- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2012

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Judges and fans of the Miss America pageant have picked the 15 semifinalists who are still in the running for the 2012 title.

The semifinalists are: Miss South Carolina Bree Boyce, Miss Florida Kristina Janolo, Miss New York Kaitlin Monte, Miss Iowa Jessica Pray, Miss Texas Kendall Morris, Miss Virginia Elizabeth Crot, Miss Illinois Hannah Smith, Miss Arizona Jennifer Sedler, Miss Alabama Courtney Porter, Miss Tennessee Erin Hatley, Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler, Miss North Carolina Hailey Best, Miss California Noelle Freeman and Miss Louisiana Hope Anderson.

The semifinalists rushed backstage to change into bikinis, preparing to strut onstage at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson was announced as a semifinalist selected by an online fan vote at the start of the show.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Miss America is getting ready to transfer her crown again to one of 53 pageant queens looking to prove they’ve got a winning combination of looks, talent and smarts to justify a yearlong run with the title.

A panel of seven judges was set to pick the next Miss America on Saturday night during a live telecast on ABC, the culmination of a week of preliminary competitions and months of preparations for the titleholders from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Teresa Scanlan, a Nebraskan who won Miss America last year at age 17 to become the pageant’s youngest winner ever, said contestants nerves will likely be at their highest point just before the pageant.

But the young women have already given judges a first impression, she said, and largely shaped their fate through three nights of preliminary competitions at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

“You can always breathe a sigh of relief” once the live pageant begins, Scanlan said.

Scanlan said the ultimate winner will have thought not only about receiving the crown and $50,000 scholarship, but also about her plans for spending the year as Miss America, touring the country to speak to different groups and raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Miss America Organization’s official charity.

“It’s not just life ends when they place the crown on your head,” Scanlan said. “Being prepared for that is even more important than just being prepared through Saturday night.”

To win, each will have to impress the panel in preliminary competitions that include an extensive interview to become one of the top 15 finalists.

More contestants will be eliminated Saturday night during swimsuit, evening gown and talent competitions.

The top five finalists will answer a question posed by one of the judges, who will score each of the contestants in each competition throughout the night.

“When push comes to shove, you’re out on the stage by yourself,” said Miss America 1962 Maria Beale Fletcher. “All of that other well-meaning advice, all of it disappears. It needs to disappear because then you have to be prepared to rely on the inspiration that comes from within.”

Pageant officials announced the winners of preliminary competitions, including Miss Hawaii Lauren Cheape, Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson and Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler for talent, and Miss New York Kaitlin Monte, Miss Texas Kendall Morris and Miss Utah Danica Olsen for swimsuit.

Officials also said Miss Idaho Genevieve Nutting won the $2,000 Fourpoints Award, while Miss Kentucky Ann-Blair Thornton won the $6,000 Quality of Life scholarship.

The Miss America Organization touts itself as the world’s largest giver of scholarships to women, with about $350,000 to be given this year at the national level.

Scanlan said she planned to use her scholarship to help pay for law school en route to a life in politics.

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Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia