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LAS VEGAS (AP) - The 20-year-old Rhode Islander who brought the Miss Universe crown back to the U.S. for the first time in 15 years is hoping that her quick rise through the beauty contest ranks and an onstage stumble will show women that anything is possible.
Perched high above the Las Vegas Strip in the Planet Hollywood winner's suite Thursday, Olivia Culpo told The Associated Press that her yearlong transformation from Boston University sophomore to pageant winner proves that women can accomplish anything to which they set their minds.
"My first pageant was a year ago and already I'm Miss Universe. It's kind of incredible," she said.
She pointed to the fact that she stumbled on her red velvet evening dress Wednesday night before beating out beauty queens from 88 countries as proof that confidence and poise matter more than perfect performance.
"I like the fact that I tripped last night in my evening gown. I think that that's cool," she said. "And you learn from it: Don't step on your dress," she added with a laugh.
The former Miss USA spent the first day of her reign surrounded by stylists and handlers, wearing a scarlet mini-dress with cutout cap sleeves and sky-high silver heels. Plates of cupcakes and croissants went untouched as she sipped from a water bottle with a straw.
For the past six months, Culpo has shared a New York City apartment with outgoing Miss Universe, Leila Lopes of Angola. The two titleholders traditionally room together.
Her coronation ended a long losing spell for the U.S. in the competition. An American had not won the Miss Universe title since Miss Hawaii, Brook Lee, won in 1997.
A middle child of five, Culpo was studying theater and communications at Boston University when she decided to enroll in the Miss Rhode Island pageant last year to improve her stage presence.
The petite brunette ended up winning that contest in a rented $20 dress with a hole in the back. She claimed the Miss USA crown in the spring, despite losing an earring during the interview portion.
Culpo said she studied world events, prepared for interview questions and memorized proper walking and posing techniques using stacks of flashcards.
The aspiring actress took a year off from Boston University to fulfill the travel and charity obligations that come along with the Miss USA crown, and now says she will not return to her former college.
"I do want to finish my education," she said. "I just don't think that Boston has a big enough market for what I want to do."
As Miss Universe, Culpo will advocate for HIV prevention, the official platform of the title holder, but does not intend to speak out on other issues.
She did have a word for the "pageant moms" who have caught the nation's attention on reality television shows such as TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras."
"If you think that your child is going to be really sensitive to the fact that they might not win _ which they probably won't _ you shouldn't do it because it's not healthy if they get the feeling that they're not good enough or they're not worthy," she said.
Culpo's mother, a professional viola player, discouraged her from entering the world of beauty competitions last year.
"I didn't see the point; I thought it was silly and a waste of time," Susan Culpo said. But she changed her mind when she saw the joy her daughter brought to hometown fans.
On Thursday, the mayor of Culpo's home town of Cranston, R.I., called her win an inspiration for the city, state and nation.
Asked moments before the Miss Universe show why pageants remain relevant, Donald Trump, who co-owns the competition with NBC, responded that everyone likes beautiful women.
His winner had a different take:
"It really comes down to being able to inspire others by being comfortable with yourself. You have to show girls that everyone is different, everyone has things they don't like, but they work it and walk the runway," Culpo said. "There is no ideal body. It's just taking what you have and working it."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)