Former Miss USA Tara Conner told a group of recovering men and women that if she had heard her story when she was 14, then her life wouldn’t have become such a mess.
A resident of Los Angeles, the model, actress and singer/songwriter traveled through Virginia this week to promote hope for those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. She made a stop in Bowling Green and had Kodak moments with dozens ranging from local pastors to recovering men and woman. She spoke upstairs in the Caroline County Recovery Community Center.
“Tara turned down a $1 million offer to pose for Playboy” magazine, said John Shinholser, president of The McShin Foundation, Virginia’s leading non-profit, full-service recovery community organization.
Tara, now 27, was crowned Miss USA in 2006. During December of that year, she entered the Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania and completed 30 days of treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, said Tony Spencer, Caroline County’s commonwealth’s attorney. Spencer supports the Caroline recovery program because he would rather send non-violent criminals to recovery than jail, he said.
Tara will celebrate 7 years of sobriety next week. The group sat in a circle and Tara told her story and noted that all of her alcohol use was underage drinking. She took her first drink when she was 14 while on a cheerleading trip. “By the end of that year, I was hooked on morphine. It’s God’s wonder that I’m alive today. I got busted my freshman year.
“I thought it was normal to hang out with my friends and do drugs on the weekends.”
But she got a new attitude toward life when she competed in beauty pageants and won her first pageant at 14. She was a featured model on the HDNet series “Bikini Fantasies” in 2004 as a teen-ager.
She was Miss Kentucky Teen USA 2002, Miss Kentucky USA 2006 and then Miss USA. Suddenly, “I was on the red carpet with celebrities and I had my own stylist and driver and I had a salary.” She was on national TV news shows. That wasn’t bad for a small town girl from Kentucky.
But living in New York City as Miss USA put her in with the wrong crowd and she got involved with guys, drugs and alcohol. “I had wanted to be famous and now I was famous but I was unhappy,” she said.
She noted that she first had thoughts of suicide when she was 16, and those thoughts were back while in New York. “I wanted God to take me out.”
In late 2006, she was in the national spotlight when news reports claimed she had been drinking underage and tested positive for cocaine use while living in Trump Place apartments in New York. Donald Trump held a press conference and said he was willing to give Tara a second chance. She was allowed to retain her title.
She “turned sober the week before turning 21,” she said. “I’ve never had a legal drink.” She went to Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania. “It was fascinating to be with a group of people who I could relate to and they could relate to me. I threw myself into the 12-step program. I did everything they said to do,” she told recovering young men and women around her. They went around the circle and introduced themselves. One said he had been clean since 2006. Another started his recovery on Jan. 16, 2013 and another started Oct. 13, 2011.
“If not for being Miss USA, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a treatment like that,” Tara told the group. “Recovery is No. 1 in my life. But there have been ups and downs in life. Stuff happens, man. For three years, I was living out of my car. I was able to eat, and if I needed a place to stay, it was there. You can’t save your face and your butt at the same time.
“But at least I know how to dream again. I know how to be a good daughter and a girlfriend. I never went without hope or faith.”
During a question and answer session, local pastor David Upshaw asked Tara what is the best way to educate educators and others on seeing signs of drug and alcohol use to “catch it early.”
Tara noted that many parents don’t believe their children could be using drugs or alcohol. “But by middle school, kids are introduced to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “If I’d heard my story when I was 14, I would have had a little bit of hope.”
Spencer noted that she had gotten on the road of recovery at an early age, and Tara said, “I was put in a great place for recovery.”
When asked if she would consider having a movie made about her life, she said she wanted to first write her memoirs. When that is done, she might be open to a movie, she said.
When asked if she prays regularly, she said, “I feel like my God is on call all of the time.” She prays before she speaks and asks God to help her stay out of the way of the message he is getting out to people.
Through her work, she hopes to raise awareness that addiction is a disease and that many people go on to lead a healthy, productive life in recovery. She especially wants educators, families and professionals to know that sobriety at an early age is achievable and that it greatly enhances life’s possibilities.
This week, she also visited the Henrico County Jail, the Rubicon (a men’s treatment center in Richmond), Virginia State University and the Virginia War Memorial. She spoke at The McShin Foundation’s annual holiday party/auction.