BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - In the business of crowning beauty queens, there's one thing you'd think they'd get right: crowning the right beauty queen.
Miss California USA organizers say they got that wrong, but corrected themselves yesterday by crowning Miss Barstow, Raquel Beezley, a 21-year-old waitress they said rightfully earned the title.
And they tried to put an end to a kerfuffle that began last month when they crowned Miss Los Angeles, Christina Silva, only to backtrack days later, blaming a vote tabulation error.
Silva hired a lawyer, booked an appearance on "Ellen," and won support from a Los Angeles Times columnist who murmured in print of hanging chads. Silva, 24, lives in L.A.'s Koreatown and is of Ecuadoran and Mexican descent. Was she too ethnic? Too urban? Did judges find some dirty secret in her past at the last minute?
California pageant executive director Keith Lewis stared out at cameras in a Beverly Hilton conference room hoping to tamp down speculation.
"This was a human error. We have apologized for it," he said. "I believe in the integrity by which we must stand. I'm here today to right that wrong of crowning the incorrect person."
To that end, last year's winner, Meagan Tandy, emerged wearing a black dress and placed a tiara on Beezley's head to the sound of cheers from her parents and brothers.
"It is bittersweet," Beezley said of her win. "I just want her to know that it was not my fault nor her fault. This has been very hard for the both of us."
At any rate, it's another hit for Donald Trump's Miss USA pageant, which in the past year has seen state-level winners lose their titles for appearing in risque pictures and getting pregnant. Trump personally gave the overall winner, Tara Conner, a second chance after she was seen boozing at New York clubs and agreed to enter rehab.
Judges approached Lewis immediately after the Nov. 25 pageant finals in Los Angeles, concerned that their votes hadn't been correctly tallied. He asked for a re-count, and it turned out the points assigned to finalists had been reversed. He said he broke the news to Silva in a "lengthy, heartfelt, truthful" conversation, then the two of them called Beezley.
Beezley interrupted her waitress shift at DiNapoli's Firehouse Pizza restaurant in Barstow to take the call from the two of them on speakerphone. Beezley said Silva told her about the error and congratulated her, saying, "I do not want this crown and sash if I didn't rightfully win it."
The pageant let Silva, now listed as second runner-up, keep all her accouterments - the sash, the crown, the necklace - and gave her $1,500 entry fee back. But Silva now says she felt unfairly pressured to relinquish her title, and feels something is fishy about the "accountant error" reason supplied by organizers.
"Everything's inaccurate and it's not consistent," Silva told Ellen DeGeneres during an "Ellen" show broadcast yesterday. "All I could do was shake and cry, just cry in my mom's arms."
Beezley's mother, Christine Parrish, said she was upset about speculation her daughter was bumped up because she appears less ethnic. "I heard somebody calling her a whitey! It's sad," she said, noting that Beezley is one-fourth Filipino, had won a pageant in Mazatlan, Mexico, and judged a pageant in the Phillipines.
Beezley, who hid her shaking hands behind a desk after being crowned, was disappointed that she and Silva would be lumped in with other scandals in Trump's pageant empire.
"The thing is, we didn't do anything wrong," she said. "We're both innocent in this case. It's crazy."
Beezley, who attends Barstow Community College, will represent California in April in the Miss USA pageant, and hopes to become a correspondent for "Access Hollywood."