Miss Jamaica, Davina Bennett, makes lemonade out of lemons
The beauty queen made getting second runner-up to Miss Universe a win — Afro and all
Miss Jamaica emerged from a field of 92 contestants, rocking a #BlackGirlMagic ’fro, to be second runner-up in the 2017 Miss Universe pageant. Davina Bennett talks to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright about her ascension.
When I stood there next to Miss South Africa and Miss Colombia — as one of the last three of 92 contestants in the Miss Universe pageant, with the very real possibility of being crowned Miss Universe 2017 — of course I was nervous, but it was hardly as traumatic an experience as I’ve had. (Miss South Africa 2017, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, was crowned Miss Universe.)
It was the scariest moment of my life. Two gunmen came out of nowhere. I was thrown to the ground — we were all faced down, execution style, while they took all our belongings … holding the gun by our heads and cursing at us. And, you know, in that moment in time, I can tell you that I didn’t believe I was going to live to see another day. I was really just praying that my family would be all right and cope with what seemed inevitable.
After the robbers had taken our belongings — money, equipment — they told us to just get up and run. They were just standing there, and we got even more scared. The thought that came into my mind was, ‘OK, they’re probably going to shoot us from behind.’ We did as we were told and just ran. They had taken all that we had, but you know what, we had life. It really was a traumatizing situation, but I can say today, nine months later, that it was really another steppingstone for me to realize that I have a purpose and I am here to do greater things.
That night of the Miss Universe pageant, I was really just hoping for the best. I knew I’d done my best, and I’d said everything from my heart. I didn’t have doubt — nerves, yes. But not doubt. When Steve Harvey called my name first, I was a little bit disappointed at first, but seeing the reaction from the crowd — and hearing chants of, ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ — I felt like a winner. My fellow contestants came to me with hugs and good wishes. Coming back home to Jamaica, of course, was the icing on the cake.
Even though I’m 21, I’ve had quite a number of challenges in my life to get to this point, but I believe it’s all prepared me for the now. In 2015, I had gone to London twice and to New York once, going from agency to agency, looking to get signed. At one point, I’d gone to probably between 15 to 20 agencies. And every agency would say I’m not quite what they’re looking for, or I’m not tall enough. It was always something. After the third time going to London … I just said, ‘You know what, maybe this is not for me.’ And, shortly after the London trip, I lost my grandma as well. So I gave up completely. And that’s how I partnered with Caribbean Sway Modeling Agency here in Jamaica as a director and modeling coach to train the girls and share my experiences with them, to help them maximize their true potential.
In that process of helping those models, I was blessed to work with Britney Barnes, a deaf model, which then became my inspiration to start the Davina Bennett Foundation for the Deaf.
I think back to that robbery and how I almost lost my life. I had my moment of depression after that time, but … I lived, and I must do something bigger with my life.
Growing up, I was loved. I was always teacher’s pet, yes, but I was never the girl who stood out, or was outspoken. I would be in the back of the room because I was very shy and reserved. … I was really that girl on the back bench [in the classroom] looking at the girls on front benches and saying, ‘I wish I could be them.’
So public speaking wasn’t my strong point, and speaking is a big part of the Miss Universe pageant. Having gone through that experience, it’s now something I’m not so afraid to take on. I don’t think I would say I’ve conquered it because there’s so much more to learn, but I’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable.
To be very honest, this is more than I expected, the impact this Miss Universe experience has had on me, and on people. I was surprised and shocked, even the day after, with social media and the reaction to me. I’m still in awe. I’m getting so many messages, so many people telling me how I’m a great representation of Jamaica and girls everywhere. I’m really just grateful that everyone has accepted how I carried myself on the international stage.
It does get overwhelming sometimes, but nothing in life is easy, and you really have to fight for what you want. I have always been a fighter; there’s always challenges, but I try to overcome and have a strong mindset about how you deal with the problem and find solutions.
I’m a winner. Yes, I heard the rumblings on social that I could never be crowned Miss Universe because of my hair, or because I’m Jamaican. I heard all of that — and saw the #MissJamaicaShouldHaveWon hashtag on social media. But I wasn’t really listening to all of that; my message is simple: ‘Despite race or ethnicity or whatever your background, anybody can win.’
I returned home to Jamaica, getting off the plane to shouts of ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ It was a beautiful celebration. There was a huge adrenaline rush to just conquer anything that came my way. I was always the bridesmaid — always finishing second, and third, or not even being picked — until the Miss Universe competition. Now I can finally say, ‘Oh, my goodness — I’ve finally won.’
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.