The Miss USA pageant gears up to name a new queen this week in a live televised competition that organizers say will spotlight how reigning titleholder Tara Conner nearly lost her crown and ended up in rehab.
"Certainly, our reigning Miss USA is going to be on television and we're certainly not going to shy away from referring to what happened," executive producer Phil Gurin told The Associated Press on Monday. "Why shy away from what's part of our family? We embrace our family."
While not a centerpiece of the show, Conner will be "all over our telecast," Gurin added.
Viewers will be able to see Conner and "make their own determinations by seeing how she presents herself, what she has to say about what happened this past year ... and that's something we've never been able to do before."
Published accounts last fall suggested that Conner, a native of Kentucky, was boozing it up at New York clubs — not exactly the kind of public behavior expected of a role model tapped to be Miss USA and then represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant.
The behavior of other Miss USA contestants over the last few months also drew unwanted public scrutiny: Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees lost her title after racy pictures of her surfaced on the Internet, and Miss New Jersey USA Ashley Harder resigned when she got pregnant.
A second chanceConner hung on to her crown after Donald Trump, who owns the Miss Universe and Miss USA contests in a partnership with NBC, decided to give her a second chance. She underwent a stint in rehab in Pennsylvania for her drinking.
Trump's decision sparked a war of words between The Donald and "The View" co-host Rosie O'Donnell.
On Monday, 51 contestants representing all the states and the District of Columbia participated in a non-televised preliminary competition, each taking turns wearing a swimsuit and an evening gown and modeling them for the judges. The beauty queens met with judges on Sunday to conduct the interview portion of the competition.
The scores earned by contestants in the preliminary contest were not released. They are used to determine the 15 top finalists named early on in the telecast Friday.
Gurin said he doesn't think the Conner flap has hurt the pageant's reputation.
"I think there's been more focus on the pageant, perhaps, than there might have been otherwise, but I don't think it's tarnished anything," he said.
If anything, Gurin conceded, the controversy may draw more viewers to the show.
"We don't want to capitalize from someone's misfortune," said Gurin, who marks his fifth year producing the pageant. "Any time there's something that stirs up the pot, certainly more eyeballs are going to come to watch."
Asked about how the controversies might affect ratings or the pageant's image, NBC issued a statement saying the network is "delighted" with the pageant this year.
That sentiment was echoed by some of the pageant loyalists in Los Angeles for the big event Monday.
Gail Clark, a state director for the Miss Texas pageant, said she hadn't seen any evidence of negative effects from the pageant scandals on morale among pageantgoers. Recruitment of new contestants in her state remains strong, she added.
Still, she conceded the negative publicity was not good.
"It's unfortunate because a lot of young women are looking up to them as role models, but on the other hand they're definitely human," Clark said. "I have to trust that Mr. Trump made the right decisions."
From swimwear promotion to pageantThe Miss USA Pageant began in 1952 as a swimwear promotion in Long Beach.
Contestants pay a fee to enter. They must win a state title before competing for the Miss USA crown. Miss USA goes on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.
Like its rival, the Miss America Pageant, Miss USA will incorporate a few new wrinkles to keep viewers tuned in to the action Friday.
Viewers can expect more behind-the-scenes shots of the beauty queens, including the reaction backstage of the contestants who fail to make the initial cut.
The audience will also be able to cast votes from home for Miss Photogenic.
The 56th Annual Miss USA Pageant will be televised Friday live from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
Nancy O'Dell, host of "Access Hollywood," has been tapped to host the pageant.