April 13, 2004 03:14 PM

America has a new Miss USA: Miss Missouri, Shandi Finnessey, a 25-year-old graduate student who has published a children’s book, was crowned at the 52nd annual pageant, broadcast live on NBC Monday night.

The first runner-up was Miss South Carolina, Amanda Helen Pennekamp, and the second-runner-up Miss North Carolina, Ashley Rachel Puleo, reports Reuters. The third runner-up was Miss Oklahoma, Lindsay Hill, and the fourth runner-up Miss Tennessee, Stephanie Culberson.

Finnessey, a statuesque 5’11” blonde, succeeds former Miss Massachusetts, Susie Castillo, and will compete for the Miss Universe crown on June 1 in Quito, Ecuador.

Clasping the sides of her head as her name was announced, Finnessey is now entitled to a winner’s package that includes a $200,000 crown, free accommodation in New York City, as well as free dental work and dermatological services.

As for her background, the St. Louis native — who describes herself as “totally single and looking” — wrote a book called “The Furrtails,” as part of her aim to integrate mentally retarded children into regular classrooms. She has a master’s degree in counseling and also plays piano and violin.

She also told Reuters she is a Republican, and she would like to use her position to help explain America’s involvement in Iraq. “What needed to be done had to be done,” she said.

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