LAS VEGAS (AP) - A 23-year-old beauty queen from Wisconsin won the Miss America pageant Saturday in Las Vegas after singing opera and strutting in a white bikini and black beaded evening gown.
Laura Kaeppeler also had to answer a question about whether beauty queens should declare their politics.
"Miss America represents everyone, so I think the message to political candidates is that they represent everyone as well," she said. "And so in these economic times, we need to be looking forward to what America needs, and I think Miss America needs to represent all."
Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson came in second, while Miss New York Kaitlyn Monte placed third.
"I was crying even before my name was called," Kaeppeler said. "It was just surreal to have this honor."
Kaeppeler wins a $50,000 scholarship and gets the title for one year. Her platform during the competition was supporting and mentoring children of incarcerated parents _ a topic close to her heart.
Kaeppeler's father, Jeff Kaeppeler, told The Associated Press he served 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud.
He said 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.
"We've seen this come full circle," he said.
Jeff Kaeppeler said his daughter's win on Saturday night was the best day of his life. He attended the event in a black tuxedo with a baby blue vest and bow tie.
"It taught us that God can turn anything into good if you let him," he said.
When asked about the experience during a news conference after the pageant, Laura Kaeppeler teared up and briefly brought her father onstage after calling him her best friend.
"I love you," Jeff Kaeppeler whispered to his daughter as dozens of cameras snapped pictures of them together.
Laura Kaeppeler's hometown of roughly 97,000 people, Kenosha, is about 40 miles south of Milwaukee.
She majored in music and vocal performance at a private Lutheran liberal arts college in Kenosha, and told pageant officials initially that she planned to obtain a master's degree in speech and language pathology and become a speech therapist.
But that's changed _ she now says she intends to use the scholarship money to pursue a law degree and become a family attorney, who specializes in helping children of incarcerated kids.
Kaeppeler was crowned the new Miss America by a panel of seven judges during a live telecast on ABC. The event was 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.
As the new Miss America, Kaeppeler will spend the next year touring the country to speak to different groups and raising money for the Children's Miracle Network, the Miss America Organization's official charity.
Teresa Scanlan of Nebraska won Miss America last year at age 17 to become the pageant's youngest winner ever. She said contestants' nerves likely were at their highest point just before the pageant.
"You can always breathe a sigh of relief" once the live pageant begins, Scanlan said.
Pageant officials earlier announced the winners of preliminary competitions, including Kaeppeler, Thompson and Miss Hawaii Lauren Cheape for talent; and Monte, Miss Texas Kendall Morris and Miss Utah Danica Olsen for swimsuit.
Kaeppeler took home a $2,000 scholarship for her opera performance of "Il Bacio" in the talent competition.
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.
Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia