Declan O’Kelly talks to Miss USA Tara Conner and finds there is a steely resolve and inner grace to this Southern beauty
Tara Conner remembers being a boisterous girl who enjoyed the outdoor life, playing sports with her brother Josh and getting into all sorts of devilment. One day her mother told her she looked really pretty in a dress, so Tara decided to enter the 1998 Russell County Fair, and duly walked away with the title. This victory prompted her to leave boyish things behind and embrace the world of pageantry, beginning a journey that has taken her all the way to the top.
She may be just 20, but this pageant veteran has seen and done it all in the world of competitive beauty. Tara is one of an elite group of women who have competed in the three major beauty competitions: Miss Teen USA, Miss USA and Miss Universe. She won Miss Teen Kentucky and was second runner-up in the Miss Teen USA competition in 2002. Not one to mope around about coming second, she simply dusted herself off and began to prepare for Miss Kentucky 2006. Kentucky’s record in Miss USA had been improving steadily over the past few years, culminating in 2005 when Kristen Johnson finished second runner-up to North Carolina’s Chelsea Cooley. Organizers were keen for Miss Kentucky 2006 to continue the tradition of contending for the national title. Little did they know that by picking Tara Conner they would unleash a blonde bombshell who would bring the title back to the state for the first time. In front of millions of TV viewers, Tara was crowned Miss USA on April 21, fulfilling a lifelong dream. As Miss USA she represented her country in the Miss Universe competition in Los Angeles on July 23 and got into the final five, eventually finishing fourth runner-up to winner Miss Puerto Rico, Zuleyka Rivera.
And make no mistake; this lady definitely excites aesthetic admiration. When I met her at the Miss Universe office just off 56th Street in Manhattan on a sunny August Friday afternoon, she had just finished a workout with her personal trainer, Sid. A petite lass, about five-foot-five in her flip-flops, with blond hair that occasionally caresses her shoulders and camouflages mischievous brown eyes, she is extremely bubbly and has a smile straight out of a Colgate commercial. Wearing a horizontally striped turquoise summer dress that showcased her svelte figure, she is the embodiment of summer cool on a day when the temperatures were anything but.
Since April, Tara’s life has been a whirlwind of personal appearances and autograph signings, but the new Miss USA is not complaining. “It’s been a roller coaster, you face so many different challenges and it takes a lot of strength to get through. You really have to be made for this job. A lot of people look at it like ‘I want this title,’ but I looked at it thinking ‘I really want this job.’ I knew how stressful it was going to be, making appearances left and right, running backwards and forwards. It’s very demanding. If you are not emotionally prepared for it, then you are not going to make a good Miss USA.”
Tara Elizabeth Conner was born on December 18, 1985 to John and Brenda Conner in Russell Springs, Kentucky. The town, with a population of 2,500, has three stop lights (a fourth is on the way) and the biggest store is a K-Mart. Conner’s Miss USA win has boosted the small city’s profile, and she lights up when she talks of home. “It’s a little slice of heaven. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone is very hospitable, you can’t go there and not feel like you are at home, and the atmosphere is very laid back. They are so excited about it, you know, a small-town girl did something and a lot of people now know where Russell Springs, Kentucky is. If you Googled it before I won I doubt that anything popped up. It does now.”
Possessing such a classic Irish name as Tara Conner, the former tomboy turned head-turner is proud of her Irish heritage. “Lawrence Conner came to America from Dublin in 1752 and eventually settled in Virginia in 1770. My great-great-grandfather’s name was Johnny Conner and he had eleven children, one of which was my great-grandfather Carmel Conner. My grandfather’s name was also Johnny Conner, so they carried the name on down and my dad’s name is John Conner. I also know I have Irish heritage on my mother’s side, but I am not sure exactly from where.”
Family is of key importance to Conner, who cites the influence of her Granny Conner and mother as the most important in her life. Granny Conner was in her mid-fifties when she decided to take her GED test, and then decided to go to college and complete a business degree. She still works in the school system in Russell Springs, and her determination seems to have passed on to her granddaughter. “For me it was awesome that she went from not having an education to wanting to get one to finally doing it,” Tara says. “She has been a hard worker all her life and is such a good role model. She has instilled in me such great morals and values.”
Tara’s mother, who works with Fruit of the Loom, evokes a similar emotive response from the young beauty queen. “If I turn out half as good as she does I will be truly blessed. She knows what real happiness is, she knows what it is like to love, to be a caregiver and to take care of her children. She is just amazing.”
Josh, her only sibling, is 18 months older than Tara and is stationed with the U.S. Navy in Naples, Italy as a master-at-arms in the Military Police. Apart from a web-cam conversation, she hasn’t seen him in over a year but she hopes to remedy that soon and feels that the Navy has been good for him. “I think he wanted to do something with his life. He needed to be motivated, and the best way to motivate any young man or any female is to stick them in the military because they learn so much about self-composure and discipline.” Not that her win had a negative effect on his reputation – on the contrary. “I think it just made him more popular. His sis is Miss USA and he got a little hot spree there for a while.”
It wasn’t all tiaras and tears of happiness, though, as Tara’s parents divorced when she was 14. Though she maintains a very good relationship with her dad, a corporate controls engineer, the divorce had a profound influence on her growing up, or growing up faster. “Divorce is very, very painful. I am not going to say that I did not go through a bad time – I was 14 years old, of course I did – but because of that I have developed the thickest skin. I am still a major caregiver, because I felt I had to be there for both Mom and Dad. Divorce is hard for everyone, especially the children, and I had to grow up very fast. But look at where I am now! The divorce has not hindered anything I have done; if anything it has been a motivator.”
Did divorce trigger a subconscious desire in Conner to pursue pageantry with renewed vigor, as a vehicle where she was in complete control of her emotional environment? “I am a control freak, I love for things – I don’t want to say for things to go my way, but when they do I am happy about it because I know how hard I have worked. The divorce seems to have instilled a huge work ethic in me, because I started working right after.” And work she did, paying her own way to relieve the burden on her mom, who was working two jobs to make ends meet.
This work ethic she developed at an early age is paying off now, as the schedule of appearances and responsibilities of a Miss USA is quite daunting. Now, some may say that the Miss USA competition is frivolous and superficial, some might even argue that it exploits the looks of young women, but the work that Miss USA and the Miss USA organization do together is deadly serious. Miss USA primarily works with breast and ovarian cancer research and fund-raising. She spends a lot of her year actively raising money for these causes. Miss USA 2005, Chelsea Cooley, raised over $22 million during her reign.
The importance of these issues is not lost on the 2006 Miss USA. “To me that is of the utmost importance. Our official causes are breast and ovarian cancer and we are huge supporters of the USO [United Service Organizations]. That’s your job as Miss USA; you are an advocate and you are an ambassador, and if you don’t fully appreciate and embrace this and really want to help or make a change or increase awareness, then you are not doing your job. For me just learning the information and hearing some of the stories I have heard and people I have met have really touched me. Recently I was watching The Real World / Road Rules Challenge on MTV and one of the girls had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and that was what sparked my first tears as Miss USA. I was just watching something on television and feeling ‘God love her,’ because I now saw what the disease can do. I knew a little going into it, but when I really started getting into it, it really did me in. I am very passionate about cancer research.”
So what does the Miss USA Organization think of their new ambassador? “The first word I would use to describe Tara is hysterical,” says Public Relations Coordinator Erin Cooney. “She is very funny, very real, which actually has been my experience with all the girls I’ve worked with. They have flaws like everyone else, they get angry and sad and mad, they are real people.” The Miss USA Organization is also there to advise and educate, and Tara is quick to point this out. “We are always looking out for everyone’s best interests. I told them I wanted to be one of the best Miss USA’s they have ever had. And I am passionate about this and I want to leave my mark and they said, ‘OK.’ If I do or say something that’s not right, I want them to correct me because it will improve me.” Erin wholeheartedly agrees that this method has advantages but sagely points out, “If you are open to criticism, it can be a great thing. But at the end of the day we want Tara to be Tara, because that is how she got here.”
So how has the country girl adapted to life in the Big Apple? She is sharing a Trump three-bedroom apartment (The Miss Universe Organization is a Donald Trump and NBC partnership) for a year with Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera and Miss Teen USA Katie Blair. It comes as no surprise that there are three bathrooms in the apartment! But there are no butlers or foot servants. Tara has taken the subway (though it is not her preferred method of transport) and does her own laundry. All three beauty queens are left to their own devices when it comes to day-to-day living. But with her hectic schedule, is there any time for romance or a boyfriend? “Right now I am so focused on my job, romance doesn’t really interest me. Of course all girls love to have romance in their lives, but right now I have this job for one year and that’s all I am focused on.” Some subtle inquiries on my part discovered that a certain someone was left behind in Kentucky, but the talkative Tara goes strangely silent on further attempts to procure information on the subject.
One thing she is most definitely not silent about is her pride in coming from the South and her disdain for those who play on the negative stereotypes. “A lot of people feel that people from the South are ignorant; just because you are from the South they feel you may not be educated. Just because your accent is a little bit different doesn’t mean that you are not educated, does not mean that you cannot make as big an impact as anyone else,” she says. But what can Conner do as Miss USA to fight these prejudices? “As Miss USA what I want to do is show that I can speak well and that I am intelligent and very passionate about the things that I do. I worked very hard to get to the position I am in, and coming fourth runner-up in Miss Universe wasn’t too bad for a Southern girl, now was it?”
Once she fulfills her duties as Miss USA, Tara hopes to follow her new dream of becoming a TV host à la Kelly Ripa, whom she admires greatly. Ever the planner, though, if offers don’t come in, then she will go back to school and take advantage of the two-year scholarship she won from the Miss USA competition at the School for Film and Television in New York. But what if other offers came in, for example, an offer to pose for Playboy, would that be of interest to Tara Conner? “Being in Playboy is something that I’m just not interested in. Different girls, different tastes. It’s the Southern belle in me. I have that little Southern charm thing; I’m a Southern girl. I don’t do that.”