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Is Miss N.M. Really a Texan?

No one denied she was beautiful.

Candice Bennatt had that winning blend of poise, purity and perkiness. Pageant judges and the public alike were charmed by her intelligence, luxurious dark hair and lithe body honed by years of dancing and a stint as an NFL cheerleader for the Houston Texans.

And, oh, that smile.

She was perfect.

She came out of nowhere — which is to say Texas — to win the Miss Ruidoso title on March 31, besting a skimpier-than-expected field of just three contestants.

The Ruidoso win made Bennatt, then 22, eligible to compete for the Miss New Mexico crown. At the state pageant held June 23, again in Ruidoso, she beat out 18 other local queens.

It was a step closer to her dream of becoming Miss America (that’s the scholarship-awarding one, not Donald Trump’s glitzier Miss USA, though both have women parade around in swimsuits and butt tape).

Bennatt, raised by a single mom in a Houston suburb, had competed in pageants since she was a teen in braces, amassing crowns and sashes across Texas from Arlington to Austin.

In November 2010, she was crowned Miss Dallas, and on July 1, 2011, she competed for the title of Miss Texas, her ticket to Miss America.

“I will be Miss Texas one day,” she confidently told the Dallas Monthly News. “I know that I can be Miss America.”

But Texas is tiara country, where thousands of little girls grow up obsessed with big hair and body image, and “There She Is, Miss America” is a nightly lullaby.

Bennatt made it to fourth runner-up.

And then she moved to New Mexico.

Or not.

And this is where we need to understand a few pageant principles. Traveling contestants — known in pageant circles as carpetbaggers or state hoppers — aren’t doing anything inherently wrong.

They needn’t ever step foot in the town they hope to represent until competition begins if a local pageant is “open,” as in the case for Miss Ruidoso.

But they must show proof that they have lived in the state for at least six months.

“To clarify, it is always possible that a young lady from another state who is here legally according to our contract can become Miss New Mexico,” said Carol Henry, executive director of the Miss New Mexico organization. “There is not a rule that she must have been born and raised in the state where she is competing.”

In Bennatt’s case, state pageant officials say she moved to a family member’s home in Angel Fire in July 2011, eight months before the Ruidoso pageant. She also provided a New Mexico driver’s license obtained in August 2011, still ahead of the six-month rule.

Still, there were rumors and questions in pageant circles, concerns similar to those raised in a scandal that erupted last month in Oregon, when its reigning beauty was forced to relinquish her crown after nosy news folks and bloggers found out she had not moved from California by the six-month deadline.

Why was there no public record of Bennatt’s employment or education in New Mexico? Why did she leave Texas in the middle of her reign as Miss Dallas?

And there were her tweets. Bennatt, it appears, is a very social social-media butterfly, and some of her remarks on Twitter raised eyebrows.

A July 12, 2011, tweet explains how she is “so stoked” for a job interview; a tweet a week later proclaims that she is a “working girl.”

That work is believed to have been in the office of a Houston surgeon.

A Nov. 2, 2011, tweet contains a photo of her desk at work with a Transformer toy atop it.

But Henry said those tweets have been “misinterpreted.”

She said Bennatt moved to Angel Fire to lie low after a broken relationship, the apparent reason for Bennatt’s lack of work or school documentation.

“Candice allowed herself time to re-evaluate her goals and aspirations in life,” Henry said. “As time went on, she realized that being a titleholder would allow her a voice. And with encouragement from friends, she re-entered the pageant world as a contestant in New Mexico.”

And just in time. This is Bennatt’s last shot at Miss America. She’ll be 25 by the deadline of the next pageant cycle — too old to compete.

Henry would not allow me to see Bennatt’s proof of residency, nor would she allow me to speak with Bennatt, saying that the both of them are “tired” of answering the eligibility question.

“Our winner should not be surrounded by controversy,” Henry wrote in an email. “She should be welcomed, invited to speak to civic clubs and used as a great role model to our schoolchildren. Our phone should be constantly ringing asking for an appearance from Miss New Mexico because she is an example for everyone to aspire to.”

OK, fine. But in a state as beautiful as New Mexico, it’s hard to believe someone more “homegrown” couldn’t be found to represent it. This isn’t Lobo basketball, where stars from out of state are recruited.

Then again, maybe this is what this aging competition has become, winning to stay alive and relevant even if it means looking across the border for what wins.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal