- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2012

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The nation’s newest Miss America is a 23-year-old Wisconsin brunette who had long conversations with her family mulling whether or not to make her father’s jail time for mail fraud the heart of her campaign in the beauty pageant.

While her competitors pushed platforms including promoting the health benefits of milk and protecting the environment, Laura Kaeppeler said she wants children of incarcerated adults to feel less alone, to have mentoring and as much of a relationship with their parents as possible.

“There are many of you out there — and I was one of them — but it doesn’t have to define you,” Miss Kaeppeler told the Associated Press after winning the crown and $50,000 scholarship on Saturday night.

To win, she said beauty queens and politicians should remember they represent all Americans, sang an opera song, and strutted in a white bikini and black evening gown.

Her looks, smarts and personal vocation impressed a panel of seven celebrity judges enough to give her the next year with the title.

“What happened with my father is not what my year is going to be focused on,” she said. “It’s going to be focused on looking forward and moving to the future because that’s what my family has done and that’s what I’ll encourage others to do, as well.”

Miss Kaeppeler estimated that there are more than 2 million children with a parent in jail.

Miss Kaeppeler’s father, Jeff Kaeppeler, told the AP he served 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud, a sentence his daughter said started as she was graduating from high school and entering college.

Mr. Kaeppeler said that when his daughter approached the family about making the personal topic her chosen platform, they supported it even though they knew it would be discussed publicly.

“It taught us that God can turn anything into good if you let him,” he said. “Laura is totally on board with that idea. She let that drive her and inspire her this past year to get ready for this.

“We’ve seen a miracle,” he said while waiting backstage for a news conference in which his daughter called him her “best friend” and briefly took pictures with him onstage.

“I love you,” he whispered to her as dozens of cameras snapped photos.

Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson came in second, while Miss New York Kaitlyn Monte placed third.

Miss Kaeppler introduced herself to pageant viewers by referencing her home state’s Green Bay Packers, the NFL’s defending Super Bowl champions.

“If you’re watching, Aaron Rodgers, call me,” she said, referring to the football team’s superstar quarterback.

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