Olivia Culpo, 20, won the title at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Las Vegas Strip, replacing outgoing champion Leila Lopes of Angola.
The Boston University student’s coronation ends a long losing spell for the US in the contest co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC. An American had not won the Miss Universe title since Brook Lee won in 1997.
Culpo, who beat out 88 competitors, wore a tight navy blue mini-dress with a sequined bodice as she walked on stage for the event’s opening number.
Later in the night, she strutted in a purple and blue bikini, and donned a wintry red velvet gown with a plunging neckline.
Nobody was more surprised than Culpo’s family when she told them she was entering the Miss Rhode Island contest last year, her father Peter said.
“We didn’t know a thing about pageants,” he added.
She won that contest in a rented $20 (€15) dress with a hole in it and then began working out, dieting, and studying current events on flashcards to compete for the Miss USA crown.
Culpo was good enough during preliminary Miss Universe contests to be chosen as one of 16 semi-finalists who moved on to compete in the main show.
Her bid lasted through swimsuit, evening wear, and interview competitions that saw cuts after each round.
She won over the judges even after tripping slightly during the evening gown competition.
Moments before she won, Culpo was asked whether she had she had ever done something she regretted.
“I’d like to start off by saying that every experience no matter what it is, good or bad, you’ll learn from it. That’s just life,” she said.
“But something I’ve done I’ve regretted is probably picking on my siblings growing up, because you appreciate them so much more as you grow older.”
Miss Philippines, Janine Tugonon, came second, while Miss Venezuela, Irene Sofia Esser Quintero, was third. All the contestants spent the past two weeks in Sin City, where they posed in hard hats at a hotel groundbreaking, took a painting lesson, and pranked hotel guests by hiding in their rooms.
The daughter of two professional musicians, Culpo grew up in Cranston and spent her summers at band camp. She has played the cello alongside world- renowned classical musician Yo-Yo Ma, and followed in her parents’ footsteps with performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Her father called her the “nerdiest” of her siblings, and her brother recalled that she was “really chubby and sort of weird when she was younger”.