YAKIMA, Wash. — After winning the Miss USA crown in 2006, Tara Conner basked in the limelight.
But she would have a visible and brutal fall from grace when her drug addiction surfaced only months later.
The story has improved significantly since, though, as Conner is now a spokeswoman for survivors in recovery, speaking regularly on her past struggles, her comeback and her future. On Thursday, Conner was the featured speaker at Sundown M Ranch’s 30th annual Merrill Scott Symposium.
“Alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing,” she said during a Thursday afternoon interview ahead of her banquet address. “I always felt so different and so alone and so unlovable. Even though I was lovable — I just didn’t feel that way. I was introduced to recovery and it changed my life.”
Conner, 29, won Miss USA 2006 that spring, representing her home state of Kentucky. The following summer, she was fourth runner-up for Miss Universe.
Toward the end of the year, Conner was reportedly drinking underage and had tested positive for cocaine. The controversy attracted international attention. She entered rehab at the end of 2006; early in 2007, Conner admitted she had abused certain drugs.
Growing up in a small town, Conner said she didn’t know what alcoholism truly looked like.
“We didn’t have a lot of awareness of what alcoholism or drug addiction was. I think that where I come from, it looks like the old man who lives under the bridge or the man who is homeless.”
When the owner of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants — and current GOP presidential candidate — Donald Trump asked her to enter rehab or risk losing her title and much more, she said it was a turning point.
“He helped save my life,” she said. “He had a brother that died of alcoholism, and I think he could see something in me that others couldn’t and was helpful in my case. I will always be grateful for what he did.”
Last month, Conner criticized Trump over his choice of words in his now-infamous speech on immigration, saying words like “druggies” and “rapists” only added to the stigma about addicts. The story was reported by the New York Daily News in July. She said her comments may have angered him but that she is still enormously grateful to him.
With more than 400 guests expected for Thursday night’s banquet, Conner said she wanted to serve as proof that recovery is possible, even in the spotlight.
“We’re like a family,” she said. “We don’t know each other well, but in a way, we do know each other well.”
“The sky’s the limit,” Conner said about her future. She wants to pursue acting, hosting shows and finish a book on her life and overcoming the challenges.
A book title is already firmly in her mind: “Mess USA,” she joked.
The Merrill Scott Symposium is an annual two-day event named in honor of Sundown M Ranch’s founder. It’s intended to raise awareness of topics such as addiction, suicides, adolescents, law and ethics. Speakers are brought in to share their stories of struggling, adversity and perseverance.