Rachel Smith realized she had a real shot at the Miss USA crown when she made it to the top 15.
Next up was the swimsuit portion of the pageant, and the journalism graduate from Tennessee told herself: “I’m just going to work it.”
Smith, 21, ultimately bested 50 other aspiring beauty queens to win the title of Miss USA on Friday night. The 5-foot, 11-inch-tall brunette is a graduate of Belmont University and a former intern for the production company behind The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I’m speechless at this point, I really am,” Smith said after the pageant.
Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia competed to succeed Miss USA Tara Conner, who entered rehab after accounts surfaced suggesting she was boozing at New York clubs. The Kentucky native was in danger of losing her crown, but Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC, gave her a second chance.
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 onstage 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 Theatre.
Smith, of Clarksville, Tenn., edged out top finalists Meagan Yvonne Tandy of California; Cara Renee Gorges of Kansas; Helen Salas of Nevada; and Danielle Lacourse of Rhode Island, who was named the first runner-up.
When asked whether she was ready to take over for Conner, Smith admitted it would “be a little bit of a challenge,” but quickly added she was ready for it.
“I’m excited to see what this year will hold,” she said.
Smith also praised Conner’s stewardship of the Miss USA title and her handling of the challenges she faced.
“I definitely learned a lot,” Smith said of Conner’s tenure as Miss USA.
Asked how she would behave during her reign, Smith said: “I’m going to be honest and open.”
Tim Vincent and Nancy O’Dell of Access Hollywood hosted the pageant, which made its return to Hollywood after two years in Baltimore.
During a brief onstage interview with Vincent and O’Dell, Conner said her future plans included writing a book, and doing “correspondence work and a little bit of acting.”
Other contestants whose behavior ran afoul of the pageant’s standards were not as fortunate as Conner. 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.
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.
During the swimsuit competition, the beauty queens performed a synchronized strut wearing blue, pink or lilac bikinis before posing individually for the judges. All the competitors also had brief walk-ons in their evening gowns before the finalists took their solo strolls for the audience.
The audience was given the opportunity to vote, selecting Rebecca Moore of Alabama as Miss Photogenic. The contestants voted Stephanie Trudeau of Montana as Miss Congeniality.
A panel of six judges were tasked with determining the winner: TV personality 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.