Former Miss USA Tara Conner Crowns Miss Tennessee

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The slate of young women aspiring to the Miss USA title was trimmed Friday to five finalists, as the pageant neared the selection of a new beauty queen during a telecast that spotlighted the reigning titleholder's much-publicized bout with alcoholism.

The contestants to make the final five were: Meagan Yvonne Tandy of California; Cara Renee Gorges of Kansas; Helen Salas of Nevada; Rachel Smith of Tennessee; and Danielle Lacourse of Rhode Island. Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia were vying to succeed Miss USA Tara Conner, who entered rehab after accounts surfaced suggesting she was boozing at New York clubs. The episode might have cost the Kentucky native her crown, but Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant, gave her a second chance.

The show 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 wearing a strapless, ruffled gown, and appeared on stage.

"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.

Other contestants whose behavior ran afoul of the pageant's standards weren't so fortunate. 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. Miss USA contestants must not have ever been married or given birth.

Still, Trump's decision to spare Conner sparked a war of words between the real estate mogul and "The View" co-host Rosie O'Donnell.

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."

Far from sweeping the scandals under the rug, pageant organizers were using the extra attention drawn to the pageant in recent months to spotlight Conner's own bouts with alcohol and the steps she has taken to get help. Conner underwent a stint in rehab in Pennsylvania for her drinking.

During the swimsuit competition, the beauty queens performed a synchronized strut on stage wearing blue, pink or lilac bikinis before posing individually for the judges. All the competitors also 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 she represents the Miss Universe Organization and speaks out on breast and ovarian cancer awareness. She also gets to represent the United States in the worldwide Miss Universe competition.

A panel of six judges determines 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.

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(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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