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20-year-old Rhode Island cellist crowned Miss USA

A 20-year-old cellist from Rhode Island won the Miss USA crown and will represent the United States in this year's Miss Universe pageant after voicing support for transgender beauty queens.

Olivia Culpo topped a field of 51 contestants on Sunday to take the title at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. She strutted across the stage in a lilac bikini and a fuchsia evening gown adorned with a sparkly belt.

In the dreaded interview round, Culpo was faced with the most difficult question of the night: "Would you feel it would be fair that a transgender woman wins the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?" Culpo never stumbled as she embraced the Miss Universe Organization's recent decision to admit transgender contestants. The question came from a pageant follower on Twitter, a first for the competition.

"I do think that that would be fair, but I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural-born women, but today where there are so many surgeries and so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life, I do accept that because I believe it's a free country," Culpo said.

Culpo said after the pageant that she wasn't put off by the question when she heard it.

"This is a free country and to each their own," she said.

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    Julie Jacobson / AP

    Image: Olivia Culpo

    Miss USA 2012

    Fifty-one hopefuls were whittled down to one winner after the swimsuit, evening gown and interview competitions.

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    And the winner is...

    Miss Rhode Island, Olivia Culpo, center, is surrounded by fellow contestants after being crowned Miss USA during the 2012 Miss USA pageant, Sunday, June 3 in Las Vegas.

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    Here she is!

    Miss Rhode Island looks toward the audience after being crowned Miss USA.

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  • Image: Miss Rhode Island Culpo reacts as she is crowned during the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas

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    Passing on the crown

    Miss Rhode Island reacts as she is crowned by Miss USA 2011 Alyssa Campanella.

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  • Image: Miss Rhode Island Culpo with Miss Maryland Meriwether during Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas

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    The last two

    Miss Rhode Island waits with Miss Maryland, Nana Meriwether, before the winner of Miss USA 2012 is announced.

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    Fabulous five

    The five top five finalists, from left, Miss Ohio, Miss Maryland, Miss Rhode Island, Miss Nevada and Miss Georgia stand together during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    Best dressed

    The top 10 finalists pose in their evening gowns.

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    Top ten

    The ten Miss USA finalists pose on stage during the 2012 Miss USA pageant, in Las Vegas.

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    Swimming style

    Miss Colorado, Marybel Gonzalez, walks the runway during the swimsuit competition during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    Looking swimmingly

    Miss Rhode Island takes part in the swimsuit competition.

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    Showing off swimwear

    Miss Maryland, Nana Meriwether, walks in the swimsuit competition during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    Tonight's hosts are...

    Andy Cohen, center left, and Giuliana Rancic open the 2012 Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas.

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    Sweet sixteen

    Miss Ohio, Audrey Bolte, walks along the stage after being announced as one of 16 finalists during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    Cutting down the competition

    Miss Texas, Brittany Booker, right, walks along the stage after being announced as one of the 16 finalists during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    Picked from the pack

    Miss New Jersey, Michelle Leonardo, left, reacts as she is announced as one of the 16 finalists during the 2012 Miss USA pageant.

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    The Donald makes a speech

    Co-Owner of the Miss Universe Organization, Donald Trump, addresses Miss USA contestants on the last day of rehearsal for the Miss USA 2012 Competition.

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Culpo said she was short and chubby as a girl, but blossomed after a growth spurt. She spent her summers at band camp after learning to play the cello in second grade. Her parents are also musicians, and her love for music saw her perform at Symphony Hall in Boston and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Culpo is a 2010 graduate of St. Mary Academy Bay View, an all-girls Catholic school in Riverside, where she was a member of the National Honor Society. She is a sophomore at Boston University and said she comes from a big, Italian family. On her Twitter account, she describes herself as a nerd and model.

"I was just so surprised, so shocked, so honored to be there," she said of her win.

Rounding out the top five contestants were first runner-up Nana Meriwether of Maryland, second runner-up Audrey Bolte of Ohio, third runner-up Jade Kelsall of Nevada and fourth runner-up Jasmyn Wilkins of Georgia. As Meriwether and Culpo held hands waiting for the winner to be announced, Culpo bit her lip and cringed with anticipation.

Culpo demonstrated an outgoing personality throughout the competition, blowing a kiss and shimmying across the stage during the opening number. She cited Audrey Hepburn as her source of inspiration, noting her many years of volunteer work. Culpo said she plans to visit Tiffany & Co. in New York during her reign as Miss USA to recreate the opening scene in Hepburn's iconic film "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

"She was beautiful on the outside but also beautiful on the inside," said Culpo, who sang the chorus of "Funny Face" from her favorite movie of the same name after her win.

Julie Jacobson / AP
Miss Rhode Island Olivia Culpo, center, is surrounded by fellow contestants after being crowned Miss USA during the 2012 Miss USA pageant, Sunday, June 3, 2012, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Miss Iowa USA Rebecca Hodge was named Miss Congeniality, and Miss Oregon USA Alaina Bergsma was named the most photogenic. They both won $1,000, but didn't make the top 16.

During the interview round, Bolte appeared to stumble as she answered a question about whether women are portrayed positively in films. Bolte said women generally depict strong characters, citing Julia Robert's role as a prostitute in "Pretty Woman."

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    11 surprising facts about Miss USA contestants

    From living in refugee camps to having weird phobias, these contestants for Miss USA 2012 are more than just pretty faces.

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    Biker babe

    The 51 women competing in Sunday night’s Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas are more than just pretty faces. These beauties are just like us, facing phobias, obstacles and sporting some hilarious quirks. Get some fun tidbits, culled from contestants’ online pageant videos, about 11 of the competitors – one of them might just win the crown and face-off for Miss Universe in December!

    For Miss California, model and aspiring doctor Natalie Pack, the best way to de-stress is to jump on her hog.

    “I’ve been going through so much stress in applying to medical school and studying for MCATs, there’s no better way to relieve stress like there is riding a motorcycle in the open sun, especially in California,” Pack, 23, said.

    She doesn’t own a huge Harley, rather she has a Honda — “a little bike,” she explained. She lives near the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. “What better place to own a motorcycle?” said Pack, who wants to become a dermatologist.

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    ‘Ugly duckling’ with a shotgun

    Miss Alabama Katherine Webb didn’t always feel very good about what she saw in the mirror.

    “Growing up was not very easy for me,” Webb, 23, said. “I was tall and lanky. On top of that, I had a skin disorder called vitiligo.” The disorder causes loss of pigment that causes white patches.

    “I had a lot of self-confidence and image issues growing up, but over time, I found myself becoming more confident in the way that I looked,” she said. Webb came to believe that being tall wasn’t so bad and she felt better by wearing makeup and using self-tanner.

    While struggled with image issues, she grew tough in a family full of boys. She went hunting, fishing and skeet shooting.

    “I have my own 12-gauge shotgun and that’s one of my favorite things I like to do, Webb said.

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    Refugee camp to American dream

    Miss Minnesota Nitaya Panemalaythong is one proud American homeowner.

    Of Laotian descent, the 26-year-old was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her family fled across the Mekong River on a bamboo raft. Soon after, her family moved to the U.S. and she grew up mostly in Minnesota. Life wasn’t easy, and her parents lacked a permanent home for their nine children.

    “Growing up in this country, with a very large family, there’s so much responsibility — especially for my parents not really having an education,” Panemalaythong said in her online pageant video. “We all had to just really chip in.”

    Panemalaythong’s proudest accomplishment came in 2010, when she and her brother-in-law bought home, where 10 family members now live.

    “I’m so happy because I’m now living the American dream,” she said.

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    Living off the grid

    Miss Alaska Jessica Kazmierczak, 22, spent most of her childhood in a log cabin, without power or running water in small-town Alaska.

    “I really grew up the true Alaskan way,” she said. “…Growing up without a TV so I missed all the cartoons when I was little, which was kind of a bummer.”

    On the bright side, she and her family never really needed to go to the grocery store, because her mother had a huge garden and her dad was an avid hunter.

    “We had a lot of moose meat, caribou meat ... and we always had vegetables,” she said.

    Although she couldn’t have play time until she weeded two rows in the garden every day and friends didn’t want to come over because they feared they’d be put to work, she has fond memories of her childhood.

    “It was really different, really neat and I appreciate it now looking back,” she explained.

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    She lost 10 pant sizes

    Miss Delaware Krista Clausen isn’t quite the woman she used to be.

    Feeling unhealthy, Clausen and her family starting working out and cleaning up their diets.

    “One thing led to another and I really got going with it,” the 19-year-old said. “I ended up losing 55 pounds and 10 whole pants sizes.”

    Now Clausen says her dream job is to be a trainer on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” weight-loss show.

    She also has a “dog obsession,” with her yorkie named Bentley. “He’s a person to me,” she says. “I talk to him all the time about everything.”

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    Scared of balloons

    There’s one fear that Miss D.C. Monique Thompkins never outgrew: The 23-year-old has a fear of balloons. “When you’re blowing up a balloon, I’m nowhere around,” Thompkins said. “If you’re tying a balloon, I’m nowhere around. If you’re playing with a balloon, I try to figure out why.”

    Today, Thompkins has fond memories of her childhood. Her mom had her when she was very young, so Thompkins’ father took her to live with her grandmother.

    “I never really noticed that I came from a broken home,” she said. “I never thought of it that way. It was pretty normal for me.”

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    ‘The female Josh Groban’

    Miss South Carolina Erika Powell has been singing since the time she could walk.

    “We would have singing time after story time at night on the couch and I would sing ‘Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,’” said Powell, 26.

    Now a singer who had her solo debut at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2010, she says she’d love to be seen as “the female Josh Groban.”

    “If I were to define myself as a singer I would say I’m not an opera singer but a singer who’s heavily influenced by opera,” Powell said.

    And with all her talents, she wishes she could do it all.

    “If I could be great at one thing I would be in more than one place at one time,” Powell said. “There are tons of things I wish I could do but they all seem to happen at the exact same time so I wish I could clone myself.”

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    Armed with a bedazzler

    If you don’t watch out, Miss KansasGentry Miller just might bedazzle you, too.

    Miller loves to craft with rhinestones and “really bedazzle anything I possible can.”

    “I have phone cases covered in rhinestones,” Miller, 24, said. “My dog collar is covered in rhinestones.”

    And when she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Kansas, the top of her mortar board was tricked out with a rhinestone “G.”

    “Really, anything — if it doesn’t move, it’s going to be covered in rhinestones,” she joked.

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    Active and accident-prone

    Miss West Virginia Andrea Rogers had an active childhood that unfortunately, wasn’t accident-free.

    When she was about 3, she broke her arm after “jumping off a coffee table trying to fly like Batman.” And on the last sledding run of the day one winter, she flipped over and “busted my two front teeth.”

    She and her sister were always on the move. “My sister and I pretty much ran our neighborhood,” Rogers, 25, said. “We were either outside roller blading or riding our bikes or sled riding in the wintertime.”

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    Horse brain?

    Miss Ohio Audrey Bolte earned her nickname in the stables.

    Bolte, an equestrienne who began competing at age 6, won an equestrian scholarship to college where she worked with troubled horses.

    “They had behavioral issues, they were troubled, they didn’t ride well,” Bolte, 23, said. “The more I worked with them, the better they became. They became so good that anyone could ride them. So I got called ‘The Fixer’ at my college.”

    Bolte has loved horses since she was a little girl. “One thing that confused my parents just a little bit about me growing up was that I never wanted to play with dolls. I only wanted to play with hoses,” she said. “So they think I was born with a horse brain.”

    Miss USA / Miss USA
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    Got trash? She'll haul it

    Miss Utah Kendyl Bell looks good even when sitting in a garbage truck, decked out in a neon safety vest and hard hat. Bell, 25, is the community outreach manager for Republic Services, a garbage company.

    “We specialize in garbage and recycling,” Bell said. “We do every aspect of it from pick-up to hauling to disposal. You name it, we do it.

    “We are a one-stop shop for all your garbage needs,” she advertised.

    Miss USA / Miss USA

"She was having a rough time, but, you know, she came out on top," Bolte said.

The pageant at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Las Vegas Strip had three competitions: swimsuit, evening gowns and interview question. The contestants were whittled to 16 after the show's opening fashion show number. The top 16 were picked by preliminary judges through competitions and interviews during the week before the telecast.

The contestants were later narrowed down to a field of 10 and then five before Culpo was named Miss USA.

Pop band Cobra Starship performed as the beauty queens modeled their string bikinis. Singer Akon danced with the top five during the evening gown competition.

Culpo had one of the more modest dresses of the contest, with many of the beauty queens wearing revealing gowns with bare backs, high slits and sheer fabric. In contrast, Culpo's flowing gown covered her legs and back while revealing some cleavage.

The judge's panel included Chef Cat Cora, TV personality Arsenio Hall, singer Joe Jonas and reality TV star Rob Kardashian. Andy Cohen and Giuliana Rancic stepped in to host. Miss USA 2011 Alyssa Campanella crowned Culpo her successor at the end of the night.

Culpo will represent the United States at the 61st Miss Universe pageant in December. An American has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.

The first-ever transgender contestant to compete in the Miss Universe Canada pageant made it to the penultimate round before losing her bid to win the title last month. She was initially denied entry to Canada's pageant because she was not born female. Donald Trump, who runs the Miss Universe Organization, subsequently overruled that decision.

Miss Universe publicity director Brenda Mendoza has said transgender competitors are now welcome at all of its pageants around the world.

The competition is not affiliated with the Miss America pageant.

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