Little Bailey Brown couldn’t sleep Saturday night. She was up at 5 o’clock Sunday morning — seven hours before she was to meet the reigning Miss USA Tara Conner at The Center for Rural Development in Somerset.

Bailey had missed seeing Tara in a homecoming parade in Russell Springs Saturday because she was competing in the Miss Petite Kentucky pageant. The youngster wasn’t going to pass up a second opportunity to meet her hometown idol while Tara was making a rare, public appearance in the Lake Cumberland region.

Life for the 20-year-old Russell County native and former Somerset Community College student changed in the blink of an eye when she was crowned Miss USA in April. Immediately following her pageant win, she moved into a Trump Tower apartment in New York City that she shares with Miss Universe and Miss Teen USA. Tara has been caught up in a whirlwind of activities with media interviews, special guest appearances and promotional meetings.

She returned to her Kentucky roots this weekend for a homecoming celebration fit for a queen — or Miss USA. Tara couldn’t hide her enthusiasm, and an occasional tear, as she spoke of her love for young children and her platform on breast cancer awareness.

“I cannot turn down a small child who wants an autograph,” she said in welcoming Kentucky supporters from the stage of the Center theater where she won the Miss Kentucky pageant.

Like Bailey, Tara dreamed of meeting a beauty queen. Now she is the beauty queen. Tara is in a unique position to be an inspiration to Bailey and an untold number of pageant hopefuls who would someday like to walk in the shoes of Tara Elizabeth Conner.

Tara is the first woman from Kentucky to win the Miss USA pageant in 54 years. She said she will use her voice to put to rest any stereotypes people from other states may have about Kentuckians. Hollywood has typically typecast people from the bluegrass as lazy, uneducated and having a Hillbilly-style personality.

Winning the Miss USA pageant has done more for Kentucky and Somerset Community College than “we could ever do,” said SCC president Dr. Jo Marshall.

Marshall presented Tara with a scholarship to continue her education at SCC, if that is her desire, after she completes her journey as the reigning Miss USA. Tara spent a semester last year at SCC studying business administration.

Her success has been honored on the floor of Congress. U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Somerset, recognized Tara — a constituent from his district — with a framed copy of an article he had entered into the Congressional Record.

As part of her pageant platform, Tara will be traveling the country promoting breast cancer awareness and sharing information on ovarian cancer. She is a supporter of Gilda’s Club, which will be forming a chapter soon in Louisville. Tara described Gilda’s Club as a place where cancer patients and their families can find hope, peace and strength.

Representatives from the Somerset Junior Woman’s Club were among the first to present a donation to Gilda’s Club. They also made Miss USA an honorary club member. Tara graciously signed autographs and posed for photographs for a suggested $1 donation to Gilda’s Club.

Connie Clark Harrison, director of the Miss Universe organization, has been with Tara “through thick and thin” and watched her success blossom in the last few years. Tara’s first pageant was in 2001 when she won the Miss Kentucky Teen USA crown. In August of 2002, Tara went on to compete in the Miss Teen USA pageant and placed second runner-up. She returned to pageantry three years later and won the Miss Kentucky USA crown. She represented Kentucky at Miss USA 2006 pageant in Baltimore, Maryland, and the rest is history.

Harrison said Tara competed in Miss USA with an impacted wisdom tooth. She said a dentist told her after the pageant, “I’m surprised the girl was able to walk across the stage.”

Harrison and Tara share a mother-daughter relationship. Tara couldn’t hold back the tears when Harrison talked about the young contestant who has meant so much to her life.

“I love this woman with all my heart,” Tara said of Harrison.

Tara will be back on the pageant circuit on July 23 when she represents the United States at the Miss Universe 2006 pageant in Los Angeles, Calif.

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