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Miss USA hints at childhood abuse

In her first live television interview since completing a month-long stint in rehab, 21-year-old Tara Conner tells TODAY's Matt Lauer about her alcoholism and drug use and hints at childhood trauma.
/ Source: TODAY

Fresh out of rehab, beauty queen Tara Conner said Thursday that she is confronting her demons – alcohol and drugs, and an unidentified person who may have "betrayed" her as a child – but still believes she can be an effective representative of the Miss USA pageant and help others face their addictions.

"For me, it all had the same effect. I was an equal-opportunity user," Conner said on TODAY in her first live-television interview since treatment. "Nothing fazed me. I would take what I could get because I was trying to mask so many things that I felt inside."

TODAY's Matt Lauer pressed Conner about the rumors that almost led pageant co-owner Donald Trump to strip her of her crown in December. The Kentucky native admitted to cocaine use while Miss USA, underage drinking at New York nightclubs, and late-night visits from male "friends" to her pageant-provided apartment in Trump Tower.

Conner said rehabilitation and the public airing of her problems opened her eyes. She discussed what she called her "manipulative" conduct, which she hinted may have come from unspecified abuse "early on" from someone she recently confronted.

"I will not deny that I have witnessed some abuse, but out of respect for my family ... this is something I need to take one day at a time," Conner said, dodging Lauer's repeated attempts to get her to open up about the experience.

Confronting the pastLauer continued to press the issue, telling Conner: "You know, you kind of put me in a strange position here because you just said to me a few minutes ago that you were a very manipulative person. So I guess I need to ask you if you are alluding to something here, is this part of the manipulation? … Some people would say, 'Wait a second. She's manipulating Matt now.'"

Conner denied that she was trying to play games. "In no way am I manipulating you at all. The great thing about my recovery right now is this the most honest I've ever been in my life," she said.

The beauty queen stopped short of blaming her alcoholism on anything that may have happened during her childhood in a small, rural Kentucky town.

"Do you think this is part of the reason, what happened in your past, for the alcoholism and the addictive personality?" Lauer asked.

"I'm sure it could have played a part in it," said Conner, who claimed to be sober for "52 or 53" days now. "There are a lot of things attached to alcoholism and addiction. And it could also be a genetic thing, or it could be an acquired taste. It's one of those things that can get you when you least expect it."

Conner, who was crowned Miss USA in April, entered a substance-abuse treatment center in Pennsylvania on Dec. 21 — one day after an emotional press conference in which Trump announced he was giving her another chance and wouldn't take away her crown.

The fallout
Trump's decision was criticized the following day by comic Rosie O'Donnell, co-anchor of "The View." O'Donnell called Trump a "snake-oil salesman," among other unflattering things, and charged that his estimated worth was overblown and came only after several bankruptcies. Trump fired back at O'Donnell, whom he called "a loser" and fat.

Conner rode out the Trump-O'Donnell feud in rehab, emerging Jan. 21 to admit publicly that she was an alcoholic and had an addiction problem. The post-rehab admission was in stark contrast to what she claimed during the December press conference.

"I wouldn't say I was an alcoholic. I think that would be pushing the envelope just a little bit," Conner said then.

On TODAY, Conner explained that she was in denial, refusing to accept that she had a serious problem.

"I was very manipulative and a very dishonest person. It was basically insanity," Conner said. "Now, I have a really good feel for who I am and I have faced some of these things that may have brought some of these things on."

"All in 30 days of rehabilitation? Can you change that quickly?" Lauer asked.

"It's a process. Nothing changes over night," Conner said.

Conner agreed with Lauer's suggestion that she had been living a "Dr. Jekyl, Mrs. Hyde" life—conducting herself one way while working as Miss USA, another way at night when the cameras were put away and she was just another young woman living in Manhattan.

"When it was time to walk away and take the sash off, I turned into a completely different person," Conner acknowledged.

Conner's admissions this week that she tried cocaine is not likely to quell the controversy surrounding the Miss USA pageant and Trump's decision to let her keep her tiara and sash. But barring any new incidents or revelations, it appears Conner could finish out her year as Miss USA.

Not that there aren't more temptations out there, including a reported offer from Playboy magazine for Conner to grace its pages.

Conner was adamant about how she'd respond to such an offer, saying, "I will not pose nude in Playboy. Positive."

Another interview with Conner will air on NBC’s Dateline Saturday night at 8 p.m.