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Laura Kaeppeler, Miss Wisconsin, crowned Miss America 2012

January 16, 2012 | 12:20 pm

Laura Kaeppeler is crowned Miss America by Teresa Scanlon

Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha, Wis., was crowned Miss America on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

The 23-year-old played it down the middle -- or maybe went around the issue? -- in answering a judge's question about whether beauty queens should be open about their political beliefs.

"Miss America represents everyone, so I think the message to political candidates is that they represent everyone as well," Kaeppeler 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."

Well played, Miss Wisconsin -- criticizing Occupy Wall Street helped earn Miss New York Kaitlin Monte second runner-up.

Kaeppeler, who donned a white bikini (showing more skin than in years past) and black beaded gown during the competition, shared her talent for opera singing in edging out Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson, the first runner-up. Miss California Noelle Freeman, who danced a Black Swan variation from "Swan Lake," took fourth runner-up.

Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011, tweeted her congratulations to Kaeppeler after the show, and sent a photo that was taken backstage of herself with a few of the ladies.

Meanwhile on Twitter, Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010, was talking a little cross-pageant smack, saying "miss america is the girl next door, miss usa is the girl u WiSH lived next door." (And hey Laura, get excited for what the beauty-queen future might hold once your official duties are done -- on Sunday, Rima was  tweeting about attending a Golden Globe Awards party and posing with Kim Kardashian.)

Kaeppeler, who will hold the Miss America title for a year, won a $50,000 scholarship. Her platform during the competition was supporting and mentoring children whose parents are behind bars. Her own father had served 18 months for mail fraud while she was graduating high school and starting college.

The win "taught us that God can turn anything into good if you let him," father Jeff Kaeppler said backstage. "Laura is totally on board with that idea. She let that drive her and inspire her this past year to get ready for this."


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-- Christie D'Zurilla

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Laura Kaeppeler is crowned 2012 Miss America by outgoing Miss America Teresa Scanlan in Las Vegas on Saturday. Credit: Brian Jones / European Pressphoto Agency