For Elizabeth Tobin Kurtz, Leanza Cornett was more than just a beauty queen.
“It is with great sadness the Miss America Organization relays the news our beloved Miss America and friend, Leanza Cornett, has passed away,” the organization wrote on Facebook. “Leanza had a bright and beautiful spirit and her laugh was infectious. We know she meant so much to so many, including all of you.”
The statement continued: “We are devastated by this sudden loss in our Miss America family and we are deeply sorry for her family and close friends for their loss.”
On Friday, Kurtz described Cornett to People magazine as “smart, talented and driven.”
“You think ‘beauty queen,’ but that’s not what she was about,” Kurtz explained to the outlet. “She was our princess, and I hesitate to say that because it sounds so trite. But if we have to have a princess that envelops compassion and understanding and brings people together without judgment in a way that’s peaceful and loving, then we have Princess Leanza.”
Kurtz and Cornett met sometime in the late ‘80s when they both worked on the “Voyage of The Little Mermaid” stage show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.
“There’s a way that people can roar just by walking in a room, and I remember thinking that on the first day I met her,” said Kurtz. “Before ‘Little Mermaid’ started, the stage had been transformed from ‘The Muppets’ and that set was designed by Jim Henson before he died.
“We thought there was nothing that could compare to it and that there was nothing as spectacular as the pieces that Jim Henson put on that stage, but that was until Leanza showed up on the mermaid block,” Kurtz continued. “She had a way of making every stage that she stepped on magical.”
Cornett, who was Miss Florida in 1992 before becoming Miss America, went on to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis.
“She taught me to be bold,” Kurtz told the outlet. “Leanza thought, ‘Now that I have a platform, I’m going to run through it with both feet.’ People weren’t talking about [AIDS] then but Leanza was one of the first people to put a red ribbon on [in support].
“She was breaking social norms left and right,” Kurtz shared. “She was, and could be, on a platform, but she stepped into the crown to change things. She didn’t think it set her apart – she thought it gave her a voice for the people she was among. She focused on each individual person, and believed that each person had a story and something to offer.”
While the Miss America organization did not reveal a cause of death, Fox30 Action News Jax in Jacksonville, Fla., Cornett’s hometown, reported she sustained a head injury after a fall on Oct. 12.
News of her injury was first shared by the Leanza Cornett’s Circle of Love Facebook page. On Oct. 16, a friend who belonged to the Facebook group informed the page’s followers Cornett sustained a “serious” head injury and was in the ICU. The friend said she underwent surgery due to brain bleeding.
“It wasn’t bloody, it was just a bump that kept swelling,” said Kurtz. “We all believed she would beat this and rally. If she could come from a tiny town without a lot of things accessible to her and become Miss America, all in a positive way and without losing who you are, then anybody can. That’s why it’s so hard that she didn’t succeed in her battle. We wanted our champion.”
The Miss America Organization said it does not have any information regarding services for Cornett at this time.
Kurtz hopes Cornett’s legacy will inspire people to do something positive for others in their lives.
“She changed lives and did it in a quiet way,” said Kurtz. “People should try to go out and do something in her honor. Be kind to somebody, listen to somebody, not because you’re going to get an award but because you’re going to change something. I know the world is a better place because she has lived in it.”
Cornett was married to actor and former “Entertainment Tonight” host Mark Steines in the ’90s. The couple divorced in 2013 and shared two sons: Kai, 18, and Avery, 16, according to reports.
“We will always remember the wonderful times shared during her short time here on earth,” Steines captioned a photo of her and her sons. “I find comfort knowing Kai and Avery will forever have the best guardian angel watching over them as they navigate life’s path. I ask that you please keep them as well as Leanza’s parents and her family in your prayers.”
Fox News’ Melissa Roberto contributed to this report.