As the bright blue morning broke in New York yesterday, Tara Conner knew that the crown that marks her out as the reigning Miss USA was hanging by a single strand of her ash blonde hair. Before lunch, she assumed, it would be taken away and her humiliation would be complete.
Donald Trump was thinking much the same as he arrived at Trump Tower, the headquarters of his empire, which includes the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions. His schedule was set: a private meeting with Ms Conner followed by a press conference to utter his trademark phrase: "You're fired!"
Ms Conner had transgressed gravely as a supposed role model to young girls around the world. She had been spotted around town patronising all the hottest clubs, swilling booze and generally partying like she was a Lindsay Lohan or a Britney Spears.
Celebrity commentators on cable news were of one mind - Mr Trump had little choice. The small-town girl from Kentucky had brought his organisation into disrepute. He would have to strip her of her title and hand it to the runner-up in last April's Miss USA contest, Miss California, Tamiko Nash.
But Mr Trump is more of a softie than any of us thought. As he talked to Ms Conner before escorting her out before the scrum television cameras, he had a change of heart. He would scold her on national television, even identify her as an alcoholic, but he would give her a second chance.
But perhaps savvy is better than softy. It is Christmas on 5th Avenue, and Mr Trump, in a risky but possibly brilliant stroke, changed the story surrounding Ms Conner from tawdry to redemptive.
If beauty pageants are meant to be about fairy tales, maybe that is what we had in New York yesterday. "This has been a very difficult time for the Miss USA pageant," a grim Mr Trump began, "and especially for the current Miss USA, Tara Conner. She made some bad choices, some foolish choices". He added: "Routinely, I expected to fire her."
Indeed, he had done it before. In 2002, he reminded the reporters, he had dumped the reigning Miss Universe, Oxana Federova from Russia. The 1984 Miss USA, Vanessa Williams, lost her crown after nude pictures of her appeared in Penthouse magazine. Mr Trump might also have cast an eye across
the Atlantic at the recent dethroning of Danielle Lloyd as Miss Great Britain after she dated one of the judges.
The crime of Ms Conner was some youthful indiscretions, rumoured in press reports in recent days to have extended even to drug-taking. "She was telling me," Mr Trump said, "that she just got caught up in the whirlwind that is New York". You can see how that might happen to a girl from Kentucky, especially a pretty one given free use of a Trump Tower apartment.
"I've always been a believer in second chances. Tara is a good person. Tara has tried hard. Tara is going to be given a second chance," Mr Trump said, before inviting the defendant to the microphone who instantly sprang the kind of double cheek-leak that waterproof mascara was invented for.
Hers was not, it seemed, phoney emotion or put-on surprise at being let off the hook. "In no way did I think it would be possible for a second chance," she sobbed. "I've had a very big blessing bestowed upon me... He could have said, 'You're fired'." Turning to Mr Trump, she added, "You'll never know what this means to me, and I swear I will not let you down." She had better not, because the wrath of Donald would surely be great. But for now he has cast himself as the forgiving one. He did impose one condition on Ms Conner, who ironically turned 21 just this Monday - the age when drinking becomes legal in America. She will go into rehab.
Some reporters tried to puncture the saccharine air with questions about the alleged drug-taking but were rebuffed. On the drinking, Ms Conner almost owned up. "I wouldn't say I am an alcoholic," she attempted, "that would be pushing the envelope." But Mr Trump later reinterpreted her answer: "I don't think she denied she is an alcoholic," he said. But hopefully not for much longer.Reuse content