Candice Bennatt talks to OutSmart before the July 12 Miss USA Pageant.
By Donalevan Maines
Miss Louisiana-USA loves her gays. Surely, all 51 contestants in the July 12 telecast of the Miss USA Pageant have the sense to love their gays, too, but Houston gays have known Miss Louisiana-USA Candice Bennatt all of her life. “Texas has always been my home, and I grew up dancing, surrounded by gay men, so I have always felt really at home with gay men,” says Bennatt (pronounced ben-NAY).
The half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican beauty grew up in Huffman; at 14, she and her mother moved to Kingwood, where she was a teen beauty queen and danced on the high-school drill team. “My parents love how gay men improved the quality of my life and gave me a broader range of experience,” says Bennatt. “My mom is so grateful for gay men helping me evolve and become a better person.”
Bennatt especially credits out Texan Gregg McCoy with helping guide her to success in pageants. “I consider Gregg my gay best friend and my pageant mentor,” she explains. “He is always in my corner 110 percent, and he is an excellent person to help me with interview and wardrobe. He never tells me what to wear; he just tells me what he thinks looks best. I value his opinion, and he’s just so positive. I feel so blessed, because that is such a rare quality in the pageant world—you are constantly being criticized, but when Gregg is critiquing you, he is so compassionate and charismatic.”
In 2010, Bennatt was Miss Houston and placed eighth at the Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant, which picks the Lone Star State’s representative to the granddaddy of all pageants, Miss America. Her director was Sheila Milner, and she was dressed by out Houstonians Albert Luiz and Amin Kabani of Wardrobe the Boutique and An Albert Luiz Salon & Spa, which are both in Sugar Land.
Two years later, Bennatt ascended to the Miss America Pageant, but not as Miss Texas. “I moved to New Mexico,” she explains. “It was a really difficult time. My boyfriend suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, from being overseas serving our country; he had a lot of internal issues that we just couldn’t get past, so we called it off. I took the leap of moving to another state, to get a master’s degree in nutrition, and in the process I entered Miss New Mexico and won.”
Friends from Houston were among Bennatt’s fans who jetted to the Land of Enchantment to cheer her victory, then to the Las Vegas strip in Paradise, Nevada, where she competed for Miss America 2013 (before the pageant returned last year to Atlantic City, New Jersey). “Miss America was a dream come true,” says Bennatt, “and it better prepared me to be Miss USA.”
Bennatt didn’t place at Miss America, but she returned to New Mexico and helped grow the state’s scholarship program by leaps and bounds.
After crowning her successor, Bennatt moved to New Orleans—home of the beignet (pronounced ben-YAY)—at the invitation of her new beau, Jack D. Walker. “He owns and operates Slap Ya Mama,” she says, explaining that the popular Cajun seasoning is considered so good “it will make you slap ya Mama.”
“It is a term of endearment,” explains Bennatt, who represented Walker’s hometown, Ville Platte, at Miss Louisiana-USA. Ville Platte (the home of Slap Ya Mama) is a smoked-meats capital that boasts a modern-day jousting tournament, Floyd’s Record Shop, and Chicot State Park.
JJ Smith, a pageant interview coach and owner of Think Twice Fashions in Bellaire, was among the out Houstonians who saw Bennatt crowned Miss Louisiana-USA.
Bennatt just completed her first year of study at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, and she now has her sights set on winning Miss USA. “I am preparing, packing, and ready to roll,” Bennatt said before she left June 28 for Baton Rouge, where the pageant is being held for the second consecutive year.
At missusa.com, Bennatt’s pageant biography reports: “Candice Bennatt is a graduate of Sam Houston State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology [with] a minor in communications. She is a former NFL cheerleader [for the Houston Texans] with several dance awards to her credit. She has modeled for several couture designers including [out pageant legend] Stephen Yearick. Candice received a substantial scholarship to Loyola University New Orleans College of Law where she is currently pursuing a career in patent and trademark law. Her ultimate career goal is to be a legal analyst for a major news network where she can combine her love for the law and public speaking. Candice is the state ambassador for the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, where she shares her story to educate others on domestic/dating violence awareness and prevention. Her goal as Miss Louisiana-USA is to inspire others to strive for their own success as Candice strives to be the next Miss USA and Miss Universe. Her hobbies include dance, fitness, and playing with her two Dobermans and [a] Chihuahua.”
The reference to “her story” in regards to domestic/dating violence includes “a relationship that ended up being unhealthy,” says Bennatt, when she was a student at Kingwood High School. Other than that, Bennatt says, she was “a bubbly, friendly, spirited girl” who enjoyed performing with the Kingwood Fillies dance team.
McCoy met Bennatt when she was a teen, and he remembers their most intense undertaking was preparing her (as Miss Dallas) for the 2011 Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant. “I was on the board of the Miss Dallas Pageant,” explains McCoy. “That is where I had the pleasure of working directly with Candice,” who achieved her greatest success in Texas that year, finally cracking the Top 5 after two years in the Top 10.
“She really is such a joy to be around,” says McCoy, a favorite son of Longview, Texas, who now lives in Dallas. “We’ve laughed together, cried together, and created memories I will cherish for years to come. I look at Candice like the daughter I never had. I love her dearly.”
The pageant will be televised 7–10 p.m., July 12, on the Reelz network. For more info, visit missusa.com.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.