizondo, Bonacquisti said she has introduced ventriloquism to younger pageant competitors, including Darci Lynne Farmer, who earned a “Golden Buzzer” — a straight ticket to the live competition — on the current season of “America’s Got Talent.”
On her way to the Miss Louisiana title in June, Bonacquisti won the talent portion of the competition with her ventriloquism puppets, Lucy and Lucky, yodeling and singing in three voices, including her own. She also won the swimsuit competition.
Her lighthearted performances are in contrast to her deadly serious fundraising platform as Miss Louisiana. Two days after competing in the 2016 Miss Louisiana pageant, Bonacquisti was told that her grandmother, Laveron Falls, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“Whenever she was diagnosed, my immediate response was, ‘We’re going to fight this, right?’” Bonacquisti said. “Mom looked at me and said, ‘You do realize pancreatic cancer is strong. It is powerful. We’re going to fight this, but it’s going to be hard.’ They gave her seven months to live.
“I didn’t realize how hard that cancer was. I didn’t know anything about it.”
What she would learn was sobering. Pancreatic cancer is often detected late, spreads rapidly and is usually fatal. Even patients whose cancer is caught early — and, like most, Falls’ was not — have a five-year survival rate of less than 15 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Falls, 82, stayed active and mentally sharp and outlived her prognosis by two months before she died on March 22.
During her year as Miss Louisiana, Bonacquisti is supporting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to raise money for research to develop screening to find if people are genetically predisposed for pancreatic cancer, develop diagnostic techniques and improved treatment. Bonacquisti calls her effort Team Charlotte for the first name she shares with both her grandmother and mother, who all go by their middle names.
“It’s a scary disease, but you have to face it head-on,” she said. “Her fight inspired me to get involved.”