If he wanted extra attention for the Miss USA Pageant, Donald Trump couldn't have found a better year.
The real-estate mogul and mentor of "The Apprentice" owns the event, and he has been negotiating with NBC over a new broadcast deal. Enter Tara Conner, the about-to-depart titleholder who almost lost the crown over reports of underage drinking and cocaine use, and Rosie O'Donnell, who very publicly engaged Trump over his handling of the matter.
As a result, more viewers than usual are likely to tune in -- which could improve Trump's bargaining position with NBC significantly -- as Nancy O'Dell ("Access Hollywood") returns to host the 2007 edition of the pageant Friday, March 23, from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
"For all the wrong reasons, it's probably made the pageant one of the hottest shows on television," Trump says. "This one is going to be very special, and NBC is thrilled what we're going to be doing. We'll do things that will be very different from what we've done in the past; it's going to be based around what has happened over the last number of months, with respect to Tara."
Indeed, the past year has shown what can transpire during a Miss USA season, and Trump feels it will continue to inform what happens going forward.
"Look, this is a microcosm of life," he reasons. "In future years, there will be people who are perfect as Miss USA or Miss Universe (which Trump also owns) and people who will be less than perfect. Those who are less than perfect, we will work with. Almost everybody has problems.
"I gave [Tara] a second chance, and I'm very happy I did. I took some heat for it, frankly, but most people are happy with that decision in retrospect. A lot of people who disagreed at the time now think it was right. There will always be young men and young women who have difficulties, especially at this time in their lives. We'll go through some years where it's smooth sailing and some years where it's going to be rougher."
Miss Kentucky USA when she won the national title last year, Conner feels optimistic in preparing to move on. "I'm excited about the future," she says. "It's the unknown. There are so many things I want to get into." One may be performing on Broadway, since Conner reportedly has been rehearsing for the role of Roxie Hart in the current revival of the musical "Chicago."
Admitting her past year has been "a roller coaster," Conner adds her reign has been "everything I could ever have dreamed it could be and more. Miss USA is meant to help you grow in every area you possibly could want to. Obviously, for me, it's a little different, but it completely changed my life. There's such a good support system that backs you, I'm blown away by how wonderful this year has been for me, and by how much I've grown as a person. I'm grateful and thankful."
Since emerging from the drug-rehab program she had to enter to remain Miss USA 2006, Conner has found "the last phase the best phase. I didn't fully embrace everything I could have enjoyed about being Miss USA for a very long time, but none of the other girls (who held the title) have ever had to go through anything like this. It just goes to show that if you go into something with open arms and hit it 100 percent, so many great things can come out of it."
Even if Trump and others hadn't remained on her side, Conner felt confident she'd still have the support that counts the most. "My family has supported me so much through all of this; we're closer now than we've ever been. It's a hectic year. You don't get to see your family a lot, because you don't really get a lot of time off, but you get to work with many different charities and meet many great people. It's a give-and-take thing."
Conner says Trump has been "amazing" in the time since her very public crisis. "He's very easy to talk to, and I'm fortunate to have had him in my life at this time. It has been a hard time, but the great thing about being Miss USA is that when the time comes for support ... I could just go on and on about how wonderful [the people in the organization] are."
For his part, Trump assesses Conner as "a terrific young lady who made some mistakes and got caught up in the swirl of New York." Even having had his share of pageant controversies, also including one over Miss Teen USA 2006 - Katie Blair, who allegedly engaged in questionable public behavior involving Conner as well - Trump remains glad to be involved in the pageants. "They're very profitable," he says. "They're doing nicely, and NBC is happy with the ratings."
Conner won't mind being able to live her life somewhat more privately, but she concedes, "The day I give up that crown, I'm going to be extremely sad. I'm still Tara Conner, and I'll always be Tara Conner regardless of whether I'm Miss USA or not, but I'll also always be Miss USA 2006. I don't think I could walk away ready to be completely separated from it. You'll hear everyone [who's had the title] say it's the best year they've ever had."