Who was Leanza Cornett? Miss America 1993 dies at 49 as tributes pour in for the ‘incredible’ National Sweetheart

Cornett was the first to champion AIDS awareness for her year of service and shunned wearing the crown to public appearances

                            Who was Leanza Cornett? Miss America 1993 dies at 49 as tributes pour in for the ‘incredible’ National Sweetheart
Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett (Getty Images)

For Miss America, fame comes in a split second and in Leanza Cornett's case, death came in a shocking instant. Crowned Miss America 1993, Cornett was reported dead after she was hospitalized for a head injury on October 12, 2020. The shocking piece of news first broke on Circle of Love — a Facebook page that was monitoring her condition after the injury — and it was followed by an official confirmation from the Miss America Organization. 

“Dear Disney family, I'm here to let you know Leanza passed this afternoon. She was so loved. I don't feel like writing a lot right now; my heart is broken,” a post from Circle of Love read, while Miss America posted a long emotional message for the beauty queen who was the first to adopt AIDS awareness and prevention as her platform for her year of service. 

The post read: “It is with great sadness the Miss America Organization relays the news our beloved Miss America and friend, Leanza Cornett, has passed away. Leanza had a bright and beautiful spirit and her laugh was infectious. We know she meant so much to so many, including all of you. We are devastated by this sudden loss in our Miss America family and we are deeply sorry for her family and close friends for their loss. At the moment, we do not have any further information regarding the service for Leanza and we ask that you please respect her family during this difficult time. Hold on tight to those you love today. Time is certainly precious.”

Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett attends the 2018 Miss America Competition Red Carpet at Boardwalk Hall Arena on September 10, 2017 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“Leanza Cornett, Jacksonville’s own Miss Florida 1992 and Miss America 1993, is recovering from a fall that required a decompressive craniectomy, performed to relieve pressure, treat brain swelling and manage bleeding,” said friend and family spokesperson, Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz in a news release on Monday, October 26, 2020. “Doctors cannot speculate on the time Leanza may need to move through this phase of recovery as every brain injury is different.”

Paying a tribute, Miss Georgia 1986, Marlesa Ball Greiner, said: “She probably doesn’t even know this … I have shown her Miss America talent video to many of my young girls, as an inspiration,” said Greiner. “As the way that she performed with passion the night that she was crowned Miss America. So, she reaches young girls here in our country that have never had the opportunity to meet her.”

“Misguided or not, my life heroes were often Miss Americas. You find inspiration where you can. @LeanzaCornett was one of the most incredible, out-spoken Miss Americas in my lifetime.  I’m so saddened to hear of her passing. May she Rest In Peace,” one tweet read and another said, “RIP Leanza Cornett. She's from my hometown. We weren't tight but knew one another from theater & hung on occasion. Super talented & sweet. We were all so proud when she won Miss America in '93 & went on to big things. Love goes out to family/friends.”



Who was Leanza Cornett?

Born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia and raised in Jacksonville, Eva Leanza Cornett was a 1989 graduate of Terry Parker High School. Did you know she also made her way to the school's Hall of Fame in 2006? On Twitter, she dubbed herself as a “mother, daughter, Christian woman, activist, foodie, former Miss America, patriotic American, world traveler, music lover.” 

A woman of many talents, she clinched the title of National Sweetheart in 1991 from Florida. After being crowned Miss America 1993, she was the first to champion AIDS awareness for her year of service and shunned wearing the crown to public appearances. “How do you talk about practicing safe sex when you’ve got this thing on top of your head?” she asked at that time. Interestingly, she did wear her crown all her life: It was purple and gold tattooed on her right ankle.

Leanza Cornett (Getty Images)

She thought the Miss America announcement was a “mistake”

In a 2015 interview, Cornett said she thought host Regis Philbin reading out as the winner was a mistake. She confessed her first thoughts as “I thought about the boyfriend who’d broken up with me and hoped he and his whole family were watching. I was just stunned. Completely stunned. Have never been so shocked in my whole life.” As per reports, Cornett said she broke up with her boyfriend during her first year of college but the pair later became friends. 

She was always against the bathing suit portion of the show and wanted it to be removed. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, she said, “I hated it. I always felt awkward and uncomfortable. In the climate of #MeToo, I think it’s a really wise decision. We’re living in a different era now, and when we move forward for the empowerment of women, we will be taken much more seriously, and I think that’s huge.”

Leanza Cornett (Getty Images)

First actress to play a live-action version of Ariel

She soon strutted her way into Hollywood and was the first actress to play a live-action version of Ariel, the title character from The Little Mermaid, at the 'Voyage of The Little Mermaid' show at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in 1991. She was also a member of the contemporary Christian music group Area Code, which released their single album, 'One Big World'.

She also made appearances in 'Melrose Place', 'The Tick' and 'Fear Factor'. Well, that's not all. She served as a reporter for Animal Planet's coverage of the Eukanuba AKC National Dog Show programs and hosted the 'On The Block' show on DIY Network. Along with playing Ariel, she was seen on stage in 'Barefoot in the Park', 'Godspell', 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas' and 'Bye Bye Birdie'.

Leanza Cornett and Mark Steines (Getty Images)

A tragic love story with Mark Steines

She soon became a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight but was sacked in 1995, weeks after marrying TV reporter Mark Steines. As bizarre as it sounds, Steines replaced her spot and Cornett went on to anchor an Internet entertainment-news site. She served as a host on 'New Attitudes' in 1998 and 'Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?' in 2000.

The pair had two sons: Kai Harper, 18, and Avery James, 16. 17 years after their marriage, the couple decided to go their separate ways. 

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