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Leanza Cornett, Miss America who was crusading AIDS activist, dies at 49

Leanza Cornett took up the cause after volunteering with young AIDS patients.
Leanza Cornett took up the cause after volunteering with young AIDS patients. (Helayne Seidman/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1992, Leanza Cornett was a part-time college student, a full-time singing mermaid at Walt Disney World in Orlando and an ambivalent contestant preparing for the Miss Florida pageant.

She was advised to find a cause, a signature issue to champion if she were crowned.

For the previous year, she had been volunteering with young AIDS patients. When she informed local pageant directors that she wanted public awareness of the disease as her issue, they winced and asked if she had a second choice.

She recalled telling them, “You know what, I don’t care. If this is not okay, this is not an organization I want to be a part of.”

Months later, Ms. Cornett was named Miss America 1993 — and turned her year-long reign into a crusade to bring attention to AIDS and promote safe sex. At a time when AIDS was considered a terminal illness and HIV-positive people faced discrimination, Ms. Cornett jolted the pageant’s prim reputation and made headlines for bringing her pro-condom message into schools.

“Girls, no love unless he wears a glove,” she told her teenage audience. “Boys, if you love her, wear a cover. Don’t leave home without it.”

Ms. Cornett clashed with some nervous educators but often managed to prevail, one way or another. At a school that tried to bar her from using graphic words, she made a deal to substitute her speech with a question-and-answer session — knowing full well the students would bring up the R-rated topics for her.

When a rural school district in Florida refused even to let her utter the word “AIDS,” she reluctantly complied — and promptly told a Rotary-Kiwanis luncheon audience that same day how she had been censored.

“I can adhere to any school board’s needs,” she said. “But I will not be an accomplice to the spread of this disease. People are dying from this disease. I feel guilty that I didn’t speak about it. I don’t want to lay blame, but the school board should feel guilty.”″

Journalists were present at the lunch, and the dust-up became national news.

Ms. Cornett, 49, who went on to a career as a television host, died Oct. 28 at a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., after suffering a serious head injury two weeks earlier in a fall at her home in that city, according to Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz, a longtime friend.

Her triumph in September 1992 marked the start of Miss America’s last flourishing years, a decade before the onslaught of reality TV when the annual pageant still commanded tens of millions of viewers and its winners were guaranteed a measure of instant fame.

It was an era when the pageant’s organizers were eager to modernize the 70-year-old institution by emphasizing merit as well as beauty: Contestants that year included a physician, a military intelligence officer and several future lawyers.

Many were surprised when Ms. Cornett — an academically undistinguished student who had bounced among colleges before taking time off to star in “The Little Mermaid” at Orlando’s Disney-MGM Studios Park — emerged as the winner.

But the self-possessed 21-year-old quickly demonstrated a natural command of her new spotlight. In her early days as Miss America, she declared herself “a Christian who is pro-choice” and called for distributing clean needles to addicts and condoms to students who want them. A registered Republican, she blasted the shortcomings of then-President George H.W. Bush’s AIDS efforts.

She would later carry a panel of the AIDS Quilt in President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural parade and appear on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” program to call on religious communities to help fight the disease.

She also took the stage at a drag-show fundraiser in New York City — startling an audience that assumed at first she must be a Miss America impersonator — and taught the crowd how to do the pageant wave. (“Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, touch your pearls and blow a kiss.”)

Not everyone in the pageant community was endeared by her activism. Miss America 1933 Marian Bergeron called her “amoral” in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times: “She’s talking about condoms. Being Miss America certainly isn’t about condoms or whatever they are doing with them.”

Ms. Cornett also had to contend with hecklers. “Are you a virgin?” some smart-aleck students asked her during one safe-sex lecture, USA Today reported.

“I will tell you this,” she replied. “I practice what I preach.”

Eva Leanza Cornett was born June 10, 1971, in the Appalachian community of Big Stone Gap, Va., the only child of a coal mine manager and a homemaker. She was 12 when the family settled in Jacksonville, where her parents operated a Greek fast-food restaurant called Gyro Wrap.

She sang in the Methodist church as a child and began performing as a teenager with a Christian pop group and in professional stage musicals. Later, while living in Orlando, she worked at a service organization, which led to volunteering at Serenity House, a pediatric foster house for children with AIDS.

“That really humanized AIDS for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, I can handle this.’ I went in, and on my first day at Serenity House I met maybe seven children, 5 years old and younger, who had AIDS. Basically what I would do is babysit, take them swimming, take them to the zoo, sit with them and watch movies. They were missing out on so much of their childhoods by visiting clinics and being in the hospital. I don’t have any brothers or sisters; these kids taught me a lot about life.”

It was at her mother’s urging that she first decided to enter a local pageant to try to secure scholarship money for college. She originally hoped to use Miss America as a launchpad into show business, and as she neared the end of her title year, she was hired as a correspondent for the celebrity-interview TV show “Entertainment Tonight.”

In 1995, she married Mark Steines, a sportscaster. In a devastating professional blow, she was dropped that same year by “Entertainment Tonight” just as her new husband was hired by the program, where he went on to have a long career. Ms. Cornett later had hosting jobs on other talk shows and television specials.

The couple divorced in 2013. Survivors include her parents and two sons.

In recent years, Ms. Cornett returned to Florida, where she remained active in charitable endeavors and frequently served as an emcee for local pageants.

In an interview earlier this year, she reflected on the dizzying instant stardom that once befell Miss Americas — a journey more heady than most of today’s reality TV stars would ever know, she noted, but just as fleeting.

“For us, it was overnight fame,” she said. “People are interviewing you, and you’re on every radio show and TV show — and then it disappears and it’s someone else’s. I went through some PTSD over that. ‘What just happened? Doesn’t anyone else want to take my picture?’ . . . But that’s just reality. You move from space to space.”

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