Music icon Michael Jackson, Oscar®-winning actor Heath Ledger and former child star Corey Haim all shared the same tragic fate—untimely deaths caused by suspected drug use. And they're not alone.
With a reported 6 million prescription pill addicts in America, Dr. Oz says it's the most underappreciated problem in this country. Most people know someone who's been affected by drug abuse, but no one ever imagined this health epidemic would infiltrate a wholesome American institution like the Miss USA Pageant.
In 2006, this is exactly what happened. Shortly after being crowned Miss USA, Tara Conner's unbecoming behavior began to make headlines. The media ran reports of Tara's underage drinking and drug abuse, as well as scandalous photos of this blonde beauty queen.
Then, eight months into her yearlong reign, Tara tested positive for cocaine. When business mogul Donald Trump, co-owner of the Miss USA organization, called a press conference, everyone—including Tara—expected him to strip Tara of her crown.
Instead, Donald offered her a second chance. Tara agreed to go to rehab.
Now, Tara is ready to speak publicly about her path of self-destruction and drug addiction.
In the A&E special Fame and Recovery, Tara reveals for the first time what led to her headline-making drug scandal.
When she was just 13 years old, Tara started turning heads in Russell Springs, Kentucky, the small town where she was raised. On the advice of a family friend, she began entering beauty pageants.
Tara's beauty and poise won her crown after crown, but beneath the smile, her world was unraveling. At age 14, Tara's parents divorced, and soon after, her beloved grandfather died. "I feel like I was crying out for help, but no one could hear me because everyone was so concerned with their own life," Tara says.
In high school, Tara found a way to mask the pain. "I started using when I was 14 years old. I had my first drink when, I think, I was 14," she says. "It wasn't me moving to New York and becoming Miss USA that thrust me into the spotlight and put all this pressure on me. It wasn't that at all. I had the disease of alcoholism from the get-go."
Tara also discovered that she could numb her feelings with prescription pills like Vicodin. "I started taking Percocet, Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, morphine pills, methadone [and] OxyContin," she says. "It consumed every minute of my day. There would be times where I could do 30 pain pills in a day."
The same year Tara started experimenting with alcohol and drugs, she says she experienced something that added to her pain.
One night, after drinking and taking pills with a group of friends, Tara found herself alone with a man. "I acted a little bit more wasted than I was so I could go to sleep, because I didn't want to deal with the guy that was there," she says. "Then, he picks me up. ... I knew something was off, and he was being bizarre, but part of me was just thinking: 'I wonder what he's going to do. I wonder how far he's going to take it.'"
Tara says the man carried her from her home to his car. Then, she says he raped her. "I didn't do anything about it. I just sat there," she says. "I was like: 'Wow. Everyone else hurts me. Now, what are you going to do?' I would bring on all of these situations and put myself through this pain because I felt so dirty, and I felt so ashamed and I felt like damaged goods. I expected these things to happen to me."
Around this time, Tara says she started cutting to ease the emotional pain building up inside her. "It was a controlled pain," she says. "For cutters, like if you are having a moment or had a feeling—because, heaven forbid, we feel—it's a way of controlling what you're feeling."
If Tara got in trouble at school or her grades started to slip, she says she learned that if she won a pageant, all was forgiven. "My name was in the papers all over again," she says. "And [people thought], 'Well, she can't be a drug addict if she's winning pageants.'"
Even Brenda, Tara's mother, was fooled. "While she lived at home, I just thought she was misbehaving," she says. "There were times when I would hear rumors, and I would confront her. But she had a way of telling me what I wanted to hear. She knew what to say to me so that I could believe her. ... She was a master manipulator."
Tara says lying and manipulating became a way of life. After awhile, she told so many lies and did so many pain-numbing drugs that she says she didn't know who she was anymore.
"I didn't know what my laugh sounded like. I didn't know what foods I liked. If someone said I like spaghetti, I'm going to go with spaghetti. If someone said I like pizza, I was a pizza girl," she says. "I never really had my own identity with anything, because the longer I used, my authentic self just continued to drop down."
Over time, Tara says she created a fictional character for herself.
While competing in pageants, Tara turned on the charm, smiled for the judges and channeled her fictional persona. Tara admits she was high on drugs during most pageants...even while competing for the coveted Miss USA crown. "I was doing pain pills the entire time," she says.
The moment her name was announced—a moment millions of little girls dream of—Tara says she thought, "What now?"
"Honest to God, I didn't think I was going to win," she says. "So when they called my name, I just kind of covered my face. ... I think, 'This is what I'm supposed to do.' But I didn't even feel it."
Earlier that day, Tara says she'd taken a Xanax and was still feeling the effects. Tara stood onstage with a smile plastered on her face and tried to hide what she was feeling inside.
"Everyone thought I was professional and this sweet girl who showed up for what I needed to show up for, and I was a pageant girl. Everyone thinks the pageant girls are Polly Purebred perfect," she says. "You can't make a mistake, but on the inside, I felt dirty. I felt ashamed. I felt less than, not enough. I was never enough for me."
After she won the Miss USA pageant, Tara began to see she didn't have the mental or emotional capacity to do the job. "I didn't even realize I was suffering from a disease that was literally taking me out lie by lie, manipulation by manipulation and drink by drink," she says.
When Donald called a press conference to address Tara's positive drug test, she says she thought she was going to lose her crown. Although Tara asked Donald for a second chance, she says she would have been okay either way. "Part of me was like, 'Wow, all of my skeletons are out there,'" she says. "There's a freedom that comes with that."
After hearing Tara's revelations about her drug use during the pageant, Donald says Tara shouldn't have won the title. "We didn't know about her drug use," he says. "Had we had an idea, she probably wouldn't have been in the contest to start off with. I'm sure that she would not be Miss USA."
From the beginning of Tara's reign, Donald says the Miss USA staff wanted her out. Originally, Donald planned on firing her, but after meeting with her in his office, he had a change of heart. "I hated it from the concept of what it would do to somebody's life," he says. "I said I was going to give her a second chance. ... The biggest backlash I had was not from the public. I think the public liked it. The biggest backlash I had was from the staff."
Donald has personal reasons for his decision. His brother, Fred, was an alcoholic. "He had everything, but he got hooked on alcohol, and it killed him," Donald says. "I believe in second chances, and sometimes it works when you give somebody a second chance. She went from being a disaster to being a terrific Miss USA. But, much more importantly, she sets an example for so many other people that are going through the same thing."
Now, Tara is three years sober, and she says it's a wonder she lived to share her story. "I don't know why I was spared," she says.
To anyone facing the same battle, Tara says there's someone out there who feels the same way you do, and there's help available. "Even if you don't love yourself at all, other people do love you," she says. "I've had so many people come forward and help me, and I've been so fortunate in my life. I don't feel I deserve any of the good things I got, but apparently I do. And through the course of other people loving me, I learned how to love myself."
Tara says she loves the woman she's becoming. "Every day I learn something new about myself, and I prove myself wrong," she says. "I'm allowing myself to feel. I'm allowing myself to love. I'm allowing myself to feel pain where I wouldn't before."