Former Miss USA shares drug addiction battle with Baldwin County students for Red Ribbon Week

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 11/6/18

ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — In 2006, Tara Conner thought she had everything she ever wanted.

A former Miss Teen Kentucky and runner-up to Miss Teen USA, Conner moved to New York after winning the …

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Former Miss USA shares drug addiction battle with Baldwin County students for Red Ribbon Week

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ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — In 2006, Tara Conner thought she had everything she ever wanted.

A former Miss Teen Kentucky and runner-up to Miss Teen USA, Conner moved to New York after winning the Miss USA Pageant and went to work for Donald Trump, the pageant’s owner.

“Do you believe that? My former boss is now the president of the United States,” she said.

But shortly thereafter, things began to unravel.

“They set me up in an apartment with the girl who was Miss Teen USA at the time,” she said. “Well, I made her mad and she threatened to tell my boss that I was doing cocaine … which I was. So I said, ‘Go ahead and tell him,’ and she said, “I will,” and she did.”

A short time later, pageant organizers called her in to the office at Trump Tower. She knew why.

“I knew the only reason they would call me in was for a drug test, and I knew that I was going to fail,” she said.

She did the only thing she knew to do. She called her mother.

“What they didn’t know is that by that time, I had been battling addictions to drug and alcohol for years,” she said. “My mom had always been there to fix things, but I knew this was something she was not going to be able to fix.”

But her mom did something she didn’t expect.

“She said, “I love you and no matter what happens, I am here for you.’”

Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, Conner said, she was used to getting mixed signals.

“It was not, “Don’t do drugs,’ it was “Don’t get caught doing drugs,’” she said.

At age 12, Conner said, she was sexually assaulted by a family member. At age 14, she took her first drink to escape the constant emotional turmoil she felt.

“I had no one to talk to that I thought would understand the way I felt,” she said. “I didn’t know that by taking that drink, I had a 60 percent chance of becoming a dependent. What does that mean? It means that I increased the risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. But at age 14 I didn’t think about those things. My biggest fear was that I would be caught.”

And while she had a few run-ins with school authorities, she said, she had never faced serious consequences until that moment in 2006.

“Things always seemed to get swept under the rug,” she said. “My ‘punishment’ was that I got put in detention with all the bad kids, who had all the good drugs.”

At age 16, she said, she discovered the pageant world and thought it would be a way for her to escape, and for a time it worked.

“I learned all the right things to say and the right way to act,” she said, “and I just started winning.”

In 2002, she won Miss Teen Kentucky and competed in Miss Teen USA where she finished as runner-up.

She kept competing and kept winning, going into the Miss USA pageant in Baltimore with only one goal in mind, escape.

“My plan was to get married to someone who could take care of me,” she said. “But first, I had to compete in one last pageant. I went in not expecting to win.”

But in the end, it came down to Conner and Miss California.

“Everybody expected Miss California to win,” she said. “We were standing there and I was telling her, ‘You’re going to be a great Miss USA. You’re going to be such a great representative for the organization.’ And she’s standing there saying, ‘Thank you.’ And then I beat her.”

What followed was a whirlwind, moving to New York, working for Trump.

“I thought I had everything I ever wanted,” she said. “But I was miserable. My whole life I was in this bubble and all of a sudden, I was all alone. There was no one there to support me.”

When she tested positive for drugs, she thought her whole world had come to an end. She went to Trump Tower for one final meeting.

“I basically had two options,” she said. “Either relinquish the title of Miss USA or get stripped of the title. But when I sat down with Mr. Trump, I offered another solution. What if they allowed me to keep the title if I agree to drug counseling. Mr. Trump said, ‘I can see the headline now, “Trump saves Miss USA,” ‘I like it.’”

In a tearful press conference in which she talked about her ongoing battle with addiction, it was announced that Conner would keep her title and undergo drug counseling.

“Donald Trump saved my life,” she said.

Conner shared her story with Baldwin County students on Tuesday from the B-TV student-operated studios on the campus of the South Baldwin Center for Technology.

The program, which was sponsored by the Baldwin County Drug Court and the Baldwin County Board of Education, was part of Red Ribbon Week, with representatives from every middle school and high school in Baldwin County, and was broadcast to every middle and high school in Baldwin County.

“I just want you to know that if you think no one cares about you, I care,” she said. “I don’t think adults today understand how hard it is to be a young person today. But I’m here to tell you that I was you. You hear all the time about making the right decisions, but what you need to hear are solutions.”

She also fielded prepared questions from students and students also heard from Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack Jr., Drug Court Judge Scott Taylor and Baldwin County School Superintendent Eddie Tyler.

“We do talk about making the right decisions, and we should,” Tyler said, “but we also need to have these types of conversations with our students. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s necessary. Sometimes you just have to take off the superintendent cap and talk to the student, find out how they’re doing and just let them know that there is someone there for them who wants to help them and not judge them.”