Miss Nevada places fourth in Miss America competition | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Miss Nevada places fourth in Miss America competition

When Teresa Benitez competed in her first pageant at 19, she was sure her tall, thin competitor with long, blond hair would win.

But she was “absolutely and completely surprised” when she was crowned Miss Sparks.

“It ended up that the little brown girl won,” she said. “It’s because I pulled a great interview.”

At 24, Benitez showed the same tenacity last week when she was selected as third runner-up in the Miss America competition, insisting it is not a beauty contest.

“I am so proud of our Miss America,” she said. “She wasn’t the prettiest girl onstage. She wasn’t the thinnest girl. However, if you’re idea of beauty is someone who is ambitious and talented and someone who is passionate about her cause, then she was the most beautiful.”

Raised with her two sisters by their single mother and grandparents, Benitez competed in Miss Sparks to earn scholarship money.

Benitez continued to pay for her education at the University of Nevada, Reno, through scholarships won in the Miss Nevada competition.

It took five years, but she finally won the crown and is ready to begin her reign.

She is planning a statewide tour to encourage students, especially Latinos, not to drop out of school.

“There was a time when I was considered an at-risk kid,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t a throw-away. I knew I had to find my place. I had to grow into myself.”

One of her greatest accomplishments came when she co-founded the Nevada Empowered Women’s Project when she was 17. The project, dedicated to helping women overcome poverty, will celebrate its fifth anniversary this year.

Another part of finding herself, she said, came while competing in the Miss Nevada competition.

For the first three years, she performed the typical song and dance routine for the talent portion.

Then she decided to perform a dramatic interpretation — a skill she perfected in high school.

Against all odds — the last Miss America to perform dramatic interpretation was in the 1940s — she decided to perform a monologue comprised of speeches from Dennis Sheppard, the father of a gay student killed in a hate crime.

“I thought I have one shot at going to Miss America, I’m going to do what I do best,” she said. “I chose that one because it has a message of acceptance and tolerance. It hits home to me.”

Benitez was the first Miss Nevada to make it into the top 10 in the Miss America pageant in 14 years and the first contestant ever to win a competition each of the four nights before the final crowning.

Next to Miss America, Benitez walked away with the most scholarship money. She earned $44,000, which she will use to pay for a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.

Once finished, she plans to pursue a career in politics by running for the Nevada Assembly or Senate where she will focus on finding help for working families living at the poverty level.

She credits her own working family, struggling in poverty, with her success.

“While most people can name one mentor, I can easily name like 10,” she said. “There were so many people telling me five years ago — when I was 30 pounds heavier, with a frizzy perm and a mouth that shot off probably too often — that I could be Miss America.”

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