Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 | 5:41 p.m.
It’s a story that Hollywood couldn’t dream up, but a role that Audrey Hepburn could certainly have played. In fact, it’s 20-year-old Olivia Culpo’s real-life story, and she wants to be a movie star in the same standing as her legendary actress heroine. They look similar, too!
The amazing journey began with a meek and mild cello player from a small Rhode Island town who is a Boston University sophomore. She’s the middle child of five and yet wound up Wednesday at Planet Hollywood capturing the 2012 Miss Universe Pageant title and breaking the USA’s 15-year losing streak.
We first met Olivia in June when she competed in the 2012 Miss USA Pageant after winning Miss Rhode Island in a rental dress that cost $20 and had a hole in the back. She dazzled the judges, won Miss USA and now six months later in a double-header captured the Miss Universe crown.
Pageant owner Donald Trump estimated a worldwide audience of 1 billion in 90 countries tuned in to watch the fairytale story as it unwound at the 61st annual competition. In early ratings released at noon today, the 2-hour NBC primetime telecast beat ABC and CBS and increased its rating share over last year’s pageant.
Minutes after the coronation, Olivia said: “I never, ever thought that I would ever be here today. One year ago, in October, I entered the Miss Rhode Island Pageant, and I was in a $20 rental gown that was too short and had a hole in the back of it. I did not know how to walk onstage, I had never been in pageants or anything like that, and I just wanted to test my abilities and practice my interview skills.
“Then, I end up winning Miss Rhode Island, and then Miss USA, and now Miss Universe, and I love that story and love being able to tell it because it is not about being the most glamorous, or wearing the most expensive dress; it is just about being yourself and working hard and being optimistic.
“It is such an honor to represent the USA in an international beauty contest. Despite the tragedies that have happened in this country lately, it is an honor to be able to uplift the country. I hope that this will raise everybody’s spirits a little. The turmoil teaches us to appreciate every day like it is your last day. Hug your family and hug your friends every day. I think that the more that you appreciate those that you love, the more you can make out of your life, and that is what it is all about. You never know what will happen.
“Hopefully my story will encourage people to get up and just go on with their dreams and not let the little things hold them back. I hope the story of my first pageant one year ago motivates people to not think that there are any boundaries, and you can do whatever you want to do. I hope it gets them involved and motivated. Here in America, younger generations are so blessed to have so many opportunities, and a lot of the time I feel like they sit back and they don’t grab them.
“Just take every day one step at a time, and if you make mistakes, learn from them. I think there is pressure in any job that you have. It just depends how you handle it and go about every different situation. Keep working and be optimistic because I feel that hard work and optimism are the two things that you need to do anything and can lead you anywhere. You just have to have the right attitude and work really hard.”
I asked Olivia what she’d learned from being the Miss USA roommate in New York with her predecessor 2011 Miss Universe Leila Lopes from Angola. “She did an awesome job as Miss Universe. She is so strong. She has her views, and she sticks to them. She has her opinions, and she is not afraid to tell you, and that is admirable. I love her for that.”
“Leila taught me one very important thing: Never complain! It really helped living with her. She always worked hard, she never complained, and it is a hard job. I will hopefully do a good job, just like she did, but I did sit back and look at the girls that were competing with me, thinking, ‘Which one of these girls reminds me of Leila?’ Some of them did, but she is really one of a kind. She just has that extra ‘it’ factor.”
Olivia’s father told me onstage seconds after his daughter was crowned for the second time on that spot within six months: “The first time we came here, we were country bumpkins. Suddenly, we have become pageant aficionados! They tortured us. She was the last girl named in the 16, so my wife and I were wiggling in our seats. We felt a little better then and thought she could win it all. Everybody just wants to get that far; you feel good about it.
“When she got to 10, we thought this is a great showing, we would be happy with anything, and then 10 became 5, and then fourth runner-up, third runner-up. She made kind of a statement with her hair up and an evening gown with long sleeves, and you just hope it works. She got a tough question, too; it was a difficult question to nail, but I think she worked well with it.”
I asked her parents about the secret to Olivia’s success, how she won both contests within six months. “She’s an incredibly hard worker and meticulous in everything she sets herself to achieve,” they told me. “She’s already completely ready and prepared for the year ahead as Miss Universe.”
Andy Cohen, host of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens: Live,” and Giuliana Rancic, co-anchor of “E! News,” hosted the pageant, with Jeannie Mai of Style Network’s “How Do I Look?” providing behind-the-scenes commentary. Three-time Grammy Award-winning band Train and Australian singer-dance sensation Timomatic performed onstage with the 89 beautiful contestants. Earlier on the red carpet, Timomatic told us: “This is the most important, biggest night of my life.”
The judges who sealed Olivia’s fate were Pablo Sandoval, two-time World Series champion and MVP with the San Francisco Giants; Nigel Barker, photographer, Oxygen’s “The Face” host (former Las Vegas model Brittany Mason will be featured on “The Face”) and longtime “America’s Next Top Model” judge; Diego Boneta, singer and actor (“Rock of Ages”); and Scott Disick, reality TV star (“Keeping Up With the Kardashians”).
Plus, Brad Goreski, celebrity stylist and star of Bravo’s “It’s a Brad, Brad World”; Claudia Jordan, TV personality and host starring in the Donald’s “Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars”; chef Masaharu Morimoto (“Iron Chef”); 2011 Miss Universe Ximena Navarrete; Kerri Walsh Jennings, three-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball and former Las Vegas resident; and Lisa Vanderpump, (“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” “Vanderpump Rules”).
“The Voice” judge CeeLo Green, who opens in his show “Loberace” at Planet Hollywood early in the New Year, had been scheduled as a judge, but due to exhaustion from the final episode the day before was unable to arrive on time.
Donald said after the crowning: “We have a great winner, and we have had a great evening. The ratings are through the roof, and we have had such success. I have gotten to know Olivia very well as a fantastic Miss USA. Then you come in and you have this tremendous amount of talent and beautiful women from 90 countries and who knows what is going to happen, but it has been 15 years since the United States has had a winner, and now we have a great winner. She has been a truly fantastic Miss USA.”
The onstage beauties, captured by our contributing photographer Tom Donoghue, who also went on an exclusive backstage tour with the Donald, competed in three categories: swimsuit, evening gown and the dreaded final question. Leila crowned Olivia as her successor, and Miss Philippines Janine Tugonon, the first runner-up, will assume the duties of 2012 Miss Universe if Olivia cannot fulfill her responsibilities.
Since Olivia is elevated from the Miss USA title, her runner-up from the June pageant, Nana Meriwether from Maryland, becomes the new titleholder for the remaining six months of the reign until they return to Planet Hollywood in June.
The Miss Universe second runner-up was Miss Venezuela Irene Esser, the third runner-up was Miss Australia Renae Ayris, and the fourth runner-up was Miss Brazil Gabriela Markus. The Miss Photogenic Universe Award went to Miss Kosovo Diana Avdiu, and Miss Guatemala Laura Godoy won Miss
Instead of flying overnight to New York for TV interviews around the world this morning, Olivia did them via satellite from Planet Hollywood. She even posed for her first photo op with Lisa Vanderpump’s dog Giggy (short for Gigolo).
We’ll be back later with our red carpet celebrity interviews as a separate story: Donald explains what he’ll do with the $5 million award he won against Miss Pennsylvania for slandering the 2012 Miss USA Pageant, and Bravo chief Andy, who created all the “Real Housewives” reality TV series, shares his views about TLC’s “Sin City Rules.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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