Leanza Cornett used her voice to raise awareness about HIV / AIDS

Leanza Cornett didn’t need a prince, a crown, or anything else 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 United States for people between the ages of 25 and 44. In Orlando, where Ms. Cornett played Ariel in Walt Disney World’s “The Little Mermaid’s Journey”, she had previously cared for her friends while they lived with the epidemic.

So, when she sat down as Miss Florida in a sparkling black dress with giant teardrop earrings in the last part of the 1993 Miss America Pageant question, she laid out the problem that she would pay that attention.

“My platform is AIDS awareness, education and assistance, but not just 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 out for others.

She died on October 28 from a head injury resulting from a fall. She was 49 years old.

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

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

Her family moved to Jacksonville when she was 12. During her teenage years, she began to participate in competitions with dresses made by her mother. In 1992, she moved to Orlando to audition as part of a nationwide cast for an all-new stage show telling the story of Disney’s newest and bravest princess.

Disney brought in Broadway’s Fran Soeder to direct the show. He chose Mrs. Cornett.

“She was 21 and was deeply talented and beautiful,” wrote Soeder in a letter to family and friends of Ms Cornett after her death. “She was also very confident.”

And she made casting a family. Ms Cornett has become a close friend of mermaids Susan Roberts Duncan and Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz.

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

When she requested time off to compete in the Miss Florida pageant, Soeder approved it. Ms. Cornett returned home with the crown and soon headed to Atlantic City and the Miss America pageant.

“His talents were deep,” wrote Soeder. “But her Miss America platform was about America’s most dire and unspeakable health crisis: AIDS.”

In September 1993, The Associated Press wrote about the new Miss America leading a rainy parade in combat boots and a beaded white maxi dress.

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“The parade featured a group of young people with disabilities who had been rejected by competition officials after missing the deadline for applications,” reads. “They marched behind Cornett in a float that carried 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 pageant. “It’s one way to fight it, c he is aware of this… He represents people living with AIDS, people living with AIDS and those who have also died from it. It’s an epidemic. [ Courtesy Mary McGinnis Blackburn ]

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

She moved to LA to host Entertainment tonight and continued to act and work in entertainment. She got married, had two sons, Kai and Avery, who share her love of music. She and her husband later divorced.

Ms. Cornett returned to Jacksonville several years ago to be with her parents. She has remained close to her fellow sirens, Roberts Duncan and Tobin Kurtz.

“She really didn’t care about the fame,” said Roberts Duncan. “She didn’t. And I loved it about her.

She was a woman who made no apologies for being beautiful, smart or talented, said Tobin Kurtz. Her crown was a prize, not an accessory.

Ms Cornett's friends and family are currently working on a quilt and plan to continue her legacy of helping people.  Due to the pandemic, a celebration of life is on hold.  Instead of flowers, Mrs. Cornett's parents ask you to go out and do someone else a favor.  If you do, please include a note that says “Dream big, love Leanza”.
Ms Cornett’s friends and family are currently working on a quilt and plan to continue her legacy of helping people. Due to the pandemic, a celebration of life is on hold. Instead of flowers, Mrs. Cornett’s parents ask you to go out and do someone else a favor. If you do, please include a note that says “Dream big, love Leanza”. [ Courtesy Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz ]

During the last years of her life, Ms. Cornett stepped away from the spotlight but never stopped working to help people. Her friends always receive letters from people they didn’t know she was helping: prayer groups, people living with cancer, single mothers who needed support.

“She used her voice to advise and care for people as well as to support them financially,” said Tobin Kurtz. “She wanted to give of what she had.”

Ms Cornett loved to cook for people and was working as a chef at Publix when the coronavirus hit. When this program was closed, she continued to shop for some of her clients.

Now his friends, family and former castmates are making a quilt that they plan to travel with and use to raise funds and raise awareness for causes close to his heart.

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


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