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2012 Miss America photos: Emotional story, ‘America’s Choice,’ big ratings

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

The 2012 Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, with the crowning of Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Kenosha as the new Miss America.

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2012 Miss America Pageant: The Big Night

The 2012 Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, with the crowning of Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Kenosha as the new Miss America. Launch slideshow »

Miss America 2012

Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler is named Miss America at the 2012 Miss America Pageant in the Theater for the Performing Arts at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »
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The 2012 Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, with the crowning of Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Kenosha as the new Miss America.

2012 Miss America Pageant: Crowning Moments

Crowning moments of the 2012 Miss America Pageant for new Miss America Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha, Wisc., at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »

2012 Miss America Pageant

Robin Leach interviews 2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler

Robin Leach interviews 2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler

2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler of Wisconsin

2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Wisconsin. Launch slideshow »
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Sue and Jeff Kaeppeler, the parents of 2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Wisconsin.

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Crowning moments of the 2012 Miss America Pageant for new Miss America Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha, Wisc., at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012.

It was riveting, roller-coaster-ride television packed with suspense and surprises. ABC officials even went so far as to say “the best Miss America Pageant yet,” and overnight ratings released this morning showed that the walloping Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos suffered at the hands of record-setting Tom Brady and his New England Patriots answered ABC and Miss America execs’ prayers that TV viewers would turn away from the trouncing and watch Miss America.

“I have tears in my eyes,” an emotional Miss America Organization Chairman Sam Haskell told me as he shared the preliminary ratings: “It’s the highest-rated Miss America in 8 years! Even up against the monster playoff games, we grew another 13 percent over last year’s records and became the dominant, No. 1, non-sports network in the time period with total viewers. We jumped 47 percent from the first half-hour to the final half-hour, and the crowning had 8 million viewers watching at that moment.”

Excluding the always-high-rated New Year’s Eve programming, it was the best non-sports time period in more than a year for ABC. The 2-hour pageant, live on the East Coast and tape-delayed on the West Coast, had drama, tension and edge-of-the-seat suspense from star to finish. It also came with a “squirm” factor -- just as Executive Producer Tony Eaton told us Friday -- that will be Monday morning water-cooler conversation -- far more exciting (and wholesome!) than crash-and-burn reality TV programs.

It took only 11 minutes for the 53 contestants to be trimmed to 15, and one of them was “America’s Choice,” Oklahoma’s Betty Thompson, who was announced first. It wasn’t revealed by co-hosts Chris Harrison of “The Bachelor” and Brooke Burke-Charvet of “Dancing With the Stars” whether Betty was a judges’ choice, but she won America’s hearts with her extraordinary and energetic Irish tap dancing. Maybe Michael Flatley will sign her to star in “Lord of the Dance”?

Betty lasted “Rocky”-style all the way to the end, standing in the Final Two alongside 23-year-old Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha, Wisc., who was announced as the new 2012 Miss America. Miss New York Kaitlin Monte was second runner-up -- check out our live blog from Saturday night for a rundown of the night.

Laura is one of the heroes we featured from the time she arrived in Las Vegas because her father, Jeff, had served 18 months in federal prison in Duluth, Minn., for mail fraud when she was 17 and graduating from high school to enter college. Father and daughter told me Saturday night that they had many conversations over months about her decision to make her Miss America platform a mission to help children of incarcerated parents.

“What happened with my father is not what my year is going to be focused on, but we both know there was a message from the experience. He has become my best friend and biggest supporter,” the raven-haired beauty told me. Beaming dad Jeff added: “This is my proudest moment. It is a miracle. Out of bad came good. I learned one mistake doesn’t define you. I got a second chance, made the best of it and moved on. It taught me ownership and responsibility.”

Jeff and Laura have traveled together to prisons to make speeches and explain how she ensures that children of imprisoned parents can feel less alone and need mentoring for a solid parental relationship. Here’s our contributing videographer Richard Corey’s video, posted on YouTube, of Laura when she met the media backstage while posing with the celebrity judges and getting a dip from pro champion dancer Mark Ballas of “Dancing With the Stars.”

“I am so honored and blessed to be in this position,” Laura said. “It is a humbling experience that will enable me to show people what my family has done, and I will be able to encourage others to do the same. There are many out there, and I was one of them, but it doesn’t have to define you.” (Laura noted that there are 2 million children in the U.S. with incarcerated parents.)

She said that she’ll use her $50,000 scholarship to study family law and use her legal voice on behalf of children of imprisoned parents. Backstage, she talked with me in one of her first interviews, which Richard and the Miss America Organization recorded.

Laura’s mom Sue told me after I’d talked to her daughter: “This all feels like an out-of-body experience -- surreal. Our family survived and stayed together, and now Laura can tell the world that all things are possible. The beauty that is in her soul is better than her looks. She was calm once the show started because it was not about winning, it was solely about the experience itself -- and yet she won.”

The 10 semifinalists, before being whittled down to five finalists, said that they held a handholding prayer circle before being called back onstage. “We were calm and knew the result would be what was willed and not in our hands. We had all done our best to get where we had, and we could all be proud,” Laura told me.

Dad Jeff added: “I saw her passion for making the plight of kids of imprisoned parents her platform. I couldn’t stand in her way, even knowing it was going to be hard with what was put to bed 4 years ago would once again be dragged out. But I have a heart for what she believes in now. We appear at prisons together to help the kids who have nothing to do with the events that land their parents behind bars.

“This was the first Miss America competition starting at the state level she’d entered, and she went all the way to win. Originally, her platform was about music and schools, but after a long time discussing it as a family, we all agreed that she’d lived this experience herself and was so passionate about helping kids who had to see their parents in prison that we would deal with it at the right time.

“This taught me that God can make everything good, that good can come from bad.”

Miss America chief Sam said: “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the judges’ choice of Laura. She is a beautiful girl and won out over 52 of the most talented young ladies who have ever taken part in the pageant. They were all the best we have ever had. We have created a dream machine for young women that will not only further their education but also help them serve America.”

Miss America Organization President Art McMaster added: ”It was an incredible night -- and what a stunning show!”

Four of last year’s judges returned to Las Vegas to show their support for the organization after getting involved for the first time: “DWTS” pro dancer Tony Dovolani, “Desperate Housewives” creator Mark Cherry, country singer Mark Wills and fashion doyenne Taryn Rose.

Meantime, Laura departed Las Vegas today for New York to embark on her 12-month reign of more than 200,000 miles promoting the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (Miss America’s official charity), education and charitable service. She appears on “Good Morning America” on Monday and then with 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson, who now hosts “Fox & Friends,” plus “The Wendy Williams Show” on Tuesday. She also will be at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 as hostess of the annual food fundraiser Taste of the NFL.

“I am looking forward to it all,” Laura summed up. “I am proud, thrilled and honored to serve as Miss America.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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