UPDATE: Controversy has swirled around runner-up Miss California's opposition to gay marriage. Read more about it here.
LAS VEGAS — Miss North Carolina USA Kristen Dalton was crowned Miss USA 2009 on Sunday, beating out 50 other beauty queens in the live pageant televised from Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
The 22-year-old aspiring motivational speaker and entertainer from Wilmington edged out first runner-up Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, of San Diego, and second runner-up Miss Arizona USA Alicia-Monique Blanco, of Phoenix.
"It feels really natural," Dalton said of her win. "I've worked so be here and this has been my lifelong dream and it's finally here. And whoever knew you could win in a turquoise gown?"
Contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia competed in the pageant, aired live on NBC. Contestants were judged by their performance in swimsuit and evening gown modeling contests and their responses to a question asked onstage; unlike the rival Miss America pageant, Miss USA contestants do not perform a talent.
The top 15 contestants worked the stage in white string bikinis designed by pop star Jessica Simpson's swimwear line. Rocker Kevin Rudolf performed his song "Let it Rock," followed by The Veronicas, who performed their single "Untouched" as the top 10 beauties showed off their choice of glittering evening gowns.
Dalton's was a flowing, blue Grecian number that stood out among a series of white gowns.
Her title comes with a year's use of a New York apartment, a public relations team, a two-year scholarship at the New York Film Academy and an undisclosed salary.
She also will go to the Bahamas in August to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, where American beauties haven't been lucky in recent years. Both Miss USA 2008 Crystle Stewart and her predecessor, Rachel Smith, wiped out on stage during the evening gown competition, becoming accidental YouTube stars.
Asked about the tumble during the show on Sunday, Stewart said it was a lesson in bouncing back from defeat.
"I think it was a true test of my character," said the 27-year-old Texan, who worked to raise awareness for breast cancer as she traveled the globe promoting the beauty contest.
If there is a YouTube moment from Sunday's show, it may be Miss California's answer to a question about legalizing same-sex marriage. The tall blonde stumbled some before giving an answer that appeared to please the pageant audience.
"We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage," Prejean said. "And you know what, I think in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised."
Some in the audience cheered, others booed. The answer sparked a shouting match in the lobby after the show.
"It's ugly," said Scott Ihrig, a gay man, who attended the pageant with his partner. "I think it's ridiculous that she got first runner-up. That is not the value of 95 percent of the people in this audience. Look around this audience and tell me how many gay men there are."
Charmaine Koonce, the mother of Miss New Mexico USA Bianca Matamoros-Koonce, argued back.
"In the Bible it says marriage is between Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!"
The pageant had enjoyed a scandal-free year until earlier this month, when Miss Universe 2008 Dayana Mendoza was skewered for a blog posting from a trip to Guantanamo Bay. The entry described having "aloooot of fun" at a base that houses the notorious military prison; it was later deleted from the pageant's Web site.
The contest, which is owned by NBC and reality TV mogul Donald Trump, was hosted by "Access Hollywood" co-anchor Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez of the NBC sitcom "My Name is Earl." This year's judges included "Saturday Night Live" cast member Kenan Thompson, "Dancing with the Stars" winner Kelly Monaco and gossip blogger Perez Hilton.
Miss Wyoming USA Cynthia Pate, of Casper, Wyo., was voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants. Jessi Pierson, of Milton, W.Va., was voted Miss Photogenic through an online contest on the Miss Universe Web site.
Organizers said Sunday's show kicks off "Green Week" at NBC. As part of the environmental awareness campaign, the Miss USA crown was designed by a jeweler that specializes in conflict-free and eco-friendly jewels. The crown from Diamond Nexus Labs of Franklin, Wis., is worth $202,000.