"She didn't think her Miss America crown set her apart — it just gave her a voice for the people she was among," Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz says of her friend Leanza Cornett

By Joelle Goldstein
October 29, 2020 05:39 PM
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Leanza Cornett may have risen to fame after winning the 1993 Miss America pageant, but according to her friend, that accomplishment only hinted at how dynamic the beauty queen truly was.

Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz tells PEOPLE that Cornett — who died Wednesday at the age of 49 after she was hospitalized for a head injury — was "also smart, talented and driven."

"You think 'beauty queen,' but that's not what she was about," says Kurtz.

"She was our princess, and I hesitate to say that because it sounds so trite," Kurtz adds. "But if we have to have a princess that envelops compassion and understanding and brings people together without judgment in a way that's peaceful and loving, then we have Princess Leanza."

Leanza Cornett
| Credit: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

Kurtz says she met Cornett in the late 1980s or early '90s when they both worked on the Voyage of The Little Mermaid stage show at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World. Almost immediately, Cornett, who starred as Ariel, stood out among the rest.

"There's a way that people can roar just by walking in a room, and I remember thinking that on the first day I met her," Kurtz recalls. "Before Little Mermaid started, the stage had been transformed from The Muppets and that set was designed by Jim Henson before he died."

"We thought there was nothing that could compare to it and that there was nothing as spectacular as the pieces that Jim Henson put on that stage, but that was until Leanza showed up on the mermaid block," she continues. "Leanza made that role... She had a way of making every stage that she stepped on magical."

Leanza Cornett as Ariel
| Credit: courtesy Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz

The pair also shared several personal memories during that time, including one moment when Cornett quite literally gave Kurtz the clothes off her back while she was in a bind.

"The Mickey Mouse Club was filming in the next studio over, and my job was to be a stand-in," Kurtz recalls. "They called and needed me, but I didn't have clothes to be Keri Russell's stand-in, so Leanza gave me her clothes, shoes and all — I wore them to the Mickey Mouse set that day. And Leanza, who was already in her mermaid attire, went home in sweats."

Eventually, Cornett went on to be crowned Miss Florida in 1992 and Miss America in 1993. She used her position to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis and embark on missions around the world to help others.

"She taught me to be bold," Kurtz shares. "Leanza thought, 'Now that I have a platform, I'm going to run through it with both feet.' People weren’t talking about [AIDS] then but Leanza was one of the first people to put a red ribbon on [in support]."

"She was breaking social norms left and right," continues Kurtz. "She was, and could be, on a platform, but she stepped into the crowd to change things. She didn’t think it set her apart — she thought it gave her a voice for the people she was among."

Leanza Cornett as Ariel and Kevin Vincint as Prince Eric
| Credit: Kevin Vincint

Adds Kurtz: "She focused on each individual person, and believed that each person had a story and something to offer."

Because she was so young and full of potential, Kurtz says that Cornett's passing is still hard to believe for many of her loved ones, including her two sons Kai and Avery, whom she shared with ex-husband Mark Steines.

"You think, 'It can't be true.' She just fell in the kitchen and landed on her head," Kurtz says of Cornett.

Jacksonville outlet WJXT reported that Cornett died after being hospitalized for a head injury. Kurtz says that another friend was with Cornett at the time of the injury and insisted they go to the hospital to check it out.

"It wasn’t bloody, it was just a bump that kept swelling," Kurtz adds. "We all believed she would beat this and rally. If she could come from a tiny town without a lot of things accessible to her and become Miss America, all in a positive way and not losing who you are, then anybody can. That's why it's so hard that she didn't succeed in her battle. We wanted our champion."

Leanza Cornett
| Credit: Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Though no official memorial plans have been set at this time, the family is hoping to do something on a designated day where people all over the world — many of whom were personally touched by Cornett — can honor her life, according to Kurtz.

Her friend also hopes people can pay tribute to the "funny and caring" beauty queen by doing something kind, just as Cornett would've done.

"Leanza was amazing. She would provide you with ideas and challenge yours and move you forward. By sharing her perspectives, she was able to help me grow and I feel I'm not alone," Kurtz says. "Anybody she met, she really did consider a friend."

"To me, she 100% represented what a woman can be. She changed lives and did it in a quiet way," she continues. "People should try to go out and do something in her honor. Be kind to somebody, listen to somebody, not because you're going to get an award but because you're going to change something."

"I know the world is a better place because she has lived in it," adds Kurtz.