LAS VEGAS — Beating out 50 other contestants, an auburn-haired beauty from California who was a favorite among Vegas odds-markers was crowned Miss USA at the end of the pageant's 60th anniversary contest on Sunday in Sin City.
Alyssa Campanella beat out her good friend, Miss Tennessee Ashley Durham, who was named first runner-up by a panel of celebrity judges. The other finalists were Miss Texas Ana Rodriguez and Miss Alabama Madeline Mitchell.
Campanella replaces Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih and will be America's representative at Miss Universe in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on September 12.Slideshow: See photos from Miss USA 2011 pageant (on this page)
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After revealing on the show that she was a "huge history geek" with a special interest in the Tudor and Stuart periods, Campanella added that her favorite monarch was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was beheaded in 1587.
Campanella was born and raised in New Jersey, which she represented at the Miss Teen USA contest in 2007.
She told Reuters that she moved to Los Angeles about 18 months ago, and would like to remain there once her duties were over.
Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello tabbed Campanella the 8-1 favorite of the competition in just-for-fun odds, and contestants from North Dakota and New Hampshire (who were eliminated) were 100-1 long shots.
Campanella, 21, strutted across the stage in a blue bikini with white polka dots and a dark turquoise evening gown with beading on its top.
'Medically it's OK'
She won the crown despite giving a muddled answer when a judge asked her whether marijuana should be legalized in California.
"Well, I understand why that question would be asked, especially with today's economy, but I also understand that medical marijuana is very important to help those who need it medically," she said. "I'm not sure if it should be legalized, if it would really affect, with the drug war. I mean, it's abused today, unfortunately, so that's the only reason why I would kind of be a little bit against it, but medically it's OK."
Durham, a 21-year-old journalism student who was first runner-up, declared that burning the American flag should not be protected by free speech and that burning religious books was "just a line that you do not cross."
Mitchell, the 22-year-old Miss Alabama, said Internet bullies whose taunts force their targets to commit suicide should be prosecuted.
Rodriguez, the 25-year-old Miss Texas, received loud applause when she said the wives of political figures caught in sex scandals should move on "and find a man who really loves you."
Slideshow: Beauty queen scandals (on this page)
Campanella, a natural blonde, said she dyed her hair six years ago for a part in a play, for a "fiery" character with whom she found she had traits in common.
"It's really brought out the true Alyssa Campanella, I feel, and that's why I really enjoy being a redhead," she said.
Campanella replaces Fakih, a Lebanese-born Muslim who was the first Arab-American to hold the title. The Michigan woman teared up as she walked across the stage for a final goodbye.
The pageant had three competitions: swimsuit, evening gown and interview question.
The contestants were whittled to 16 after the show's opening number, in which the beauty queens introduced themselves one-by-one. The top 16 were picked by preliminary judges through competitions and interviews during the week before the telecast. Celebrity judges picked the top eight after the swimsuit competition and the top 4 after the evening gown portion.
The pageant celebrated its 60th anniversary, growing from its roots as a bathing revue in Long Beach, Calif., in 1952 to a made-for-TV spectacle owned jointly by mogul Donald Trump and NBC. (Msnbc.com is joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
Separate from rival pageant Miss America, Miss USA has been known in recent years for having judges at times ask somewhat sticky questions, challenging contestants to reveal more about their opinions than they might want.
This year's panel of judges included several well-known celebrities, including Dallas Maverick center Tyson Chandler, chef Rocco DiSpirito, actress Mariel Hemingway, magician Penn Jillette, rapper and producer Lil Jon, "Real Housewives of New Jersey" housewife Caroline Manzo and OPI beauty products founder Suzi Weiss-Fischmann.
The show was co-hosted by Bravo's Andy Cohen and E! News Anchor Giuliana Rancic.
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British rapper Tinie Tempah and Eric Turner performed during the evening gown competition.
Miss Kentucky Kia Hampton won Miss Congeniality USA, while Miss Arizona Brittany Brannon won Miss Photogenic USA.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.