Beauty Queens Vie For Title At 56th Annual Miss USA Pageant

Friday, March 23rd 2007, 2:41 pm

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Beauty queens from across the nation prepared to compete Friday night for the title of Miss USA in a live televised pageant expected to go beyond the traditional evening gown and swimsuit staples and touch on the issues that nearly cost the reigning titleholder her crown.

The pageant, co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, was making its return to Hollywood after two years in Baltimore.

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 Conner, a native of Kentucky, her crown, but Trump gave her a second chance.

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.

Far from sweeping the scandals under the rug, however, pageant organizers were using the extra attention drawn to the pageant in recent months to spotlight at least 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.

The contestants, who arrived in Los Angeles about two weeks ago, were not allowed to go out without a chaperone. They also had to sign a ``moral contract.''

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.

Like the Miss America Pageant, Miss USA was incorporating a few new wrinkles to keep viewers tuned in to the action, including more behind-the-scenes shots.

The audience was also given the opportunity to cast votes from home for Miss Photogenic.

A panel of six judges were to determine 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.

Hosting the pageant: Tim Vincent and Nancy O'Dell of ``Access Hollywood.''

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