Is Miss USA Scandal a Publicity Stunt?

It's hard to imagine Donald Trump being the forgiving type—at least when it comes to his money. So when reports of scandal about the current Miss USA surfaced last week, it seemed a safe bet that he'd say those famous words. Trump, after all, co-owns the Miss USA franchise with NBC. But he shocked fans and foes alike on Tuesday when he announced his decision not to the fire the embattled Tara Conner, despite allegations of hard-core partying, underage boozing, cocaine abuse and promiscuous activity. "I've always been a believer in second chances," the coifed billionaire told reporters on Tuesday, with a tearful Conner at his side. "She left a small town in Kentucky and she was telling me that she got caught up in the whirlwind of New York."

Wait—what? When TMZ.Com broke the Tara Conner story last week, gossip rags and celebrity commentators were all but certain the 20-year-old (who turned 21 on Monday) would be stripped of her crown. She reportedly had been evicted from her complimentary Trump Place Manhattan apartment, and was already being approached by Penthouse magazine for a dethroning spread. (Spokeswoman Kathleen Berzon says the magazine might still be interested). Moreover, Conner's First Runner Up in the pageant, Tamiko Nash, Miss California, had been told to be ready to get herself on a plane to New York. Though the Nash camp didn't return calls seeking comment, TMZ's Gillian Sheldon tells NEWSWEEK Nash was "extremely surprised" by Trump's change of heart.

It appears Tara Conner has some powerful negotiation skills. Either that, or Trump, who also didn't return calls looking for comment, has us all fooled. This is the most exposure the Miss USA pageant has received in years, and it just so happens that this is a critical publicity period for America's other big pageant—Miss America, the well-known scholarship competition that airs in January. With that in mind, Trump's timing might just be brilliant, say pageant experts, particularly since Miss USA's ratings were among its worst ever last April (second only to the 2002 contest). "This is [Miss America's] publicity window, and now Miss USA has jumped right in the middle of it," says Gerdeen Dyer, an Atlanta newspaper reporter and founder of Pageant.com, a Web site devoted to beauty pageant coverage. "It's a publicity coup."

That coup goes further than the organization itself. For Conner, all the press might be even better than getting to retain that throne. Despite being the first woman from Kentucky to win the Miss USA title in April (her "biggest dream ever"), Tara Conner was no household name. After finishing fourth in the Miss Universe pageant in July, the 5-foot-5 blonde was best-known for being caught lip-locked across Manhattan with Miss Teen USA Katie Blair, and returning to the duo's posh apartment with a variety of men. But now, Tara's name has joined the ranks of Paris, Britney and Lindsay—and that may be no mistake. "I know a lot of beauty queens, and a lot of them have all sorts of fun," says Dyer. "I don't think [Conner]'s a really outstandingly unusual case—she's part of the group. [Focusing the attention on her now] is clever."

This is not the first time a beauty-pageant queen has come under fire, and it certainly won't be the last. In 2002, Miss Russia, Oxana Fedorova, won the Miss Universe pageant but was stripped of her title after violating her contract by not showing up to scheduled photo shoots and charity events—the first time a titleholder had been ousted in the contest's more than 50-year history. Last month, Miss Great Britain lost her crown for agreeing to pose for Playboy magazine, among other things. But perhaps more striking is the well-known story of Miss America Vanessa Williams, who was forced to step down in 1984 after nude photographs she'd once posed for were circulated and published in Penthouse. Though Miss America declined to comment on its policies regarding such matters, Williams has certainly turned her saga into an advantage, going on to become a successful musician, Broadway star and currently starring in ABC's "Ugly Betty." "The right publicity strategy can turn almost anything into an advantage," says Dyer.

Not everyone is buying into that approach. Though Conner gets to keep her pearl-dotted tiara, it's unclear what'll happen to her role as a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Obviously [these allegations] are very concerning," said MADD spokeswoman Misty Moyse. She said the organization was in the process of determining further action. Dyer says the industry remains divided over the Conner saga, some viewing her as being singled out unfairly, while others "would love to see her toasted." Miss USA 2001, Kandace Krueger, told TMZ on Tuesday that the allegations were "very disappointing"—and that if they are true, Conner doesn't deserve to hold the crown. "When you become Miss USA, you have to take the title seriously and you have to make good decisions, and Tara obviously didn't," Krueger said.

Still, whichever way you view it, Sheldon of TMZ says the media blitz is a win-win situation for everyone—except maybe for Miss America. "The winner out of all of this is Donald Trump, and the Miss USA pageant, and then Tara Conner," she says. "[Conner] will get the help she needs, she gets a second chance to wear the crown, and, as they say, no publicity is bad publicity." You can say that again.