HONOREE #2: Denny Mendez, Miss Italy 1997
Miss Italy 1997
Indeed, it would have been a "victory upon a victory", but it was not meant to be.
One sole factor sparked a controversy even among the judges! Denny Mendez, the first black Miss Italia, earned the title but despite her lack of support, she rose to high ranks as one of five Miss Italy's placing in the top 5 at the Miss Universe pageant in 1997. Italy has yet to win the crown and they are the highest ranking country in the list of "Who Has the Most Miss Universes" without a winner.
This page is dedicated to a participant who could have sparked even greater controversy had she won the Miss Universe title solely because of her skin color and the fact that she did not bear the resemblance of most Italians. Born in the Dominican Republic, Denny moved to Florence at the age of ten and is currently a highly acclaimed fashion model. Despite her preliminary interview score, I believe that Denny did have the smarts to make it to the top but it seemed as if this controversy forced her to pull herself back and see the Miss Universe Pageant as a place to have fun.
The site was Miami Beach, Florida, USA. Ribbons flashed in the air in a spectacular array of color and beauty which was further enhanced with the ebony enchantress, Denny Mendez. Originally, it was anticipated that this pageant would have beaten the record for having the most delegates but the end result was 74 delegates participants due to some unfortunate dropouts which was a significant drop considering the highest numbers in the last five years. The sounds of "Party Time (You'll Be Mine)" by Gloria Estefan were blaring causing the entire audience to move to the beat. Denny was no exception. She was all over the place dancing and running around as if she was having the time of her life. The opening number saw her running up the stairs and standing in the middle of the stage when the delegates did the wave. She may have missed her turn because she turned away but Denny didn't care, she just ran on waving her hands in the air having so much fun. During the parade of nations, Denny, who was wearing a beige high cut dress with a white top showing off her fabulous legs. Her bio on the website said that she was 5'9" but she certainly looked taller than that! Her big beautiful frizzy black hair may have had something to do with that and, of course, Denny's dark skin glistened in the light. When it came her turn to speak, she had her hands on hips and in a very sudden not so fun and rather conceited tone she uttered, "My name is Denny Mendez, I came from ITALIA." As you can tell the emphasis was on the word, ITALIA. Denny wasn't going to say Italy just from the Americans. Nonetheless, she succeeded her statement with a snobbish nose in the air and uplifting of the head to say either "I'm so great" or "I'm representing Italy and there's nothing you can do about it!!" You go, Denny!!
Her preliminary scores were 9.31 for swimsuit which was 2nd place succeeding Miss Curaçao, 9.47 for the evening gown which was again 2nd place succeeding Miss Curaçao and a shocking low 8.73 for the interview which was well below the interview scores of the other nine finalist, even Miss Estonia! From these scores, one could easily tell that it was her body that got her in. Denny's preliminary scores ranked her in 4th place overall which was below Curaçao, Panama, and USA. She could have beaten these ladies with a higher interview score but Denny definitely had something to say and you could see it coming.
As the top ten semifinalists were announced by the oh-so-slow George Hamilton, Denny was called in spot number 6. I loved her genuine reaction. I would assume that Denny is used to hearing Italia rather than Italy and George said her name with an incorrect intonation, and she just started clapping as if it was for some other delegate. She must have daydreaming, but then suddenly she realized it was her and she cowered a little bit as Miss Belgium, Laurence Borremans, tapped her on the elbow. Denny instantly clasped her hands on her chest and she acted like she felt silly and Miss Belgium also gave a silly laugh and shook her head in craziness of the situation and Denny joined the other ladies in the top ten. Marla Maples Trump said, "She was a big crowd favorite during the preliminaries so expect her to shine tonight." I also noticed that upon seeing Verna Vasquez, Miss Curaçao, I think Denny was surprised because she looked at her in a suggestive manner when Verna stepped beside her and Denny knew she had a competition on her hands. The semifinalists were all announced and the competition was under way.
The first competition for the top ten ladies was the interview competition. When Denny's turn came she walked out in a long black gown which was somewhat loose in the middle but looked fantastic. George also emphasized that she was the first black woman ever to become Miss Italy. George, in his usual multilingual fashion, said Bona Sera (Good evening) to Denny and she responded back and laughed innocently impressed at George's knowing the language, then he asked her if all was okay in Italian and she said all was fine, of course. George said "Perfect" and then proceeded to ask the one question asked to her in English which was, "As a black woman, you caused huge controversy in your country and it must have not been easy. How did you survive?" Immediately, an obviously black woman in the audience responded in saying "YEAH". It was nice to know that Denny did have lots of support from the audience. I know Denny saw this question coming right from the very beginning and then she gave her prepared answer. In Italian, she started her first phrase, "I'm very happy to be here. I'm very glad because I know that we are not representing colors." It was funny how Denny waved in the interpreter because she started with the phrase giving her time to think and she said "Go ahead" to the interpreter in Italian. After the translation was given, Denny continued in saying, "And I have nothing to envy of other Miss Italys because this is a door that I have opened and that will continue to open even more." The interpreter knew what to do and she ended her interview with, "And to those people who call me Negro, I say, 'It doesn't bother me.'" The camera switched to her parents in the audience and it was obvious that Denny takes after her mother in looks but her stepfather was obviously Italian. Her parents also looked very proud of Denny. Denny looked very serious as she gave this speech and she really showed the world that she did have astonishing inner strength. Then George, dismissed her in saying, "Thank you Denny Mendez, Senora Italia" (Mrs. Italy<--whoops!!) He, then corrected it by saying La Senorina but Denny didn't care, she just worked the camera as her score of 9.54 showed on the screen. This score ranked her in second position after Miss USA, but I thought that Denny's score would have been the highest. Apparently, there is no beating Brook when it comes to the interviews!
An in-between segment showed some delegates at the zoo and Denny was among them. The most surprising thing that she did was hold a snake by the neck and stuck it right in front of her face. I tell you that Denny is fearless!! Afterwards came the swimsuit competition, which saw Denny looking stunning. She got up from the lawn chair as she was assisted by the man standing beside her and she turned around and stared at him as Denny blatantly flaunted her legs by spreading them nicely apart for the camera. The man obviously liked what he saw based on the look he gave Denny. Denny walked down the stairs and her first facial expression as she stepped down seemed to say, "What, are you cheering me? Am I really that good?" Oh yes, you were, Denny and the rise in audience noise level certainly reflected this. Denny just smiled and giggled as she stood on her platform. Straight but showing off her legs was her stance which did not need any leg bending because she was all legs and her panties were hiked up at the sides to make her legs look even better! The bra of the bikini seemed a little tight and did not really flatter Denny in the bust area but it was adequate. Denny was eye-popping and her score was 9.61 which was second again to Miss Curaçao reminiscent of the preliminaries.
With the announcements of Miss Colombia as Best Costume and Miss Australia for Miss Congentiality, I just want to point out that Denny responded overwhelmingly, especially for Miss Australia. She clapped her hands high and quickly so that everyone could see and she was standing in front so you couldn't miss her. She obviously liked Miss Australia and gave her an A-OK sign after she accepted the award. Shortly after, the evening gown competition came which had a beautiful backdrop which reveal a blazing sunset at the back behind the stairs and on either side of the stairs were two windows showing the silhouettes of sensuous tango dancers. Denny's choice of evening gown was spectacular and I want to point out the symbolism which I picked from this. It was a long black spaghetti strap gown with white frost just on the bust area and shimmering glass-like attachments on the front above the waist. Because of this white frost, this told me that Denny may have wanted to take the race issue one step further. By wearing a black gown obviously she was saying that she is black but the white frost resembles the fact that she is Italian. Whether or not this was the intended symbolism, Denny looked stunning. She blended so beautifully with the sunset backdrop, definitely the best blending of all of the contestants. Another notable attribute of Denny's was her sudden but quick mood changes/facial expressions. One minute she would look serious, the next she would look happy which may have suggested that Denny would be a real roller-coaster ride! Denny's evening gown score was 9.76 which yet again was second behind Miss Curaçao.
Now it came time for the six finalists to be announced after Irene Saez, Miss Universe 1981 was given a distinguished achievement award for being mayor of Chacao, Venezuela and for being a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, Hugo Chavez won the election leaving Irene with an embarrassing 3% of the vote. Oh well, back to Denny. Italy was called 1st and the screen showed her score was 9.64. Despite the fact that Denny was second in every competition, she pulled off first place but Miss Curaçao was not far behind with a 9.62. The six finalists were announced and then it came time for them to be put to the test, the judge's questions. Italy was first and picked the 5th judge, Monique Pillard from the bowl. As the camera showed Monique Pillard's face, I saw a black woman with glasses staring at Monique in an angry manner as if to say, "You better give her a good question!!" This may have been the same woman that said "YEAH" earlier on. Pillard's question was, "How would winning the Miss Universe title help you with your career goals?" The interpreter translated as Denny responded saying, "Obviously, it would help me to put an end to the matter that we discussed earlier. It would be a victory upon a victory. That's what it would be." There was a groan from the audience but Denny pounded her fist down in determination as the translator translated to try to emphasize her answer but it didn't work. Although, Denny was the leader at this point, the judges recognized that she didn't really answer the question because there was no mention of her career goals. This may have said that Denny only had the race issue to fall back on and as a result, she fell from grace to 5th position. I actually liked her answer, especially the neatly phrased "victory upon a victory" quote but she was basically repeating what she said earlier which is a serious no-no in pageants. Oddly enough, Monique Pillard, who asked the question forgot to punch in her score and tried to do so later but couldn't because the stop light was on. The camera showed that Pillard pressed a 9.8 for her when it was too late but I calculated what would have happened if this score was included and I discovered that it sadly would not have helped. Denny would have stayed in 5th position. If Italy was out of the running, then Curaçao was going to take it all, right?! Wrong!! Unfortunately, Verna also had to go back to what she said earlier because of the question and she did paused momentarily in the middle of giving her answer but she managed to pull off 4th place beating Denny despite the pause. Panama wasn't really in the running and the last three ladies Venezuela, Trinidad & Tobago, and USA all gave answers that were impressive which is why they were the top 3, especially Miss Venezuela whose answer I loved. Denny's name was not announced and so she faded away after Miss Trinidad & Tobago, Margot Bourgeois was the last of the 3 who was announced but Denny looked happy and applauded all the ladies who made the top 3.
Denny would not be Miss Universe but Brook Lee, Miss USA, took it all thanks to her interview skills and quick wit. Nonetheless, as Brook sat on her throne, Denny emerged from the crowd of ladies and was among the first to give Brook a big hug. I admired the fact that Denny didn't have a trace of animosity because I think she felt that she wasn't going to win in the beginning due to the fact that her winning Miss Universe while representing Italy would definitely have caused an uproar.
So what's Denny up to now? Well, this clubber at heart stated that she is going to be working in the future in Italian movies but she refused to give precise details. She is also very busy modelling and promoting "Del Verde" and Denny certainly is on top of the Italian fashion industry. She also stated that she gets very tired and is constantly on her feet but the public loves Denny so much and I'm sure any Denny fan is glad to hear this!
Denny was definitely a notable and one of my favorite contestants in the Miss Universe pageant. I really would have liked to have seen her win though. It is imperative to remember that Denny really is a winner. Despite the criticism and racial judgment, she was a representative of the Italian people and she represented them beautifully. Denny, you are the bomb and I wish you the best of luck in your future in whatever career you choose.
(This article was written in 1998)
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