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Former Miss California: I was smeared

In her memoir, "Still Standing," the former Miss California recounts her infamous response about gay marriage at the 2009 Miss USA competition. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In her memoir, “Still Standing,” the former Miss California recounts her infamous response about gay marriage at the 2009 Miss USA competition. An excerpt.

My moment of truth
“Next, let’s have California, Carrie Prejean.” I looked directly at Billy Bush, Access Hollywood star and host of the Miss USA 2009 pageant. I strode over to the center of the stage, trying to display ease and confidence.

Beneath the smile, however, my stomach churned with anxiety. When you’re on stage like that, though the bright lights blur out the crowd, you’re in a proverbial fish bowl: all eyes are on you. The lights make you want to squint, but you try to smile and walk across the stage naturally, even though you’ve practiced this same walk ten thousand times before.

This was my last test. We were down to five semi-finalists. One of us would be crowned Miss USA. Answering any question before a world audience of seven million people is going to be hard; mine would be a lot harder than I could have imagined.

I stepped forward and reached into a glass bowl and removed the folded card that would reveal the identity of my questioner. It was Judge Number Eight — Perez Hilton, self-styled celebrity blogger and professional gossip.

“Are we worried?” asked the co-host, actress Nadine Velazquez. “You should be,” a deep voice said into a microphone. I turned to face Perez Hilton, a jowly, boyish-looking man with blond highlights in his hair. It was his deep voice that had given me this warning — no doubt half in jest, but half menacingly too.

He asked his question: “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?”

It was as though I could feel time slowing down; as if silence was screaming in my ears, like tinnitus; I had to break that silence with my answer — and I had to do it now, before the silence grew and grew and crippled me, making me look hesitant or confused. I have never felt more exposed, alone, and vulnerable in my life. But I smiled my broadest smile and prepared to answer.

I was being dared — in front of the entire world — to give a candid answer to a serious question. I knew if I told the truth, I would lose all that I was competing for: the crown, the luxury apartment in New York City, the large salary — everything that went with the Miss USA title. I also knew, or suspected, that I was the front-runner, and if I gritted my teeth and gave the politically correct answer, I could be Miss USA ….

I had survived the interview, the swimsuit competition, and the evening gown competition. There was just one more event to go. To me, this last event was the easiest. After all my preparation, I knew I could do this. I just had to be myself.

Suddenly, it hit me that the long months of planning, dieting, exercising, and practicing were on the verge of paying off. If I won, I would become Miss USA, headed for the 58th Miss Universe Pageant in Nassau, Bahamas. I would be America’s girl at the most popular and most-watched beauty pageant in the world.

Even if I only won Miss USA, it would be a platform for national exposure. It would help me land my dream job as an on-air sports journalist on a national network. But even if I looked confident as I walked toward my goal across that stage, inside I was thinking: What if I trip over my heels (as several contestants had done in other pageants) or give a painfully inarticulate answer (as had also happened and been immortalized on YouTube). This evening in Las Vegas was my chance to fall flat on my fanny in front of the whole world. I squared my shoulders. Miss Universe, Carrie, I told myself. You got this. I knew if I saw it, felt it, the dream could become reality.

Then came “the Question.”

Many commentators have called me stupid for not having the political judgment to look down from that stage at Perez Hilton and give him the answer he so desperately wanted to hear.

Instead, I said:

Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I believe that it should be — between a man and a woman.

I could see Perez and the other judges slump back in their chairs, mouths gaping with disbelief. Perez’s round school-boy face sagged — he looked absolutely devastated. Perez turned away from me, refusing to make eye contact.

It was as if I had just set off an atomic bomb. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone in the audience started talking. I heard cheers and boos; then the roar of hundreds of conversations drowned out everything else.

As I later told Matt Lauer on the Today Show, I knew immediately that I would lose the competition because of my answer, because I had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs, and for my God. I also spoke for the majority of the people of California, but not, I was sure, for the majority of the judges on the panel. They as a group represented the values of Hollywood; those aren’t my values, and though I didn’t want to offend anyone, it was more important to me to be biblically correct than politically correct.

It’s a sad fact of life, but I knew political correctness was powerful enough to deny me the opportunity to be Miss USA. As painful as losing is, especially for a competitor like me, I could live with that because the crown was not worth winning if it meant compromising my beliefs. What I didn’t know was that merely for expressing a point of view identical to that of a majority of California voters, the President, and most Americans, I would be publicly labeled a bigot and a bitch, a Nazi, and a “c**t.” I would be the victim of a succession of well-planned dirty tricks in which the same people who put me on an airplane to New York would then hold a press conference to bemoan the fact that I was not in Los Angeles, doing my job. I would have my personal medical information and emails publicly released without my knowledge or consent. I would have personal information from my past aired publicly, as if I were running for president. I would receive a televised death threat from a prominent British politician — and no one I worked with in the Miss California or Miss USA pageants would even bother to stand up to say a word in my defense. Within weeks I would be fired as Miss California in the worst possible way, getting the news from my interviewer, Billy Bush, while I was on his radio show.

The strange part is that I would learn that I — a 22-year-old beauty queen from San Diego — had dared to speak out and say what some of the most influential people in the country will only tell me in a whisper, that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

What I went through told me something about America. There is something broken in our culture when a majority of Americans are afraid to speak out on a prominent issue. There is something sick about a political correctness smear machine that can be turned on instantly and can throw so much hatred at a young woman who dared to speak her mind.

This excerpt from "Still Standing: The Untold Story of My Fight Against Gossip, Hate, and Political Attacks" by Carrie Prejean was reprinted with permission of Regnery Publishing.