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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Tara Elizabeth Conner

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-03

Tara Elizabeth Conner of Kentucky knows that she's in the beauty business for the short term.

"I'm O.K. with that," the recently crowned Miss USA 2006 said yesterday. "The important thing is to make your run last as long as you can - the important thing is to make an impact that lasts."

At 20 years of age, Ms. Conner has many years ahead to build on her victory in Baltimore on April 21. But even as the Kentucky native savors her title and all the attention that comes with it, she's already begun to assemble plans to make a long-term impact.

New York figures prominently in those plans.

"I'm a country girl with big-city dreams," Ms. Conner said. "And I've come to the city of cities."

She's here because, under the terms of her title, Ms. Conner must be based in New York for the duration of her one-year reign. The pageant, which is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, requires her to be put up at a Trump apartment in Manhattan.

Ms. Conner resides in that building along with the current Miss Teen USA, Allie LaForce of Ohio, and Miss Universe, Natalie Glebova of Canada. Indeed, she will be competing for Ms. Glebova's title in Los Angeles on July 23.

"That takes a lot of preparation," Ms. Conner said.

The preparation involves following a strict regimen of diet and exercise and, of course, confidence-enhancing measures.

Not that Ms. Conner needs to significantly boost her confidence in herself. She comes across as a combination of a down-home woman, yet one with poise that belies her age - a fact that judges at the Miss USA contest cited in awarding her the top title over the first runner-up, Miss California, Tamiko Nash, 26, of Los Angeles; the second runner-up, Miss Georgia, Lisa Wilson, 26, of Rome; the third runner-up, Miss Ohio, Stacy Offenberger, 26, of Marietta; and the fourth runner-up, Miss Florida, Cristin Duren, 24, of Panama City Beach.. The five finalists emerged from 51 contestants who'd spent 23 days in Baltimore for the Miss USA competition.

The two-hour finals were televised globally, and drew an estimated audience of 250 million, according to NBC.

"I'm the 55th Miss USA - and that will always stay with me," Ms. Conner - the first Miss Kentucky to win the Miss USA title - said. "The day after I won, they whisked me away - and here I was in New York."

She said that she'd never come to New York before. Would she like to live here permanently?

'Well, being Miss USA opens so many doors - the opportunity to appear on television, the scholarships, all the exciting people one gets to meet," Ms. Conner said. "I see myself pursuing a career in acting and modeling, perhaps even hosting my own show on TV."

While Ms. Conner is exploring those possibilities, she's also serving as a national spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer awareness. Since 1998, Mr. Trump's Miss Universe Organization and Miss USA have been actively involved in support of breast cancer and ovarian cancer awareness, according to a Trump spokeswoman. Each year, Miss USA raises money for nationally recognized breast and ovarian cancer organizations such as the Susan G. Kolmen Breast Cancer Foundation, the National Breast Cancer Coalition, Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, and Gilda's Club.

It is not that Ms. Conner will spend her reign focusing only on public appearances.

Her prizes include a two-year scholarship from the School for Film and Television in New York. Ms. Conner said that she intends to avail herself of that opportunity.

"I also want to complete my college education," she said, alluding to her current enrollment in Somerset Community College in Kentucky, where she's majoring in business administration. "I want to be totally prepared for a successful career in this increasingly competitive environment."

She said that she'd been dreaming about beauty pageant competitions since her early teens.

"I come from Russell Springs - a little town of 2,200 people and three stop lights," Ms. Conner said. "When I started watching beauty pageants on TV, a whole new world opened up to me. That's when my big dream began."

That dream may have seemed incongruous in view of her modest background. Ms. Conner's father, John Conner, is a computer technician; her mother, Brenda Johnson, works in a factory. Her older brother Josh is in the navy.

"I would watch those pageants and see the beauty queens being crowned - and I would say to myself, 'I want to be that girl,'" Ms. Conner said. "So from an early age I've been working toward my title."

Before she won the Miss USA title, Ms. Conner was Miss Kentucky, and before that, Miss Kentucky Teen USA. She was the second runner-up in the Miss Teen USA 2002 contest.

One gets the impression that Ms. Conner's personal familiarity with the beauty-pageant process has squeezed out any element of surprise over the celebrity status that the Miss USA title fetches.

But, she said, she hadn't realized how exhausting her professional commitments would be in the wake of winning the big one.

"It's been a busy, busy time - and time goes so fast," Ms. Conner said. "You want to be absorbing everything. You want to take complete advantage of being here in New York. After all, you can get to be Miss USA only once in your life - and I want to take complete advantage of this."

Her professional obligations - which include media and charity appearances, among other things - have left her little time to socialize in New York.

"I've had no social life," Ms. Conner said. "All my friends are back in Kentucky. I miss my parents. I suppose I will make new friends here, but so far there's been so little time to just hang out and relax."

The reporter, assuming that a newly crowned Miss USA would be commuting from one dazzling dinner to another, asked her what she thought of New York's fabled society circuit.

Ms. Conner laughed.

"You know, I came back to my apartment last night and cooked myself some spaghetti," she said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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