December 20, 2006 in Nation/World

Apology, rehab promise win Miss USA a second chance

Adam Lisberg New York Daily News
Associated Press photo

Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner is overcome with emotion during a news conference Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

NEW YORK – Miss USA Tara Conner kept her crown Tuesday with a tearful apology to boss Donald Trump and a promise to go to rehab – even though she insists she doesn’t have a problem.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m an alcoholic. I think that would be pushing the envelope,” said Conner, who was known in New York’s nightclub scene for allegedly drinking hard, snorting cocaine and hooking up with a long string of men.

The beauty queen said she celebrated her 21st birthday Monday with Diet Coke and iced tea – but Trump said he’ll force her to take regular drug tests.

“I don’t think she’s denying she’s an alcoholic,” said Trump, who owns the Miss USA pageant. “She can be a great example for troubled people – and she’s troubled – for troubled people … that have problems with alcohol.”

Trump threatened to strip Conner of her pearl-and-diamond tiara last week after pageant officials couldn’t get her to stop her wanton ways, even after she failed a drug test for cocaine.

But she bawled when she stepped into his Trump Tower office Tuesday morning, an insider said – and that was enough to charm the softer side of the fearsome TV boss.

“She left a small town in Kentucky, and she was telling me that she got caught up in the whirlwind that is New York,” Trump told reporters crowded into his glitzy Fifth Ave. office tower.

“I’ve always had a belief in second chances,” said the thrice-married mogul. “Tara is going to be given a second chance.”

Conner wiped tears from her eyes as a crowd of tourists applauded, but her mascara never ran.

“You will never know how much I appreciate Mr. Trump for saving me,” she said in a trembling Southern drawl. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

Within hours of Trump’s decision, while pageant officials mulled what sort of counseling to get for their star, Conner was already backtracking – telling MSNBC, “I wouldn’t say that I have a big drinking problem.”

“Denial is part of the illness,” said Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York. “People who work in treatment can start working with a patient even if he or she is ambivalent or refuses to address their use.”

In Conner’s tiny Bible Belt hometown of Russell Springs, Ky., clients in curlers and stylists with scissors at Judy’s Hairport burst into tears and cheers when they watched Trump’s announcement.

“We’re so proud, not just because she’s from our small town,” said Judy Roy, who owns the four-chair salon. “Everybody’s done something, and how many people get a second chance?”

Mary Gossett said the moment was extra-special because Conner had occasionally come by the shop raising money for one of her many pageant trips before she hit it big.

“Everybody down here is so thankful,” said Gossett. “Everybody makes mistakes, but everybody deserves a second chance.”

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