By Loreto Concepcion
In 1963, 19-year-old doll-faced Lalaine Betia Bennett was crowned Miss Philippines and represented the country at the Miss Universe pageant in Miami Beach, Florida. A favorite and widely tipped to win the title, the 5-foot-9 former Miss Bayombong (Nueva Vizcaya) failed to win the crown but was named third runner up among 49 contestants from all over the world, the first time Philippines landed on the pageant’s finalists.
Then, Gloria Diaz, in 1969, became the first Filipino and second Asian woman to win the Miss Universe title.
Bennett, a pretty American mestiza, made several movies before and after she competed in Miss Universe beauty pageant. She was introduced in the movie Ligaw na Daigdig in 1962 opposite Ronald Remy and Willlie Sotelo. Her performance in a dual role of an heiress and bandit earned her a Famas best actress nomination in 1963.
Bennett also starred in two 1963 war-action movies directed by national artist Lamberto V. Avellana, Death Was a Stranger, The Hunters’ ROTC Guerrilla Story and No Way Out, a first co-production between Philippines and South Korea with Leopoldo Salcedo. Her life story was made into a musical film in 1964 in Armando De Guzman’s Lalaine, Mahal Kita, which also starred Mario Montenegro.
Her other movies included Bilis sa Bilis opposite Cesar Ramirez and Dear Eddie with Charito Solis and Eddie Ilarde. After she relinquished her crown to Myrna Panlilio in 1964, Bennett decided to leave her flourishing movie career when she married Felix Skievasky, a Polish-Filipino officer in the United States Navy, whom she met when he served as her official escort during the Miss Universe pageant. They lived first in Honolulu, Hawaii before moving to Seattle, Washington where Bennett remained presently based even after the tragic death of her husband in a plane crash in 1973.
Bennett, despite her American roots, took pride in her Filipino heritage during the Miss Universe finals when she opened her speech in her native tongue.
In her speech, Bennett said, “Maligayang bati sa inyong lahat. Alam kong ang buong Pilipinas ay ngayo’y nasisiyahan sa gabing ito. As a child, I have always wanted to come, to visit the native land of my grandfather who was one of the first American teachers who came to help educate my people. Through this pageant, my dream has been fulfilled. America has helped the Philippines, taught us how to stand on our own two feet and in 1946, gave us a most wonderful gift, the gift of freedom. For this, I, together with my people, will forever be grateful. Please accept our sincerest thanks, United States of America. Thank you.”
It would be fitting to bring back Bennett at the 65th Miss Universe in Manila to acknowledge and honor her distinction as the first ever Filipina to place in the Miss Universe pageant.