Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Nevada finally got a pageant winner; here are 10 who failed but gained notoriety anyway

No contestant from Nevada has ever won a Miss America or Miss USA pageant — until this week when Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez won the Miss USA Pageant. But several Miss Nevadas and Miss Nevada USAs have captured America’s attention. Some for better, some for worse.

Representatives from the Silver State have gone on to become famous television stars and influential politicians. A few also have found themselves in compromising situations or spent the night in jail.

Here’s a look back at some of the state’s most notable pageant contestants. This story was initially published on the Sun's website last summer:

    • Christina Keegan, center, reacts after winning the 2009 Miss Nevada Pageant while Miss Nevada 2008, Julianna Erdesz, right, and Nevada's Outstanding Teen 2009, Alexis Hilts, left, congratulate her at the Pioneer Center for the Performing arts in Reno, NV, Saturday, June 27, 2009.

      2009 Miss Nevada Christina Keegan

      The former Miss Northern Counties took a brave approach to the competition, choosing rape as her platform issue. When she was 19, Keegan was drugged and sexually assaulted in Spain. The experience could have broken her; instead, it empowered her.

      "Nobody likes to talk about sex and violence," Keegan said. "It's kept at arm's length as being dirty, but I decided to embrace the subject. Sexual assault is not a pretty issue, but it needs to be addressed. I think it's important to say I'm a survivor, and I'm not ashamed."

      Keegan didn't place in the Miss America pageant, but she was named second runner-up for the quality of life awards, which honor contestants for their charity and public-service platforms. Read more about the 2009 Miss America pageant here.

    • Miss Nevada, Elizabeth Muto, reacts after she was crowned Miss Black USA during the finale of the Miss Black USA Pageant in Miami, early Sunday, Aug, 24, 2003.

      2004 Miss Nevada Elizabeth Muto

      The former Miss Las Vegas had a rough start in life. She was abandoned as an infant at the Reno airport but was rescued by two pilots who found her in a baby seat on a counter. She was taken into foster care and adopted.

      In the Miss America pageant, Muto won a nonfinalist interview award and was second runner-up for the quality of life award. She later earned the title Miss Black USA.

      A longtime child advocate, Muto was honored with a volunteer service award issued by President George W. Bush and featured on "Good Morning America," "Dr. Phil" and "Inside Edition." She continues to work for children's rights in the Las Vegas area. Read more about Elizabeth Muto here. A story from the Nevada Appeal is here.

    • Teresa Benitez

      2002 Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez

      Now Teresa Benitez-Thompson, the former Miss Silver State served as a Democratic state assemblywoman, representing Reno. She is the first former Miss Nevada to serve in the Legislature (although former state Sen. Sue Lowden is a Miss New Jersey titleholder).

      Benitez-Thompson earned third runner-up at Miss America, one of the best showings for a Nevada contestant. She also won the preliminary interview award, preliminary onstage interview award and quality of life award. Her platform was women's empowerment with a focus on getting young women off welfare and out of poverty. She works as a hospice social worker.

    • 1995 Miss Nevada Jennifer Joseph

      The former Miss Elko County won the talent award at her Miss America pageant and has performed on the Strip for more than a decade. She has appeared in numerous shows, including "Folies Bergère," "Legends in Concert" and "Fantasy."

      In 2005, Joseph became one of three finalists on the E! reality television show "The Entertainer: Starring Wayne Newton." She won a job as a one of Newton's backup singers. Read more about Jennifer Joseph on her website.

    • Miss Nevada, Dawn Elberta Wells, of Reno, poses with a 50 pound stuffed lion in an Atlantic City Sept. 8, 1959 rolling chair on this resort city's boardwalk during a lull in start of the week long Miss America pageant. Miss Nevada will compete against 53 other beauties from all parts of the United States for the coveted title of Miss America pf 1960.

      1959 Miss Nevada Dawn Wells

      This Reno native is most famous for her portrayal of Mary Ann on "Gilligan's Island," a role she secured four years after winning the Miss Nevada crown. Following "Gilligan's Island," Wells embarked on a successful theater career, appearing in almost 100 stage productions, including a one-woman show she performed at the MGM Grand.

      Wells later ran a clothing business and nonprofit group from her home in Idaho and has worked as a spokeswoman for Idaho potatoes. In 2008, she was arrested after being caught with marijuana in her vehicle while driving home after a surprise birthday party. She pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

    • Veronica Grabowski, Miss Nevada USA 2008, arrives at VEGAS Magazine's 5th anniversary party at The Palazzo Hotel & Casino during closing night festivities of the CineVegas Film Festival in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 21, 2008.

      2008 Miss Nevada USA Veronica Grabowski

      Grabowski, of Henderson, didn't advance to the finals of the Miss USA pageant but earned plenty of headlines nonetheless. Her boyfriend at the time, magician Criss Angel, star of "Mindfreak," gained national attention after melting down over the fact that Grabowski didn't fare better in the competition. Angel flipped off NBC cameras during the pageant telecast, then threatened Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Norm Clarke with violence during an F-bomb-laced tirade.

      Angel was apparently angry about a column Clarke wrote in which he reported that Angel asked a preliminary pageant judge to give Grabowski high marks. The couple has since split. Read about the 2008 pageant here. Watch a YouTube video here.

    • Former Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees, second from right, dethroned over raunchy photos posted online, listens to her attorney Mario E. Torres III, right, during a press conference while flanked by her parents, Shannon and David Rees, in Clearwater, Fla., Saturday, Dec. 23, 2006.

      2007 Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees

      Rees was dethroned as Miss Nevada USA after inappropriate photos of her surfaced three months before she was to compete in the Miss USA pageant. The pictures, taken three years before at a Florida nightclub, showed her half-dressed, kissing another woman and in other compromising poses. Rees was replaced by Helen Salas, who went on to earn the fourth runner-up spot at Miss USA.

      In 2008, Rees was arrested after being pulled over for speeding. Police said she was driving with a suspended license and expired tags and accused her of becoming physically aggressive with an officer. Read more about Katie Rees and her ouster here. Watch a YouTube video here.

    • The 10th edition of CBS' "Survivor," set in the Pacific island nation of Palau, includes these 20 castaways, shown in this undated photo from CBS, who will try to outwit, outplay and outlast each other to win the $1 million prize. "Survivor Palau," premieres Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005. Back row,from left: Angie Jakusz, Jonathan Libby, James Miller, Coby Archa, Ian Rosenberger, Jolanda Jones, Janu Tornell and Ibrehem Rahman. Middle row, from left; Gregg Carey, Tom Westman, Kimberly Mullen, Stephenie Lagrossa, Bobby Jon Drinkard and Ashlee Ashby. Bottom row, from left; Wanda Shirk, Williard Smith, Katie Gallagher, Caryn Groedel, Jeff Wilson and Jennifer Lyon.

      1989 Miss Nevada USA Janu Tornell

      The Las Vegas native and former Tropicana "Folies" showgirl appeared on "Survivor: Palau" in 2005. Tornell quit the game in its 10th week, making her the second first-time "Survivor" castaway to willingly leave the competition.

      Tornell later taught in UNLV's foreign language department. She is fluent in Spanish, Italian, French and English. Click here for a Sun archive story about Tornell. Watch a YouTube video here.

    • While at UNLV, Alicia Jacobs was named Mrs. USA.

      1985 Miss Nevada USA Alicia Berger

      Berger, now Alicia Jacobs, took an unusual path to being crowned Miss Nevada USA. She won as a first-time contestant but didn't have the same luck in the Miss USA contest. The almost-lifelong Las Vegan (she was born in Idaho in a home for unwed mothers, then adopted and brought to Las Vegas when she was 6 days old) parlayed her pageant experience into a career as a broadcast reporter. She has worked for several networks and nationally syndicated celebrity shows.

      She made headlines after her ex-boyfriend, rocker Vince Neil, allegedly poked her in the shoulder during a confrontation, earning him a charge of battery domestic violence. Read more about Alicia Jacobs here, or watch a YouTube video here.

    • 1977 Miss Nevada USA Mary O'Neal Contino

      An actress, Contino (who now goes by the first name Merri) was the most successful Nevadan in history to compete in the Miss USA pageant until this year. She was named first runner-up.

      In 1999, Contino began appearing in the Australian television series "Chuck Finn," a children's comedy-adventure that follows a group of kids who try to resurrect a derelict paddle steamer and get it back onto a river. Watch YouTube footage of her by clicking here.

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