SALT LAKE CITY — Marissa Powell loves to sing, and has spent the past six years writing and performing original songs. She volunteers at Primary Children's Hospital, and serves as an ambassador for the Healing Hands for Haiti International Foundation.
During her years at Skyline High School, Powell was a star on the volleyball court, winning all-region awards two years in a row and being named 5A Defensive specialist of the year in 2009 by the Deseret News. She went on the play for Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
But no one remembered any of that after Powell stepped up as Miss Utah USA to answer her interview question as a top five finalist in the Miss USA pageant.
The 21-year-old Salt Lake City resident was asked a question about income inequality in Las Vegas Sunday night and offered a rambling, awkwardly worded answer that included long pauses and the phrase that captured social media Monday: "create education better."
The response lit up the Twittersphere Monday and a video of the episode received hundreds of thousands of views. that prompted pageant co-owner Donald Trump to lash out at the critics, saying anyone can lose their train of thought.
The question was a bit of a head-scratcher itself.
"A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?" asked NeNe Leakes of the reality TV series "The Real Housewives of Atlanta."
Undaunted by the three-in-one prompt, Powell started off strong:
"I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are continuing to try to strive ... to ...," she said, before appearing to lose her way.
She picked up after a long pause: "... figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are ... seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to see how to create education better. So that we can solve this problem. Thank you."
Despite the stammering answer, she came in third runner-up.
NPR reporter Linda Holmes was among those offering some sympathy Monday, calling the question "simultaneously dumb and impossible to answer."
"I think about this kind of stuff a lot. I've studied it. I've had about 20 years longer than Miss Utah USA to think about it. I have no idea what I would have said if someone had asked me such a moronic question on live television," Holmes said.
Holmes went on to say that Powell's answer wasn't a reflection of her intelligence, it just showed that she's a poor public speaker, "And if she were good at it, nobody would have ever heard of her."
Jamie Crandall, who reined as Miss Utah USA 2011 and also made it to the top five in the national pageant, said being onstage was nerve-racking. Crandall didn't make it to the interview round in the 2011 competition, but recalled that she used note cards to study up on possible interview questions.
"You can prepare yourself for the moment as much as you can, and then you get up there and it's really easy to blank out and let your nerves take over," Crandall said. "You can do all the preparation in the world, but you can't actually prep the girl for what it's like to be on stage I can only imagine what that was like."
Crandall believes that while her colleague's viral moment had a shocking morning-after response, the hype will fade as Powell begins a series of media appearances.
"I think she's going to recover really well," Crandall said. "She's going to be able to prove herself. She's not a dumb girl, she had a moment where she flubbed up, her nerves took over, and she's going to have plenty of opportunities to prove she's an educated and motivated girls."
Miss Utah, who was still trending on Twitter a day after her flub, was keeping quiet amid the fallout.
But she did have this to say on her Miss USA page, "It's not all about winning. It's about examining yourself, improving and striving to showcase your individuality."
Powell's viral moment attracted a flood of media attention, and the model and actress tweeted her excitement as she jetted to the east coast Monday in anticipation of appearing on NBC's Today Show.
"Headed to NYC! OMG!" Powell said on her Twitter account, @RealMissUTusa.
Contributing: Associated Press
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