Tara Conner made headlines in 2006 when reports of underage drinking, drug abuse and sexual indiscretions put the then-20-year-old in danger of losing her Miss USA crown. After testing positive for cocaine eight months after her win, Conner was allowed to keep her title by pageant owner Donald Trump on the agreement that she enter rehab.
It was a move that would force her to confront her addiction and help save her life. Now 30 years old, Conner has been sober for a little over nine-and-a-half years.
“My life is really beautiful,” Conner told Oprah: Where Are They Now?.
And while Conner doesn’t directly thank the now-Republican presidential nominee for getting her sober, she says she appreciates how he put addiction and recovery into the national spotlight.
“When he sent me to treatment, it was a huge step forward for the recovery movement,” Conner said on the OWN show. “Absolutely.”
“I’ve always been a believer in second chances,” Trump said at the time. “Tara is good person. Tara has tried hard. Tara is going to be given a second chance.”
The comments spurred years’ worth of attacks from Trump about O’Donnell’s weight and sexual orientation that have continued to this day, and were even brought up during Sept. 26’s presidential debate.
As for Conner, she’s spending her time focused on recovery advocacy — teaching how addiction is a disease that needs to be treated longterm, and helping those that don’t have a voice.
“I like to do a lot of work in prevention, focusing on adolescence, because that’s where this starts,” she said. “I think a lot of people search for a purpose their entire life and never find one, and I had one fall in my lap.”
But it took her awhile to get there.
“My struggle with addiction started when I was 14 years old,” she explained in a recent Instagram post. “I was dying a slow and painful death that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
On pain pills the entire time she was competing in Miss USA, Conner’s dependence on drugs and alcohol “literally just became a way of life,” she told Oprah in 2010. But things didn’t get easier after her three-month stay in rehab, as she waitressed and sold cars to be able to support herself financially.
“When I won Miss USA in 2006, for me, that was the ticket out,” the Kentucky native revealed to Where Are They Now?. “I feel like what happened with me is my head got a little big and I thought, ‘Oh it’s always gonna be this easy’ and then life would happen.”
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“It taught me a really great lesson — I couldn’t save my face and my butt at the same time,” she continued. “My comfort level was dependent on what other people thought of me.”
Conner’s over that now, and uses her experiences to help others.
“I tell the things I went through in hopes that it takes the shame out of other people,” she added. “I’ve seen the stigma. I’ve experienced it — I’ve felt the judgment and the shame, but I don’t have to live like that. And I’ve also experienced joy and compassion and empathy and love. I get to give that back to people.”