21-year-old from Tennessee crowned Miss USA

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Rachel Smith, a journalism graduate from Tennessee, was crowned Miss USA on Friday, edging out 50 other aspiring beauty queens in a contest to replace a titleholder whose reign was nearly marred by a scandal.

Smith, 21, of Clarksville, Tenn., graduated from Belmont University and interned last year for the production company behind "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia were vying to succeed Miss USA Tara Conner, who entered rehab after accounts surfaced suggesting she was boozing at New York clubs.

The episode might have cost the Kentucky native her crown, but Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC, gave her a second chance.

The telecast didn't shy away from the controversy, opening with a string of news and interview clips about Conner's woes.

Then, the 21-year-old blonde emerged wearing a strapless, ruffled gown, and appeared on stage.

"It has been the most unforgettable year of my life and I'm back, and better than ever," Conner said to wild applause from the audience at the Kodak Theater.

Smith edged out top finalists Meagan Yvonne Tandy of California; Cara Renee Gorges of Kansas; Helen Salas of Nevada; and Danielle Lacourse of Rhode Island.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)