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Leona Gage, Miss USA Winner Who Had Title Stripped, Dies At 71

10/09/10 08:02 PM ET  AP

LOS ANGELES — Leona Gage, who in 1957 was named Miss USA but had the title stripped the next day when pageant officials learned she was married and a mother of two, has died in Los Angeles, her son said Saturday. She was 71.

Gage died of heart failure after spending several weeks at a Sherman Oaks hospital on Tuesday, son Robert Kaminer told the Associated Press.

Like Vanessa Williams and Carrie Prejean decades later, Gage's pageant scandal probably brought her more fame than if she had kept the crown.

Born Mary Leona Gage in Texas, she was appeared as Miss Maryland USA in the competition in Long Beach, Calif.

Gage also lied about her age – telling pageant officials she was 21 when she was 18.

She told reporters after winning that she didn't even have a boyfriend.

"I want to wait until I'm 26 before I become seriously interested in the opposite sex," she said, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Just a day later her story was exposed. She had been already been married twice, both times at age 14 – the first was quickly annulled – and had her second child at 16, all forbidden for the resume of a pageant contestant.

Gage said she was used to such secrets. She had hidden her first pregnancy from her strict Baptist mother for as long as she could.

"To my mother, that was the biggest scandal there could be," Gage told the Sun. "All my life, she said, 'Don't you dare go into the bushes with a boy and get yourself pregnant.'"

Gage took advantage of the attention that came with the lost tiara and made many television appearances, including a highly rated appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

While winning the affection of Sullivan and much of the nation, Gage got plenty of hate mail too.

"I think one half of the U.S. hated me," she told the Sun.

After losing the trophy, prize money, trips and studio contracts that went to first runner-up Miss Utah, she pursued an acting career. But that didn't take off.

She had a difficult life in subsequent decades: Six failed marriages, lost custody of her five children, two of whom died before her, drug abuse and suicide attempts.

But Kaminer said she was proud to have had five children who went on to prosperous lives, including a commercial real estate agent and a lieutenant-colonel in the army.

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Filed by Hilary Moss  |