Tara Conner On Trump: My Gratitude Does Not Mean I'm a Supporter

By John Lavitt 03/30/17

"Instead of building more walls, let’s invest in recovery and in prevention. Let’s give people the opportunity to get well."

Tara Conner speaking in public.
She owes him one, but... via Author

Born in Kentucky, Tara Conner began winning pageants at a young age. She was Miss Kentucky Teen USA 2002 and Miss Kentucky County Fair 2004. Later, she was crowned Miss USA 2006. In late 2006, Conner became the center of a major public scandal after she was caught drinking underage, using cocaine, and kissing Miss Teen USA Katie Blair at a New York nightclub. Rather than stripping her of her title, pageant owner Donald Trump gave her the option of entering a drug rehabilitation program. Since completing that program, Tara Conner has become a recovery advocate, working with Facing Addiction on prevention efforts and Transforming Youth Recovery. Relating the story of how Donald Trump came through for her in 2006, she found herself being used to vouch for the president's recovery efforts. But does her expression of gratitude for Trump's past actions imply a wholehearted backing of today’s presidential policies?

In 2006, reports of your underage drinking, drug abuse, and sexual indiscretions put you in danger of losing your Miss USA crown. Can you tell us more about what happened and what led you on this dangerous path?

What led me to that path is the same thing that led most adolescents to that path. I think a lot of people have the wrong picture in their head. They thought I won Miss USA, and I moved to New York City from a small town in Kentucky, and I got caught up in all of this wild big city stuff, but that’s far from the truth. The truth is that my addiction started when I was 14 years old. I was caught in the perfect storm of elements for addiction to manifest—family history, abuse, trauma. The truth looks different than what people expect the stories to look like, and I see this perception gap over and over again. People try to find masks to cover their pain. For me, they came in the form of a sash and a crown. That was my way of protecting my disease without even knowing it. It was my way of saying to everyone trying to get a piece of me, “I’m good. I’m doing good. Now stay in your lane and leave me alone.”

After testing positive for cocaine eight months after your win, pageant owner Donald Trump allowed you to keep your title if you agreed to enter rehab. Can you tell us about this meeting and his offer?

I had a press conference about a week after my failed drug test had leaked. I believe the options presented were to resign and go on my own or to resign and go to treatment. At first, there didn’t seem to be any option where I could keep the title. I didn’t really believe there was any chance that I would be able to keep it. When I met Donald Trump in his office, he was saying things like, “You’re going out to clubs all the time. You’re dancing on tables and kissing girls. What the heck are you thinking?” I actually never danced on tables. I did kiss girls, but I wanted to so like, whatever. He asked me, “What am I supposed to do about this?”

We need to [put] this in the proper perspective. Donald Trump is not a drinker. He’s never been any type of user, but his brother died of alcoholism. When he was asking me what am I supposed to do, I think part of my response was divinely inspired and part of it was my manipulation as an addict. I said, “I think it will say far more about your organization and far more about your character if you give me a second chance and you allow me to make this right.”

I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but I know that he immediately liked the idea. We go down to the press conference, and he was very supportive. During that entire time, he was never angry and he was never mean. He listened. He truly did listen. In fact, he called me a few times. He always called at like 6 AM in the morning. It was so early.

I guess there wasn’t any Twitter to distract his attention at that time.

Right, but he did seem genuinely concerned. He was like, “Well, I’m hearing this and that, and I don’t know what to do. You’ve put me in a tight spot.” All I could say in reply was, “I get it. I totally understand.” We went back and forth for a while. It wasn’t like one of those things where I went to his office one day, and we had a chat. He definitely was more hands on than I’ve given him credit for in the past.

During the press conference, he said, “She’s obviously an alcoholic and she needs help. She needs to go to treatment.” At the time, I didn’t understand what being an alcoholic meant. I actually remember saying that I didn’t really think that I was an alcoholic and that was pushing the envelope a little bit too far. Nonetheless, I was willing to do whatever it took. It wasn’t because I was trying to be a good person. It was just because I was trying to get my ass out of the fire that was consuming me.

I was taught from a young age everything had to look good on the outside. My pride and ego kept me sober for a long time because I had to prove to you that I wasn’t the asshole that you thought I was. It turns out that what happened was exactly what I needed. I needed that public humiliation and the dumping of all of my skeletons out of the closet. At that point, I couldn’t defend my disease anymore.

Long before he was President, Donald Trump decided to help you. He said, “I’ve always been a believer in second chances. Tara is a good person. Tara has tried hard. Tara is going to be given a second chance.”

Do you believe in second chances across the board? Does everyone experiencing a substance use disorder crisis deserve a second chance?

Here’s the deal: When someone’s willing to get treatment for a substance use disorder, I do believe that they should have the option. Sometimes I think people need to hit a bottom before they are ready to take that step. Initially, my getting a second chance was just my way of trying to get my ass out of the fire. In treatment, I learned about alcoholism, and I was open to learning. For a lot of people, however, they won’t get sober until they have more negative experiences. Many people are like, “Oh, I got a DUI and I’m sorry. I promise it’ll never happen again.” But you need to show the change through your actions. When someone is at the point where they say, “I have an open mind and I’m willing to do something different,” they should be given that option. Willingness is the first step.

It’s kind of like the saying in many of the 12-step programs, “You can carry the message, but you can’t carry the addict or the alcoholic.”

I’ve had many sponsees, girls that I’ve worked with, who were not willing to hear the message. There’s nothing anyone can do if you’re not willing to take direction. I work a very hard program, which I truthfully didn’t start doing until about a year and a half ago. At first, I didn’t understand what it was to be powerless or that my life was unmanageable. I thought I was powerless because I couldn’t drink and my life was unmanageable because I slept with people that I didn’t want to sleep with. I didn’t understand that when I use drugs or alcohol my mind and my body separate. My mind can tell me it’s a bad idea, but my body is off and running. Once it’s off and running, I can’t stop it. Powerlessness and unmanageability lived within me before I ever took a drink or a drug. For me, unmanageability means that I’m prey to misery and depression, I can’t control my emotional nature, and I have trouble with personal relationships.

I think there’s a misconception that alcohol turns the alcoholic into a tornado, but in truth the suffering started long before I ever took my first drink. When I work with girls who don’t want to take direction because their mind tells them they have a better idea, then I let go of the outcome. I say, “Great! Go do what you want to do and let me know what happens later.”

I don’t tell people how to live their lives. I don’t tell them who they can date. I don’t tell them who they can have sex with. I don’t tell them anything because I’m not God. If they need to have that experience, that’s what they are going to do. I am very clear about establishing those boundaries. All I knew at the beginning was that I was suffering. I was desperate and I was willing to do whatever it took. People often need to have that experience of desperation. Treatment’s really great for getting people separated from their disease for a moment and providing knowledge about the disease in a sort of academic fashion...but that’s only a short breather. That self-knowledge is not going to keep you sober. 

On the OWN Show, you said, “When he sent me to treatment, it was a huge step forward for the recovery movement.” I understand how it was a huge step forward for your own recovery; however, can you further explain how it was a huge step forward for the recovery movement as a whole?

When I was sent to treatment, Donald Trump was practicing inclusion in the workplace. When I could have been fired due to a morality clause, I wasn’t fired because he saw something in me that maybe even the Miss Universe organization didn’t see. All they saw was this pain-in-the-ass girl who lied a lot, was very inconsistent, and could barely put two sentences together. They were tired of it. Because he’s been directly affected by alcoholism and addiction, he could see a little deeper than that.

You have to realize that here was a man who was famous at the time for the classic catch phrase, “You’re fired! You’re fired! You’re fired!” That was the headline in newspapers around the country: Is she going to get fired for what she has done? And I wasn’t a bad person who was trying to act good. I said this in my TED Talk, and I have always made this point. To my core, my choices were always positive. I just didn’t have the strength to follow through with those decisions. I also didn’t know that I was suffering from a disease that affected my mind, my body, and my spirit. This disease prevented me from being the best version of myself.

When Trump sent me to treatment, what that showed was that this problem can be fixed. There is help out there, and this person has the ability to change. Instead of throwing the hot mess that was now Miss USA onto the street to fend for herself, I was given a chance by being given an option. I happily took that option. I said, “Absolutely, I’ll go to treatment. Whatever you need me to do.” I had hit my bottom, and I was willing to do what was necessary to get well again.

At that time, the idea of recovery was being ignored in the media. In my case, I was like twenty years old and it didn’t seem like such a big deal, but I think it helped reveal the humanity behind addiction to many people. I think they saw the struggle behind the headlines. Maybe we can help her if she’s given a second chance. If she falls down after that help, then that’s on her, but let’s give her a shot. Donald Trump gave me the option, and I took it. Thank God! Thank God I took it because it changed my life.

It was a huge step forward for the recovery movement because it was so well-publicized. My anonymity was out the window, but my story was on the table and I believe that ended up helping so many other people and continues to help people find recovery. I wasn’t embarrassed and I wasn’t ashamed because my twenty-year old brain was so excited to have found a passion and a path. What was huge for the recovery movement was all the young girls who saw Miss USA go through something terrible, but they also saw her get help. It showed them that help was out there.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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