ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Miss New York Kira Kazantsev won the Miss America pageant Sunday night, with the help of a red plastic cup.
For her talent performance, Kazantsev sang Pharrell Williams' "Happy" while sitting cross-legged on the stage and banging a red plastic cup on the floor. That immediately touched off a furor on social media networks, where many were critical of her performance.
But Kazantsev said she was inspired by the 2012 movie "Pitch Perfect" in which Anna Kendrick's character auditions for an a capella group by performing rhythmically with a cup. She also said she did it to show future contestants they can win the Miss America pageant by performing whatever talent routine they like, regardless of what others think of it.
"The reason why I chose to do that talent is I wanted every single little girl in America to be able to see that you can do that talent -- you can do whatever talent you want on national television -- even with a red cup -- and still be Miss America and have the time of your life," Kazantsev said. "I literally in that minute and 30 seconds had the most fun I've ever had, and that's because I stayed true to myself and I did what I wanted to do for my talent, no matter what everybody else told me, and it paid off. I'm very happy about it."
Kazantsev, who named combating sexual assault in the military as the issue about which she would want female U.S. Senators to press their male counterparts, won a $50,000 scholarship with which she plans to attend law school.
She also plans to speak out against domestic violence during her yearlong resign as Miss America.
Her victory marked the third year in a row that a contestant from her state has walked away with the crown in the nationally televised pageant. Kazantsev received the crown at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall from outgoing Miss America -- and Miss New York -- Nina Davuluri
Kazantsev will begin a schedule this week that will see her travel 20,000 miles a month.
The first runner-up was Miss Virginia Courtney Paige Garrett.
Other top 5 finalists were Miss Arkansas Ashton Jo Campbell; Miss Florida Victoria Cowen; and Miss Massachusetts Lauren Kuhn.
Miss North Dakota, Jacky Arness was chosen by her peers as Miss Congeniality.
The pageant shone a positive light on the struggling seaside gambling resort, which has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons lately: a rash of casino closings, thousands of unemployed workers, and a domestic violence case involving a former NFL star.
For three hours Sunday night, America got a different look at Atlantic City. The Miss America pageant presented an upbeat view of the city where it began in 1921.
It featured iconic Atlantic City visuals including its beach, Boardwalk, the Steel Pier, Black Fish Pier near Brigantine, and the Atlantic City Beach Patrol station.
"Atlantic City is facing a challenging economic climate and our hearts go out to all of those who have lost their jobs," said Sam Haskell III, CEO of the Miss America organization. "We hope that our Miss America telecast ... will generate great interest for Atlantic City on a national scale as we showcase their beautiful beaches and Boardwalk."