21 Year-Old Crowned Miss USA - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

21 Year-Old Crowned Miss USA

AP AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Rachel Smith realized she had a real shot at
the Miss USA crown when she made it to the top 15.

Next up was the swimsuit portion of the pageant, and the
journalism graduate from Tennessee told herself: "I'm just going
to work it."

Smith, 21, ultimately bested 50 other aspiring beauty queens to
win the title of Miss USA on Friday night. The 5-foot, 11-inch-tall
brunette is a graduate of Belmont University and a former intern
for the production company behind "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"I'm speechless at this point, I really am," Smith said after
the pageant.

Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia
competed to succeed Miss USA Tara Conner, who entered rehab after
accounts surfaced suggesting she was boozing at New York clubs. The
Kentucky native was in danger of losing her crown, but Donald
Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC, gave her a second chance.

The telecast didn't shy away from the controversy, opening with
a string of news and interview clips about Conner's woes. Then, the
21-year-old blonde emerged onstage wearing a strapless, ruffled
gown.

"It has been the most unforgettable year of my life and I'm
back, and better than ever," Conner said to wild applause from the
audience at the Kodak Theatre.

Smith, of Clarksville, Tenn., edged out top finalists Meagan
Yvonne Tandy of California; Cara Renee Gorges of Kansas; Helen
Salas of Nevada; and Danielle Lacourse of Rhode Island, who was
named the first runner-up.

When asked whether she was ready to take over for Conner, Smith
admitted it would "be a little bit of a challenge," but quickly
added she was ready for it.

"I'm excited to see what this year will hold," she said.
Smith also praised Conner's stewardship of the Miss USA title
and her handling of the challenges she faced.
"I definitely learned a lot," Smith said of Conner's tenure as
Miss USA.

Asked how she would behave during her reign, Smith said: "I'm
going to be honest and open."
Tim Vincent and Nancy O'Dell of "Access Hollywood" hosted the
pageant, which made its return to Hollywood after two years in
Baltimore.

During a brief onstage interview with Vincent and O'Dell, Conner
said her future plans included writing a book, and doing
"correspondence work and a little bit of acting."

Other contestants whose behavior ran afoul of the pageant's
standards were not as fortunate as Conner. Miss Nevada USA Katie
Rees lost her title after racy pictures of her surfaced on the
Internet, and Miss New Jersey USA Ashley Harder resigned when she
got pregnant. Miss USA contestants must not have ever been married
or given birth.

The Miss USA Pageant began in 1952 as a swimwear promotion in
Long Beach.

Contestants pay a fee to enter and must win a state title before
competing for the Miss USA crown. The winner gets to live in a
fancy New York apartment for a year, during which she'll spend most
of her time traveling as she represents the Miss Universe
Organization and speaks out on breast and ovarian cancer awareness.
She also gets to represent the United States in the worldwide Miss
Universe competition.

During the swimsuit competition, the beauty queens performed a
synchronized strut wearing blue, pink or lilac bikinis before
posing individually for the judges. All the competitors also had
brief walk-ons in their evening gowns before the finalists took
their solo strolls for the audience.

The audience was given the opportunity to vote, selecting
Rebecca Moore of Alabama as Miss Photogenic. The contestants voted
Stephanie Trudeau of Montana as Miss Congeniality.

A panel of six judges were tasked with determining the winner:
TV personality Jerry Springer, "Blow Out" star Jonathan Antin,
"E! News" co-host Giuliana De Pandi, MTV's Vanessa Minnillo, Baby
Phat President Kimora Lee Simmons and Los Angeles Lakers owner
Jerry Buss.

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