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Leanza Cornett used her voice for HIV/AIDS awareness

She was the first Little Mermaid at Disney World and Miss America in 1993. Cornett died at 49 after a fall.
Leanza Cornett was Walt Disney World's first on-stage Ariel, Miss Florida and then Miss America. She graduated from Terry Parker High School in Jacksonville.
Leanza Cornett was Walt Disney World's first on-stage Ariel, Miss Florida and then Miss America. She graduated from Terry Parker High School in Jacksonville. [ Courtesy Susan Roberts Duncan ]
Published Nov. 16, 2020

Leanza Cornett didn’t need a prince, a crown or any other thingamabobs to start using her voice. But when she got the spotlight, she used it to speak even louder.

In the early 1990s, millions of people around the world were infected with HIV/AIDS. It would soon become the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people between 25 and 44. In Orlando, where Ms. Cornett performed as Ariel in Walt Disney World’s “The Voyage of the Little Mermaid,” she had already cared for friends as they lived with the epidemic.

So when she sat as Miss Florida in a black sparkly dress with giant teardrop earrings at the final question portion of the 1993 Miss America pageant, she laid out the issue she’d give that spotlight to.

“My platform is AIDS awareness, education and assistance, but not any kind of assistance, compassionate assistance,” said Ms. Cornett, then 21.

Miss Florida was crowned Miss America that night, and Ms. Cornett began a career of speaking up, and out, for other people.

She died Oct. 28 after suffering from a head injury that was the result of a fall. She was 49.

Leanza Cornett as Ariel and Kevin Vincent as Eric in Disney's 'The Voyage of the Little Mermaid.' Cornett brought a calming presence to the cast. 'I've never ever known anything to bring people together the way music does,' Cornett told a friend in a documentary.
Leanza Cornett as Ariel and Kevin Vincent as Eric in Disney's 'The Voyage of the Little Mermaid.' Cornett brought a calming presence to the cast. 'I've never ever known anything to bring people together the way music does,' Cornett told a friend in a documentary. [ Courtesy Kevin Vincent ]

Ms. Cornett started singing at age 3 on the steps of a Baptist church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. At family reunions with her dad’s 12 brothers, sisters and their families, there was always music and a talent show.

Her family moved to Jacksonville when she was 12. In her teen years, she started competing in pageants in dresses her mother made. In 1992, she moved to Orlando to audition in a nationwide casting call for a brand new stage show telling the story of Disney’s newest, and spunkiest, princess.

Disney brought in Broadway’s Fran Soeder to direct the show. He cast Ms. Cornett.

“She was 21 and profoundly talented and beautiful,” Soeder wrote in a letter for Ms. Cornett’s family and friends after her death. “She was also very confident.”

And she made the cast into a family. Ms. Cornett became close friends with fellow mermaids Susan Roberts Duncan and Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz.

Ms. Cornett also started volunteering with two HIV/AIDS service organizations in Orlando.

When she asked for a leave of absence to enter the Miss Florida pageant, Soeder approved it. Ms. Cornett came home with the crown, and soon was headed for Atlantic City and the Miss America pageant.

“Her talents were profound,” Soeder wrote. “But her Miss America platform was about the utmost and unspeakable health crisis in America: AIDS.”

In September of 1993, the Associated Press wrote about the new Miss America leading a rainy parade in combat boots and a white, beaded full length gown.

“The parade featured a band of disabled youngsters who had been rejected by pageant officials after missing the application deadline,” it read. “They marched behind Cornett in a float that bore a giant red AIDS ribbon.”

‘I was so happy tonight to see everyone wearing their red ribbons,’ Leanza Cornett told Miss America pageant host Regis Philbin at the 1993 contest. ‘That's one way of combating it, is to become aware of it… It represents people who have AIDS, people who are living with AIDS and those who’ve also died from it. It is an epidemic.’
‘I was so happy tonight to see everyone wearing their red ribbons,’ Leanza Cornett told Miss America pageant host Regis Philbin at the 1993 contest. ‘That's one way of combating it, is to become aware of it… It represents people who have AIDS, people who are living with AIDS and those who’ve also died from it. It is an epidemic.’ [ Courtesy Mary McGinnis Blackburn ]

Ms. Cornett’s year with the crown was spent talking about something that made a lot of people very uncomfortable – safe sex. She criticized her fellow Republican President George W. Bush’s administration for how it handled the epidemic. She appeared on the 700 Club to appeal to fellow Christians.

She moved to L.A. to host Entertainment Tonight and went on to act and work in entertainment. She married, had two sons, Kai and Avery, who share her love of music. She and her husband later divorced.

Ms. Cornett moved back to Jacksonville several years ago to be with her parents. She stayed close with her fellow mermaids, Roberts Duncan and Tobin Kurtz.

“She really did not give a crap about fame,” Roberts Duncan said. “She did not. And I loved that about her.”

She was a woman who didn’t apologize for being beautiful, smart or talented, Tobin Kurtz said. Her crown was an award, not an accessory.

Ms. Cornett's friends and family are working on a quilt now and plan to continue her legacy of helping people. Because of the pandemic, for a celebration of life are on hold. Instead of flowers, Ms. Cornett’s parents ask that you go out and perform an act of service for someone else. If you do, please include a note that says, “Dream big, Love Leanza.”
Ms. Cornett's friends and family are working on a quilt now and plan to continue her legacy of helping people. Because of the pandemic, for a celebration of life are on hold. Instead of flowers, Ms. Cornett’s parents ask that you go out and perform an act of service for someone else. If you do, please include a note that says, “Dream big, Love Leanza.” [ Courtesy Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz ]

In the last few years of her life, Ms. Cornett moved out of the spotlight but never stopped working to help people. Her friends are still getting letters from people they didn’t know she helped — prayer groups, people living with cancer, single moms who needed support.

“She used her voice to council and minister to people as well as financially support them,” Tobin Kurtz said. “She wanted to give from what she had."

Ms. Cornett loved cooking for people and was working as a master chef at Publix when the coronavirus hit. When that program was shut down, she kept shopping for some of her customers.

Now, her friends, family and former castmates are making a quilt that they plan to travel with and use to raise money and awareness for the causes she cared about.

In the center, it will include a patch with Ms. Cornett’s photo and her signature: “Love, Leanza.”