February 12, 2007 12:00 PM

For Tara Conner, who had spent her childhood in Russell Springs, KY., telling anyone who would listen, “I want to be Miss U.S.A.,” merely earning the title last April wasn’t enough. “I came into this,” she recalls, “saying, ‘I’m going to be the best Miss U.S.A. ever!'”

It didn’t quite work out that way. On Dec. 19, following weeks of press reports that had the then-underage Conner indulging in drink, drugs and promiscuity, the young beauty queen announced at a press conference that she was entering rehab. At the time, Conner, who turned 21 on Dec. 18, now admits, “I didn’t think I had an issue—but I was willing to do anything to save my job.” Today, however, as she curls up on the couch in her Manhattan apartment for her first interview since spending 31 days at the Caron Foundation rehab facility in Wernersville, Pa., Conner offers a startlingly different take on the situation. “I’ve realized,” she says, her gaze direct, “that I suffer from the disease of alcoholism and addiction.”

A frank admission, to be sure, although Conner will go only so far in addressing the behavior that nearly cost her the Miss U.S.A. crown. When asked about the rumored romantic escapades, Conner hedges: “I would talk to more than one guy at once—it doesn’t mean that I was sexually active with every one of these people.” And what about those allegations of drug use? Although her mother, Brenda Johnson, tells PEOPLE that a week before the press conference Conner called and admitted “she had snorted cocaine,” Conner initially refused to confirm that detail. “Some of this stuff I should keep to myself,” she explains, adding, “I was an equal-opportunity [user]—I would try anything once.” But pressed later by phone, Conner admits, “Cocaine was one of the drugs that I did use. It’s hard to look back at that.”

Still, it was alcohol, Conner says, that had the biggest hold on her. Although she points out that she was never “getting sloppy drunk and dancing on tables,” she does admit she drank heavily. “I’m an alcoholic,” she says. “It was a craving thing—once I put it in my body, I would start craving more.” By the sixth month of her reign, Conner was routinely turning up at Miss U.S.A. events complaining of exhaustion. But when pageant officials confronted her with reports of her partying, Conner would insist they were made up. “Tara’s MO was to lie her way out of things,” says Miss Universe president Paula Shugart. By mid-December, “everybody at the pageant wanted her terminated,” recalls Donald Trump, who, as co-owner of the Miss Universe organization, oversees the Miss U.S.A. contest.

Instead, after meeting with Conner, Trump suggested rehab—and it was while getting treatment, Conner says, that she began to confront the demons that had already appeared by the time she was in middle school, when she took her first sips of vodka with a few friends. “My problems didn’t develop overnight,” she says. “It wasn’t New York City’s fault.” Citing a family history of alcoholism—but refusing to elaborate, in the interest of protecting her relatives—Conner says that for many years she was “a functioning alcoholic. If I got caught [drinking], I would stop—I was able to do that.” At 14, the same year she won her first beauty pageant, her parents divorced—and one day Conner turned up at school drunk. When her mother found out, she arranged for Conner to undergo counseling. Recalling the episode, a tearful Johnson, who says she is close to her daughter, sighs, “I thought we were over that hurdle.”

Conner says that she finally is—thanks to her time in rehab, where she learned, among other things, how to be alone. Before, she says, “I thought I needed to be around people, that I needed that acceptance.” Now, instead of going to clubs, she enjoys reading at home—a home she shares with a chaperone. (After years of allowing Miss U.S.A.’s to live solo, pageant officials, in response to Conner’s behavior, have reinstated the old chaperone rule.)

And although she has been hitting the gym to prep for a runway walk at a Feb. 4 fashion show, Conner says she’s content with being the one thing she always dreamed of. “I just can’t wait to get back to work—’I’m Miss U.S.A., my name is Tara Conner, and I’m happy to meet you,’ you know?” she says. “Life’s good.”

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