Leanza Cornett is the former Miss America who died on October 28 after she sustained head injuries. Cornett was crowned 1993’s Miss America in September 1992 at age 21. Cornett is survived by her two children, Kai Steines, 18, and Avery Steines, 16, according to News4Jax. Cornett was married to Mark Steines from 1995 until 2013.
Cornett’s death was announced on the Facebook page for Leanza Cornett’s Circle of Love, which was created after her injury to keep friends and fans updated on her condition. The post read, “I’m here to let you know Leanza passed this afternoon. She was so loved. I don’t feel like writing a lot right now; my heart is broken.” According to an earlier post on that page, Cornett suffered a head injury on October 12. After receiving her injuries, Cornett underwent emergency surgery. The exact circumstances surrounding Cornett’s injuries were not immediately made public, though another post indicated “she sustained an enormous blow to the back of her head.”
In addition to her Miss America victory and her 1992 crowning as Miss Florida, News4Jax reported, Cornett was also a reporter on Entertainment Tonight in 1995.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Cornett Described Herself as an ‘Activist,’ ‘Christian Woman’ & ‘Patriotic American’
Cornett described herself on her Twitter page as a “Mother, daughter, Christian woman, Activist, Foodie, former Miss America, Patriotic American, world traveler, music lover.” At the time of her death, Cornett’s Twitter page had been set to private. According to Cornett’s LinkedIn page, she was the president of Cornett Entertainment. Cornett’s IMDb page details that in addition to her time on Entertainment Tonight, Cornett made appearances in CSI, Saved by the Bell: The New Class and Weeds, among other acting roles.
According to News4Jax, in 1991 she became “the first actress to play a live-action Ariel in the ‘Little Mermaid’ stage show at Walt Disney World Resort.”
In April 2006, Cornett was named as part of the hall of fame of her alma mater, Terry Parker High School, in Jacksonville, Florida, the Florida Times-Union reported at the time. Cornett was a native of Big Gap, Virginia, but grew up in the Jacksonville area.
2. Cornett Used Her Miss America Title in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS
The Baltimore Sun in 1992 referred to Cornett as “complicated in a ’90s kind of way,” saying “she’s a pro-choice Republican, a Bible-reading Christian who calls ‘Murphy Brown’ her favorite TV show. Her official platform is to increase AIDS awareness and assistance.”
The platform was “provocative” at the time, The Baltimore Sun reported, because “AIDS … remains a very hot potato.” The Sun reported that Cornett participated in the opening ceremonies for the AIDS Memorial Quilt and “helped with safe-sex seminars where explicit materials were used to demonstrate condom use.”
“I don’t promote premarital sex or sexual promiscuity. I don’t think it’s my job to promote or be anti that. But it is my job to educate. Safe sex is something I would feel necessary to address,” she told The Sun. She hoped the country would be “more educated and more aware” and that the White House would be “more involved” thanks to her year as Miss America.
In paying tribute to Cornett on Twitter, the former beauty pageant winner’s friend Kate Shindle wrote, “Heartbroken to hear about the loss of @LeanzaCornett. A trailblazer, an amazing talent, a human who fought for the world to be better and took the time to share what she had learned when I, too, aspired to use the @MissAmerica title in the battle against HIV/AIDS. #RIP, my friend.” Cornett’s death was noted on the Facebook page for the Miss America Organization. The tribute read in part, “Leanza had a bright and beautiful spirit and her laugh was infectious. We know she meant so much to so many, including all of you.”
Prior to her Miss America victory in 1993, Cornett was named as Miss National Sweetheart in 1991. An undated online profile on Cornett says that she began competing in beauty pageants as a means to earn scholarship money for college.
3. Cornett Divorced From Her Husband Mark Steines in 2013
A People magazine feature on Cornett from October 2000 indicated she went to work for Entertainment Tonight following her Miss America victory. She was fired from the show in 1995, shortly after her wedding to Mark Steines. Steines would replace Cornett on the show.
US Weekly reported in January 2013 that Cornett and Steines had split up. A source close to Steines told the magazine at the time, “Mark is trying to keep things as upbeat and positive as possible.”
In a separate report on the couple’s split, US Weekly reported that Steines and Cornett were married on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Page Six reported that the family’s former home in Ojai, California, was listed for sale in the summer of 2015.
Steines remarried children’s author Julie Freyermuth in Los Angeles in August 2016, according to Brides.com.
In a statement on Cornett’s death, Steines said:
It is with a heavy heart that I share with you the passing of my ex-wife , Leanza the mother to our two extraordinary sons Kai and Avery. We will always remember the wonderful times shared during her short time here on earth. I find comfort knowing Kai and Avery will forever have the best guardian angel watching over them as they navigate life’s path. I ask that you please keep them as well as Leanza’s parents and her family in your prayers.
4. Cornett Said After Being Named Miss America She Hoped Her Ex-Boyfriend Was Watching
Cornett said in a 2015 interview with the blog My Fabulous Disease that her initial feeling after hearing host Regis Philbin read out her name as the winner was that it was a mistake. She said, “I thought about the boyfriend who’d broken up with me and hoped he and his whole family were watching. I was just stunned. Completely stunned. Have never been so shocked in my whole life.”
Cornett said her boyfriend broke up with her during her first year of college but that the pair later became friends. “But he broke my heart and I wanted to see him squirm, that’s for sure,” she said.
According to Cornett’s Facebook page, she studied communication arts at Jacksonville University, graduating in 1991. Cornett’s college enrollment created a controversy surrounding her eligibility for the Miss Winter Park pageant in Florida, which kicked off her climb to Miss America, reported the Orlando Sentinel at the time. Critics said she “gained illegal entry” into the first pageant by misrepresenting herself as a student when she was taking classes part time and working as a full-time entertainer for Disney-MGM Studios, the Sentinel reported. When the issue was brought up on an episode of Larry King Live, the Sentinel quoted the legendary host as asking the complainant, “What’s the big deal?”
5. Cornett Said in 1993 That the Miss America Pageant Should Remove the Bathing Suit Competition
In September 1993, The Associated Press reported that Cornett said the Miss America pageant should remove the bathing suit element of the show. In 2018, following the appointment of Gretchen Carlson as chairperson of the Miss America Pageant, Carlson announced moves to orient the pageant toward personalities rather than appearances. Cornett told the Washington Post that she and other former Miss Americas “were all on board” with Carlson’s decision.
Cornett reiterated her objections to the bathing suit portion of the show in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press, saying, “I hated it. I always felt awkward and uncomfortable. In the climate of #MeToo, I think it’s a really wise decision. We’re living in a different era now, and when we move forward for the empowerment of women, we will be taken much more seriously, and I think that’s huge.”