Published July 05. 2013 4:00AM
Newly crowned Miss USA Erin Brady isn't your typical beauty queen.
For starters, unlike the little divas seen on the television show "Toddlers & Tiaras," Brady didn't enter her first beauty pageant until 2011.
And while the pint-sized contestants on TV are demanding and quick to throw a tantrum if things don't go their way, Brady, a native of East Hampton, is centered, confident and resilient.
The 25-year-old, the state's first Miss USA winner, is honest about her upbringing. Her parents, who have since recovered, struggled with substance abuse during most of her childhood.
"It taught me to stay grounded, focused and not to let it influence your life," she said. "You can't choose your parents, but you can learn from their mistakes."
At 17, after graduating from Portland High School, she decided to live on her own. She worked many hours as a waitress to pay her way through college and earned a degree in finance and a minor in criminal justice from Central Connecticut State University.
The oldest of three girls, she let her middle sister, Lauren, move in with her when she graduated from high school and always kept a watchful eye on her youngest sibling, Audrey.
Lauren Brady said even before Erin entered her first beauty pageant, she would call her sister "my Miss USA" because she is beautiful both on the inside and the outside.
She said that, in many ways, she has followed in her sister's footsteps. While living with Erin she, too, waited on tables to pay for college and graduated from Central with a degree in communications.
"I am where I am today because of her," said Lauren Brady. "She took me under her wing . My sister and I always looked to Erin for advice. She's selfless and taught us it's all about the hard work."
As Miss USA, Erin Brady will be a spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer education and prevention, but she also plans to use the her newfound fame to help children cope with the effects of drug and alcohol abuse.
"I think it's so important to talk about it," she said. "It's not your destiny. I think I can be a great example to showcase that you don't have to fall into that path."
Brady's victory on June 16 in Las Vegas was a first for the Nutmeg state, which isn't exactly known for producing pageant winners.
"I think my win gives credibility to women from the Northeast," Brady said.
She said growing up in Connecticut has helped keep her grounded.
"Connecticut is a small state. We've gone through our shares of ups and downs, but we have come together, especially after Sandy Hook," she said.
Brady entered her first competition, for the Miss Connecticut USA title, in 2011. She finished as first runner-up. She competed again the following year and won that title.
In Las Vegas in June, as the state winner, she won the Miss USA title.
At the time, Brady was working as a financial accountant for Prudential Retirement in Hartford, but says she wanted to explore other options, perhaps modeling, hosting or maybe becoming a television financial advisor.
"What drew me to the Miss Universe organization was that it empowered women," she said. "It will give me an opportunity to use my public speaking skills and travel all over the country."
Brady thought at the very least she had a good chance of making the top 15, but her confidence started to shake a little as name after name was called, but not hers.
"They didn't call my name until they reached 14," she said. "From there, I decided I have nothing to lose. When I made the top five, I thought to myself, I really have a great shot."
As she stood next to Miss Alabama USA, Mary Margaret McCord, she knew in a matter of seconds that one of their lives would be forever different.
"You're just in shock," she said. "Your life is going to change in so many ways."
Brady will live in a New York City apartment for the next year, representing the title, and also will compete in the Miss Universe competition Nov. 9 in Moscow.
If she has time, she also would like to go back to school and obtain a master's degree in finance.
She will be back in Connecticut for some yet to be determined events at the end of the month. It will be her way to say "thank you" to her home state.
"I have received so much support, and I can't wait to be back," she said.