On Sept. 21, 2002, one Nevadan moved into a new level of celebrity. On that night, while much of the nation’s television audience watched, Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez was named one of the five finalists in the Miss America contest. She ended up coming in fourth and leaped over number three on total points, tying the second place finisher in scholarship money earned ($44,000 from five competitions).
As Miss Nevada, Benitez became a familiar figure at community events around the state and helped raise money for numerous good works, which she continues to do now that her term has ended, all while she goes to graduate school and serves as an aide to the governor of Michigan. She candidly expresses a wish to run for office someday.
So how do you get people to take you seriously after being a beauty queen? How do you get people to understand that there is a brain under that crown, and beauty is not a synonym for vacuity?
“I think that a lot of people are going to remember the Miss Nevada part, but what I have to educate people about is that I came to be Miss Nevada because of my political and social activism. … [As Miss Nevada] I was talking about very non-sexy issues. I wasn’t talking about very popular issues like literacy; I was talking about the working poor.”
She’s not kidding. Her first adult act after turning the legal age of 18 was to sign the incorporation papers of the Nevada Empowered Women’s Project, which she had co-founded—at age 17.
People who know her tend to talk about her in terms of issues, not swimsuit contests, and throughout her Miss Nevada year, she kept speaking out. She held fund raisers for groups she supported, opposed an anti-gay marriage ballot measure, spoke at a rally at the Nevada Legislature held to support Gov. Kenny Guinn’s social services budget.
She even did it in Atlantic City. Determined not to waste the precious televised forum of the last night of the Miss America contest by playing a musical instrument or doing magic, she stunned viewers—and brought a hush to the convention hall—by delivering a recitation of the courtroom testimony of Dennis Shepherd, whose gay son Matthew was murdered in a 1998 Wyoming hate crime.
At every turn during her “reign,” she defined herself as a person who cares about public policy. By doing it that way, she made the transition from beauty queen back to community activist easier. And, because she did not stay with safe issues, she made herself more of a target.
It has started already. She was criticized in an article called “Unmentionable Vice Goes Mainstream” on an anti-gay Web page. She has also been faced with those who believe a beauty queen with opinions must be on strings—certainly she can’t simply be a strong, smart woman. It’s a little like those who, when faced with Helen Keller’s outspoken political views, attributed them to the “poor blind girl” being manipulated by others. Former Las Vegas newspaper columnist Ken Ward ran a nasty piece saying Benitez had been “co-opted by left wingers,” that she is the “latest poster girl of political correctness,” and that her opinions are “sophomoric and socialistic.”
That characterization of her views, which are entirely mainstream, is preposterous, but she has been very forceful and outspoken in expressing them. That may offend some who don’t agree with them, but she hasn’t yet learned to speak circumspectly and cautiously like a 20-year career politician.
Moreover, characterizations like Ward’s can’t withstand exposure to her in person. When she engages in give and take or serves on a panel where she must defend her positions, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a mind at work and that it works very well. All that pageant money she won, for instance, was in categories that emphasize intellect—awards with names like “Overall Knowledge,” “Community Achievement,” “On Stage Knowledge” and so on.
Nor has she turned away from being a Latina. She talks often to community gatherings about her heritage and her family, which seem to have a lot to do with her preference for economic issues and the problems of low-income women over trendier issues like abortion. Her voice fills with whimsy and pride when she speaks of her hardworking, up-from-poverty family.
“During my year as Miss Nevada, I got up there, and I had no shame about telling the story of my family because I’m not ashamed by what happened. I am more proud of my mother than anyone else in the whole wide world because of how hard she worked, and my grandparents who took on the responsibility of helping us out. To me that demonstrates the strength of the family, and I don’t think we should be ashamed of those stories.”