Rachel Smith, a journalism graduate from Tennessee, was crowned Miss USA on Friday, winning the contest to replace a titleholder whose reign was marred by a much-publicized struggle with alcoholism.
Smith, 21, of Clarksville, Tenn., graduated from Belmont University and interned last year for the production company behind “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
She edged out top finalists Meagan Yvonne Tandy of California; Cara Renee Gorges of Kansas; Helen Salas of Nevada; and Danielle Lacourse of Rhode Island.
“I’m speechless at this point, I really am,” said Smith.
Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia vied to succeed Miss USA Tara Conner, who entered rehab after accounts surfaced suggesting the Kentucky native was boozing at New York clubs.
The episode might have cost her the crown, but Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC, gave her a second chance. Trump’s decision sparked a war of words between him and “The View” co-host Rosie O’Donnell.
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 onto stage 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 Theater.
During a brief onstage interview with the show’s hosts, Tim Vincent and Nancy O’Dell of “Access Hollywood,” Conner said her future plans included writing a book, and doing “correspondence work and a little bit of acting.”
During the swimsuit competition, the beauty queens performed a synchronized strut on stage wearing blue, pink or lilac bikinis before each posed for the judges. The contestants had brief walk-ons onstage in their evening gowns before the finalists took their solo strolls for the audience.
The audience was also given the opportunity to cast some votes, selecting Rebecca Moore of Alabama as Miss Photogenic. The contestants voted Stephanie Trudeau of Montana as Miss Congeniality.
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 a Miss Universe Organization representative and raise breast and ovarian cancer awareness. She also represents the United States in the worldwide Miss Universe competition.
A panel of six judges determined the winner: 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.