Fashion marketing student Chelsea Cooley (search), 21, from Charlotte, N.C., got into pageants for the scholarships. "I fell in love with them and it snowballed," she said. "And here I am, Miss USA."
Cooley, the reigning Miss North Carolina, was crowned Miss USA (search) in the 54th annual pageant Monday night. The new titleholder will compete May 30 in the Miss Universe competition in Bangkok, Thailand.
Miss California, Brittany Hogan (search), 20, was first runner-up; Miss Kentucky, Kristen Lynn Johnson, 23, was second runner-up; Miss Illinois, Jill Gulseth, 21, was third runner-up. Miss Florida, Melissa Witek, 24, was fourth runner-up.
Cooley said before the show that she wrote several of her fellow contestants a note to "let them know that regardless of what happened tonight I will always believe in them because they truly are extraordinary women and I'm very proud of them."
She is studying fashion marketing at the Art Institute of Charlotte (search), likes to watch baseball and read suspense novels in her spare time. Cooley listed dancing, parasailing and shopping among her hobbies. Her dream job would be working as a buyer for Ralph Lauren.
She said presenting the president of the island of Curacao with a gift of Pop Rocks candy and toys was the craziest thing she's ever done. She was asked to bring a gift to a news conference on the future of a local children's hospital — and thought the recipient was going to be a child.
"Imagine my surprise when the president joined me on the podium to accept his gift," Cooley said. "Needless to say, every time I see a box of Pop Rocks, I blush ... and for a moment I'm back in Curacao."
The 51 contestants were trimmed to 15, then 10 semifinalists and finally five finalists for Monday's evening gown and swimsuit competitions. The five finalists were asked questions written by their fellow contestants.
Cooley was asked, "What famous person does your personality most parallel?" She replied, "I guess it would be Oprah (Winfrey). She has a passion for life."
Judges evaluated contestants in swimsuit, evening gown and interview competitions. Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps, model and actor Molly Sims ("Las Vegas"), boxer Sugar Ray Leonard ("The Contender") and beauty expert Frederic Fekkai headlined the celebrity judging panel. The panel was rounded out by fashion designer Pamela Dennis, Raj Bhakta ("The Apprentice"), model Ksenia Masimova, actor Brody Hutzler ("Days of Our Lives"), John Tutolo, president of Trump Model Management, and Robin Himmler, executive assistant to Trump.