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Crowning Glory

Living Beautifully, Inside and Out

By Sallie W. Boyles | Photography courtesy of Melissa Dill-Behnke

Melissa Dill-Behnke recalls someone telling her when she was in grade school, “I have a feeling that you’re going to step on the soil of many different countries.” The prediction seemed unlikely for a reserved little girl from rural Columbus, Kansas. Even more far-fetched than traveling the world—she has since visited thirty-two countries and resided in five—would have been the notion of her representing a foreign state in an international beauty pageant and serving as that nation’s goodwill ambassador.

Melissa declares that she’s always preferred to view life from a positive perspective. “I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere,” she says, reflecting on her town’s cultural limitations. Even then, Melissa knew she had no way to go but up, and when she entered the spotlight, Melissa’s can-do mind-set, her interests, and her talents helped her shine.

Growing up, Melissa enjoyed 4-H, a program that fosters leadership and other life skills through hands-on tasks and competitions related to agriculture. In addition to training animals and competing in horse shows, she reveals, “I even attained the lofty goals of being the Goat Tying Champion and Columbus Rodeo Queen. When I later auditioned in New York and LA for acting gigs, this was a great résumé stuffer!”

Melissa could not identify who in her family contributed the DNA that bred her love for show business, but her parents appreciated their daughter’s gifts and supported her wholeheartedly. Their town didn’t have a dance school, so they drove Melissa at least forty minutes each way to classes.


Acting was a great challenge, and giving life to the characters on a written page attracted me to the stage and screen, where I excelled and discovered a very animated and outgoing child within. It was a blessing to work in the performing arts.

“At a young age,” she says, “I was a classical ballerina and a soloist for the Missouri Civic Ballet.” She also took voice lessons in high school, when her passion for acting emerged. “Debate and theatre are what really brought me out of my shell in high school,” Melissa notes. “Acting was a great challenge, and giving life to the characters on a written page attracted me to the stage and screen, where I excelled and discovered a very animated and outgoing child within. It was a blessing to work in the performing arts.” Melissa spent her summers working as a singer and dancer in the Silver Dollar City Saloon show in Branson, Missouri.


Growing more confident, Melissa entered the pageant arena, where she found like-minded teens. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie,” she says. “For me it was about fellowshipping with my pageant sisters instead of winning a crown. After winning several different titles in the Four State Area—Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma,” she relays, “I met some great girls who invited me to be in a national pageant with them.” By placing in the top five for the 1983 Kansas Junior Miss, she accessed other pageants and won titles in the Miss USA and Miss America organizations.

Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Behnke celebrates his final Air Force flight with his wife, Melissa.
Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Behnke celebrates his final Air Force flight with his wife, Melissa.

Melissa attended Northeastern Oklahoma (NEO) A&M College on an academic theatre scholarship; she relates, “That’s when I decided to set my sights on a career in entertainment—acting for stage, television, and film—and continue my passion for dance. I did a lot of musical theatre there.” Playing Miss Hannigan, the comically despicable orphanage matron in the musical Annie, remains a standout. “The director said it was amazing to see someone well-known for pageants come and perform such an anti-pageant role.” Melissa also took opera classes to expand her vocal range. “I sound great in the shower!” she laughs. Her alma mater inducted her into the NEO Fine Arts Hall of Fame in 2016.

After graduating from NEO, Melissa earned a performing arts degree from Oklahoma City University on theatrical and Miss America pageant scholarships. “I studied dance, vocal performance, acting for stage and film,” she says, “and whatever else it took for me to fulfill my bachelor’s degree requirements. It was competitive and prepared me well for the show business lifestyle.”

Melissa then moved to Las Vegas, where she danced in spectacular production shows. Surprisingly, she recalls how performing with headliners (including Mickey Rooney, Engelbert Humperdinck, Debbie Reynolds, Rich Little, Wayne Newton, Tony Danza, Muhammad Ali, and George Carlin) was “kind of laid-back for me. The shows were well established, so we didn’t have to rehearse too often. Vegas was enjoyable; it felt like home.” She mentions going to places like Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston, and Lake Mead on her time off, taking a break from the glitz and glamour. “We had a normal life and a great church family.”

Melissa then moved to Las Vegas, where she danced in spectacular production shows. Surprisingly, she recalls how performing with headliners (including Mickey Rooney, Engelbert Humperdinck, Debbie Reynolds, Rich Little, Wayne Newton, Tony Danza, Muhammad Ali, and George Carlin) was “kind of laid-back for me. The shows were well established, so we didn’t have to rehearse too often. Vegas was enjoyable; it felt like home.” She mentions going to places like Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston, and Lake Mead on her time off, taking a break from the glitz and glamour. “We had a normal life and a great church family.”

Regardless of this, her professional life was hardly ordinary. “Las Vegas was an incredible launching pad for my career,” she affirms. “There were many modeling gigs, movie contracts (I earned my Screen Actors Guild union card), music videos, TV shows, and work singing with my band. My connections from there helped me see the world.”


The crowning moment as Melissa Behnke wins the National Beauties of America title in 2007
The crowning moment as Melissa Behnke wins the National Beauties of America title in 2007

I shared the stage with Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett, and many more superstars from Europe and around the world.


Her first contract abroad, which resulted from a talent agent spotting her onstage, landed Melissa a job in Tokyo performing with three other American dancers. “We worked with Japanese stars and choreographers, and no one spoke English!” she says. “We had a blast.” Since the headliners changed every two weeks, the schedule of daily rehearsals and performances was rough, especially in comparison to Vegas. Still, Melissa says, “I remember going to work and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to have so much fun.’”

From Japan, Melissa moved to Seoul, South Korea, for a coveted role in the largest show in Asia. “The extravaganza was like a Broadway musical combined with Radio City,” she notes. Her group even performed in the preshow for the opening ceremony of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. “We were bused to the stadium and went through security wearing our giant headdresses and rhinestones,” she says. “It was amazing to perform in front of a worldwide audience!”

Another gig allowed Melissa to live on the Riviera in the South of France. “While working at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo,” she says, “I shared the stage with Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett, and many more superstars from Europe and around the world. After the show on many occasions, Prince Albert of Monaco would join us backstage for cast parties and other celebrations. The prince was most gracious and invited some of us out on his yacht for cruises in the summer as well. On one occasion, the paparazzi were staked out on shore near Cannes, and we all ended up in People—and some European magazines—in the headlines!”

After declining a job in France at Lido de Paris, the iconic cabaret on the Champs-Élysées, Melissa was ready to return to the United States and pursue an acting career. In addition to appearing in TV commercials and sitcoms, she worked at Paramount Pictures for blockbuster producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, known for such hits as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Days of Thunder, and Top Gun.

Melissa was acting in LA when friends suggested that she audition for game shows. Her first appearance was on The Price Is Right, where she was chosen from three hundred others in the audience to “come on down” after introducing herself as a Vegas dancer and doing a little time step. “The producer was looking for high-energy people,” she explains. One week earlier, a drunk driver had rammed into her car and totaled it, so the timing to win a new one was just right. Remarkably, Melissa won the car and the entire showcase!

Melissa won yet another car on The Hollywood Squares a few years later and scooped up cash prizes on seven game shows in total. Nothing, though, beat the Hawaii trip she won, courtesy of The Dating Game. Behind the scenes, her game show “date” had a serious girlfriend, so the producer gave Melissa permission to ask a friend, Tom Behnke, to take the fellow’s place in Kauai.

Tom had entered her life via a dating website, or as Melissa puts it, “divine intervention.” A friend of Melissa’s had developed one of the first online Christian dating services and asked if she’d let him use one of her headshots for the home page. She agreed but had no personal interest in the site. “I didn’t even own a computer,” Melissa states. Tom, who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, flying F-15 fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, subscribed to the website when Melissa’s photo caught his eye. Assuming she wasn’t a registered candidate, Tom e-mailed a personal letter of introduction to the site’s owner with a request that he please pass it along to the woman pictured. Tom’s words and photo appealed to Melissa, so she responded.

“I borrowed my friend’s laptop so I could e-mail him,” she says. “We talked online for six months, so I got to know Tom’s character. I would wake up every day and find his e-mail.” When they met in person, it was not exactly love at first sight, but they maintained a long-distance friendship. The Kauai vacation was only their third date, and that’s when Melissa realized Tom was Mr. Right.


Her continued beauty pageant involvement also provided platforms for Melissa to generate awareness of and support for military families and veterans. During her reign as Mrs. Texas International in 2001, she advocated for soldiers wounded in combat.

When the pair married in 1999, Tom was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida, so Melissa moved to the Gulf Coast. “It is an honor and a privilege for me to take care of a man who takes care of our nation, especially in times like these,” she says of leaving California. Her continued beauty pageant involvement also provided platforms for Melissa to generate awareness of and support for military families and veterans. During her reign as Mrs. Texas International in 2001, she advocated for soldiers wounded in combat. Together, Melissa and Tom have also supported the Fisher House Foundation, which provides comfort homes for military families while their loved ones receive medical care.


From being crowned Mrs. Florida in 2008, Melissa advanced to an international pageant as Florida’s representative and became friendly with Mrs. and Miss candidates from all over Europe and their director. At the time, she and Tom were preparing to move to Great Britain for a job he had accepted with Boeing, so Melissa was thrilled to have ignited so many friendships. “The moment I landed in the UK,” she says, “I had an international family.” Her European friends welcomed Melissa’s contributions as a contestant, coach, and judge throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. “The pageant world was just beginning to blossom in the UK and I loved coaching there.” Their wholesome attitudes about competing reminded Melissa of the girls she’d known starting out. Her job, she contends, “was not just about being pretty on the outside. The first young lady I coached told me several years later that the experience in interviewing helped her land her dream job at IBM in London.” Many former clients, in fact, stay in touch and are like daughters to the Behnkes.

Melissa was also crowned Mrs. Ireland in 2009 and represented the country in the Mrs. World competition in Vietnam. “Both my husband’s family and mine have a deep history with Ireland,” she shares. With the title, Melissa served as a goodwill ambassador in Ireland, encouraging young women “to have faith, individual worth, integrity, and virtue.”

With the title, Melissa served as a goodwill ambassador in Ireland, encouraging young women “to have faith, individual worth, integrity, and virtue.”

Passionate about working for the benefit of others, Melissa is now involved in helping people extend their expiration dates. “I’m an International Life Extension Specialist,” she says. “I show people how to make the best of their years naturally and enjoy a better quality of life by creating awareness and teaching them to own their health destiny through whole-food nutrition, clinical-grade essential oils, and smart choices.”

From traveling extensively and gaining fresh perspectives, Melissa learned which factors were compromising her health and got well by implementing changes. “We are wonderfully made,” she says, “and through spirit, mind, and body all working together synergistically according to God’s perfect plan, we can heal, live with vibrant longevity, and prevent disease.” Melissa often speaks at international wellness conferences and events for groups such as Rotarians, college students, and seniors. She also organized H.E.A.L. (Healthy Eating Active Lifestyles), a wellness committee of volunteers and professionals in education and health, to foster children’s health in her community.

Throughout the years, Melissa has remained active in the pageant world as a judge and coach. “I’d much rather coach others and encourage them to fulfil their dreams, goals, and potential,” she says. “I’ve been blessed and enjoyed my years in the spotlight. Now, I love helping my clients gain confidence and blossom into their own greatness.”

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Individuals with an interest in Melissa’s pageant coaching or natural health resources should connect via her Facebook page, Melissa Dill-Behnke.



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