The evening gowns, the bathing suits, the awkward interview questions… modern beauty pageants have been around since 1921, when Miss America first emerged. When Miss America began, it was seen merely as a “bathing beauty revue,” held simply as a way to attract tourists to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Later on, it became about more than just looks, and a talent and interview section were added.
Not too long after the Miss America competition’s inauguration, the rivaling Miss USA pageant followed, making its own, controversial debut in 1952: after a Miss America winner refused to pose in a swimsuit, the swimsuit competition sponsor got so angry they decided to pull their money from the Miss America scholarship program and start their own pageant.
Each year, young women compete in each state for a spot in Miss USA, before continuing to compete with the representatives of other countries from around the world in the Miss Universe pageant.
The Miss USA winner gets to take home a crown, live in a luxury New York City apartment, a personal stylist, free travel opportunities and a cash prize. Of course, it is much more than just the cool stuff (which we admit is making us tempted to try out for the pageant ourselves). Bringing home the title of Miss USA is something that can help young women get their name out there and launch their career.
That said, we all are well-aware of the negative stereotypes included in beauty pageants (and come on, who hasn’t seen Miss Congeniality.) Both Miss USA and Miss America have certainly received their fair share of criticism over the years. And we can honestly see why, in this modern day and age, a woman getting judged on how well she prances around in a skimpy bathing suit can seem a bit wrong. However, women everywhere are still choosing to compete after all these years, and the broadcasted pageants still bring in over 7 million viewers.
There have been many stunning women to win Miss USA over the years. While some have mostly been forgotten, some have remained much more memorable. The ladies on this list are all extraordinary, not just for their beauty, but for their charm, wit, strength and intelligence. Several of them went on to successful careers after their reign, after wielding their crown to their advantage.
They’re beauty, they’re grace, so go ahead, take a few minutes to see what some of Miss USA’s most memorable title winners are up to today.
Ali Landry- Miss Louisiana 1996
Ali Landry represented Louisiana at the 1996 Miss USA pageant, where she won and took home the crown. Winning the title launched her acting career. She was quickly casted in series like Sunset Beach, the Clueless TV series and The Bold and the Beautiful throughout the late ’90s. In 1998, she starred in a popular Doritos Super Bowl commercial and was named by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. A few years later, she landed a lead role as Rita in the drama series Eve.
Ali Landry now
Ali met actor Mario Lopez while he was presenting the Miss USA 1998 pageant and she was a commentator. The two fell in love and got married in 2004. However, the marriage was annulled two weeks later, allegedly after Mario was unfaithful to Ali during his bachelor’s party. In 2006, she married current husband, film director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, and the couple have 3 children. Career wise, Ali has been making her living as a talk show host. Her longest hosting gig, Hollywood Today Live, was cancelled in April 2017.
Shandi Finnessey – Miss Missouri 2004
Shandi Finnessey was the first Missourian to win the Miss USA pageant, in 2004. Before her win, she wrote an award-winning children’s book titled The Furtails, which celebrated children’s individual and aimed to integrate those with disabilities into the classroom. After her big win, she went on to Miss Universe and won 1st runner-up. In an interview, Shandi revealed she had been bullied in high school and was constantly made fun of for her mullet, thick glasses, braces, and bad skin. Well, it looks like she showed them!
Shandi Finnessey now
After Shandi’s Miss USA and Miss Universe success, she landed a job as the co-host of the GSN gameshows Lingo and PlayMania. She also went on to appear in reality shows such as The Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars. She landed a job shortly after as the host of the entertainment news show ENTV Minute. She started her acting career in 2010, and has since been in the TV sci-fi horror films Sharktopus and Piranhaconda. In 2015, she married her British boyfriend businessman Ben Higgins and the two now has a little one-year-old boy.
Erin Brady- Miss Connecticut 2013
Erin Brady represented Connecticut in the 2013 Miss USA, and later made it into the top 10 at Miss Universe. She became the first competitor from Connecticut to ever be crowned Miss USA. Shortly before her win, she had graduated from the Central Connecticut University with a degree in finance and a minor in criminal justice. This win was her second time competing in Miss USA, the previous year she was close, and won 1st runner-up.
Erin Brady now
After Erin’s win, she married Tony Capasso, but got a divorce not long after. After a few guest appearances on TV talk shows, she returned to the field that she studied in college and got a job as a financial accountant. She has also used her Miss USA success towards several charities, and continued to work closely with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Walk for The Cure and Habitat for Humanity. She is now also working as a model, and shares some of her fabulous shots on her well-followed Instagram page.
Olivia Culpo- Miss Rhode Island 2012
Olivia Culpo won Miss USA in 2012 after representing her home state, Rhode Island. While most winners grew up competing in pageants, this was actually the first ever pageant she ever entered. She even took home the title of Miss Universe and became the first USA competitor to win the title since Brooke Lee in 1997. Before she won the title, she was working as a model and was performing cello in several Rhode Island and Boston orchestras.
Olivia Culpo now
After she took home the crown, she had a brief career as an actress and appeared in a small role in The Other Woman with Cameron Diaz. Her modeling career also took off and she appeared in several fashion shows, and had photoshoots all over the world. Nowadays, she is focusing on her new business, a restaurant in Rhode Island that she owns with her family called Back 40, which offers comfort food with a twist. She is currently dating NFL star Danny Amendola.
Kristen Dalton- Miss North Carolina 2009
Kristen Dalton followed in her mother’s footsteps, who won Miss North Carolina USA in 1982. Her two sisters did the same, and were both victorious in the Miss North Carolina Teen USA competitions. So when Kristen grew up, it was only natural that she would be a pageant girl as well. She still attended college however, and graduated as an Honors Psychology and Spanish major at East Carolina University.
Kristen Dalton now
After becoming Miss USA, Kristen was placed in the top 10 at Miss Universe. She was quick to appear on television shows and even appeared on the gameshow Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. She also founded and created the online magazine She is MORE, which “inspires wonder in the heart of every woman to reveal her true identity, radiate confidence and reign with purpose.” She continued to work as a writer, and wrote several female empowerment books. Kristen’s next book, The Sparkle Effect: Release Your God-Given Radiance, will be released in May, 2018.
Shawnae Jebbia- Miss Massachusetts 1998
Shawnae Jebbia brought home the title of Miss USA for Massachusetts in 1998. She became the state’s first ever Miss USA winner. She was originally from California, and lived there for six years until moving to the East Coast. Although she had very little prior experience in competing in pageants, she impressed the judges, receiving high scores in the evening gown and swimsuit portions, and even made it into the top 5 in Miss Universe.
Shawnae Jebbia now
During the years following Shawnae’s big win, she landed a job as The Price Is Right’s newest model and presenter. She then developed an ear disease called Ménière’s disease, which caused her to have a hearing impairment and quit her brief TV career. She decided to go back to school and received her master’s degree in nursing. She now is working as a brand ambassador for Signia hearing aids, where she speaks publicly about her illness and claims the hearing aids have changed her life.
Shawn Weatherly- Miss South Carolina 1980
The lovely Shawn Weatherly won the title of Miss USA and Miss Universe, while representing South Carolina in 1980. Shawn’s mother was a Christian Dior model and her father was in the US Air Force. When Shawn took home the crown, she won all three rounds of the competition – the interview, evening gown and swimsuit portions – and scored way above the rest. She was the fifth Miss USA to win Miss Universe since the previous winner’s win in 1954.
Shawn Weatherly now
With Shawn’s stunning features and luscious blonde hair, it was no doubt that she would become a well-known face in Hollywood. She started nabbing jobs on popular TV shows of the ’80s, with her most famous role being lifeguard Jill Riley on Baywatch. She also appeared in several films, and portrayed bombshell Cadet Adams in Police Academy 3: Back in Training. She continued acting up until 2014, when she appeared in a comedy horror movie titled Love in the Time of Monsters. She has been married to actor Chip Harris since 1994, and the couple have two children.
Gretchen Polhemus Jensen- Miss Texas 1989
Gretchen Polhemus Jensen competed for Miss USA back in 1989, where she represented Texas. Before her win, she was working as a cattle broker and a real estate agent in her hometown of Fort Worth. Of course, Texas is no newbie to Miss USA titles, and she became the 38th contestant to bring home the crown. She was actually the 5th Texan in a row at the time to win the title. Although she didn’t win Miss Universe, she did end up placing as 2nd runner-up.
Gretchen Polhemus Jensen now
A few years after Gretchen’s victory, she started acting and landed her first gig in the TV movie Bonanza: The Return. The former beauty queen started working as a sports correspondent on ESPN, and co-hosted the Utah news show Good Things Utah. She is currently working as the producer and host of Utah Works at ABC channel 4- Good4Utah. She is now a divorcee and is the mom of 5 children. Her daughter Baylee Jensen, decided to follow in her mother’s pageantry success, and was titled Miss Utah USA in 2017.
Rachel Smith- Miss Tennessee 2007
The exquisite Rachel Smith was born to two army parents, and was born on the US base in Panama. She and her family later on relocated to Tennessee, where Rachel attended Belmont University, graduated magna cum laude and won Miss USA the following year. She competed in her first major pageant in 2002, and she was crowned Miss Tennessee Teen USA and was voted Miss Photogenic at Miss Teen USA. After her Miss USA win, she went on to win 4th runner-up at Miss Universe.
Rachel Smith now
During Rachel’s reign, she used her new fame towards charity, and went on a trip to Kenya to volunteer with Project Sunshine. She also travelled to Iraq on a United Service Organizations tour with other celebrities such as Robin Williams and Kid Rock. She started working as an entertainment correspondent for Good Morning America in 2012, and did so until 2016. She then grabbed a job as a host for Amazon’s home shopping show titled Style Code Live, until its cancellation in May 2017.
Kim Seelbrede- Miss Ohio 1981
The beauty queen from Ohio won Miss USA in 1981, becoming the second ever Ohioan to win the title. She later competed in the Miss Universe pageant, and placed in the semi-finals. There was some speculation with her low standing in the competition, since she was the lead in the first portions of the competition. Many believed that one of the judges was bribed by a pageant official to give Kim the lowest score in the second portion, in order to keep her from placing in the finals.
Kim Seelbrede now
Following Miss Universe, Kim pursued a career in television, which led her to several appearances in soap operas and commercials. She ended up attending New York University where she graduated with a BA and Master’s in Psychology. She now works as a life coach and psychotherapist in New York City, and has her own practice called New York Integrative Therapy. Kim has two children with her ex-husband Neil Cole, who she met at the Miss Universe contest.
Brooke Lee- Miss Hawaii 1997
The Hawaiian beauty was crowned both Miss USA and Miss Universe in 1997. Although she had very little prior experience in pageants, she made a splash at Miss Hawaii USA and won on her first try. She kept going strong all the way to her victorious Miss Universe pageant, where she gave the infamous “I would eat everything in the world” answer when asked what she would do if there were no rules. At 26-years-old, she became the oldest Miss Universe contestant, as well as the first native Hawaiian to win the title.
Brooke Lee now
As soon as Brooke won, she decided to continue her education and studied communications at the University of Hawaii. After her reign, she made multiple guest appearances on talk shows and even landed a couple small parts in the popular ’90s series The Nanny and Boy Meets World. Brooke went on to judge the reality show “Call to Cosplay” until 2016, and is now focusing on her favorite job yet- as a mom to her two children.
Kandace Krueger- Miss Texas 2001
Kandace Krueger from Texas, took home the title of Miss USA in 2001, and later became the 2nd runner-up in Miss Universe. She started competing in beauty pageants as a teenager, and competed in Miss Texas USA numerous times throughout the nineties until she finally took home the title in 2001. Kandace studied journalism at Texas A&M before she became Miss USA, and always had dreams of working as a news broadcaster.
Kandace Krueger now
One year after Kandace’s win, she got to live her dream as a broadcaster, by being a presenter for the following Miss USA competition. With her charm and beauty, she was seen as the perfect television personality and landed hosting jobs on shows like Across America and Hollywood Red Carpet. She is now hosting her own weekday television talk show titled Today with Kandace, which is broadcast from Dallas, Texas.
Kimberly Pressler- Miss New York 1999
Kimberly Pressler took home the title of Miss USA in 1999, while representing the state of New York. She became one of only four women to ever seize both Miss New York Teen USA and Miss New York USA crowns. Not only that, she was also the fourth woman from New York to ever take home the Miss USA title. Unfortunately, she did not score as well in Miss Universe, and did not place in the semifinals becoming only the second Miss USA contestant to not place in the competition.
Kimberly Pressler now
Kimberly stayed active in Miss USA, and was an honorary guest in 2011’s 60th anniversary of Miss USA. She also was the host of both the Miss Massachusetts USA and Miss Massachusetts Teen USA contests, and still frequently judges Miss USA state pageants. Kimberly’s vibrant and outgoing personality landed her hosting gigs for ABC, NBC, MTV and FOX Sports. She is currently appearing as the lane side reporter on ESPN’s Professional Bowlers Association.
Chelsi Smith Miss Texas 1995
The gorgeous Texan, Chelsi Smith, took home the crown for both Miss USA and Miss Universe in 1995. Chelsi made history by becoming the first Miss Texas USA of African-American heritage (she is African-American on her father’s side and white on her mother’s side). In Miss Universe, Chelsi stunned the judges in each portion of the competition, and she became the highest placed contestant in Miss Universe history at the time, and also was the first Miss USA to bring home the title in 15 years.
Chelsi Smith now
Chelsi got work as a model right after her win, and she became the face of Hawaiian Tropic, Pontiac and Venus Swimwear. She also had her fair share of on-screen appearances, including a spot as a celebrity contestant on Wheel of Fortune and a role in the indie film Playas Ball. She is still making guest appearances here and there, and most recently was a judge in the Miss Peru beauty pageant.
Laura Harring – Miss Texas 1985
Laura Harring won her Miss Texas crown after only competing in pageants for five years. After spending some time away, studying abroad in Switzerland, she returned to take the beauty pageant world by storm: after first being crowned Miss Texas, Laura went on to win Miss USA. She was the first ever Hispanic woman to nab the national title. Laura’s grace and classic beauty paved the way to a promising new opportunities.
Laura Harring now
Since her win, Laura has decided to pursue a complete change in career, training in the performing arts and Latin dancing. This has seen the actress land a considerable number of roles, including the leading role in the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Derailed, as well as parts in Nancy Drew and Return to Babylon. It’s not just movie acting Laura has done either as she has also starred in Frasier, and NCIS: Los Angeles and Gossip Girl. From her marriage to Count Carl-Eduard Otto Wolfgang von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Laura still holds the title of Countess, even though the couple divorced nearly 30 years ago.
Shanna Moakler – Miss New York 1995
Shanna Moakler represented New York in the 1995 Miss USA competition when she was just 20 years old. Before winning the crown, the pageant winner had done plenty of modeling, including shoots for Brentwood, and Cosmopolitan, as well as having previously run for Miss Teen USA where she represented her home state of Rhode Island. While Shanna hadn’t won the title before, she became an instant hit after the win. Later that same year, Shanna was crowned Miss USA after Chelsi Smith became Miss Universe.
Shanna Moakler now
In the years that followed her Miss USA days, Shanna has experienced a great deal of drama: after marrying Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, the two were repeatedly reported to be fighting, until their eventual divorce in 2009. Career-wise, Shanna has continued modeling, landed a contract with Playboy, and declared her support of the Miss USA pageant. She has also landed a number of acting roles since her win, while appearing in such reality shows as Meet the Barkers, Rhinoplasty, and Hollywood Exes.
Tara Conner- Miss Kentucky 2006
Tara Conner from Kentucky was titled Miss USA in 2006. She had a rough childhood, and got in a lot of trouble with the police as a teenager. She began to act out shortly after her parents separated and her grandfather, to whom she was close, died. However, she turned things around, got a degree in Business Administration at a community college and started pursuing beauty pageants. Despite this, she almost had her crown taken away after her win, for getting caught doing illegal activities in a New York nightclub.
Tara Conner now
Like most Miss USA winners, Tara had her fair share of TV appearances, which included a guest judge in an episode of Project Runway and an interview on Live! With Regis and Kelly. However, her troubled past caught up with the small town girl, and she continued to make poor decisions and frequently got in trouble with the law. She has, however, turned it around since then, and now visits high schools to advocate against drinking and illegal substances. She still acts, and recently appeared in the indie film DriverX.
Kenya Moore Then
Kenya Moore came out of Detroit, Michigan with a bang. She became a model at the age of 14, appearing on the cover of Ebony Man’s magazine. Kenya was also a model for the Ebony Fashion Fair line of cosmetics. She has a strenuous relationship with her mother, and the two have not spoken since Kenya was 16 years old. She entered numerous beauty competitions, and she became Miss Michigan USA in 1992. She then went on to win the entire Miss USA competition.
Kenya Morre now
Kenya Moore decided to go into acting following her Miss America win. She has appeared in a wide range of television shows and feature films. For instance, she has taken on roles in shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Meet the Browns, Smart Guy, In the House, The Jamie Foxx Show, and Cloud 9, and I Know Who Killed Me. She has risen to prominence once again for her appearance on Real Housewives of Atlanta.