(Reuters) - Laura Kaeppeler of Wisconsin won the 2012 Miss America crown on Saturday at a Las Vegas pageant that was updated with a reality TV format including a surprise "save" for one contestant and on camera eliminations for others.
Kaeppeler won in a two-hour, on-air competition in which she showed her talent singing opera, strutted on stage in a bikini and dazzled the audience in a flowing black gown she compared to the wedding dress worn by Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.
But the pivotal moment came with the key, final question in which she was asked to discuss the current state of divisive partisan politics in Washington. She deftly said Miss America represents all people and in these difficult economic times, politicians should look to what all of America needs.
Tears flowed when the crown was placed on her head, and Kaeppeler mouthed the words "thank you, thank you so much" to the audience as the other contestants circled around her.
Miss Oklahoma, Betty Thompson, was the first runner-up, followed by Miss New York Kaitlin Monte, Miss Arizona Jennifer Sedler and Miss California Noelle Freeman, in that order.
The pageant, which aired on the ABC television network, is put on by the Miss America Organization which helps young women with personal and career growth. In 2011, the group and affiliates offered more than $45 million in cash and scholarship aid.
Contestants compete in local and state pageants before going on to the national competition. In all, 53 women were vying for this year's title, Miss America.
The competition has been televised since 1954, making it the fourth-longest live U.S. TV event, and for the 2012 version the producers updated the format to look as much like a modern reality TV contest as a beauty and talent pageant.
After 15 finalists were narrowed to 12, the remaining contestants onstage were told to line up behind one of the three finalists left unchosen. The woman with the greatest support among her peers -- Miss Alabama Courtney Porter -- advanced to the ballroom gown competition.
Similarly, during the talent portion, several contestants were dressed and ready to perform only to be told they were eliminated by the judges who included TV personalities Lara Spencer, Kris Jenner and dancer Mark Ballas.
But some traditions remained the same. Last year's Miss America Teresa Scanlan of Nebraska walked the stage for the last time, waving to the audience and talking about her year of representing the United States traveling around the world and volunteering time to charitable projects.
Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Jackie Frank