NOTHING, KENYA MOORE THOUGHT, COULD mar the moment. The tears of joy still felt fresh on her face. The glittering crown was nestled carefully in her Wichita hotel room, where she had returned after a hectic day of interviews and appearances. Ecstatic with triumph, she was completely unprepared for the message that greeted her at the front desk—three words that broke through her bliss: "Your mother called."

"She said she just wanted to congratulate me," recalls Moore, at her Westwood, Calif., apartment. "Hut I didn't want to talk to her. I'm a very forgiving person. But I'll only forgive her if she asks for my forgiveness."

This past Feb. 19, Moore, 22, became the second black woman ever to win the title of Miss USA. On May 21 she will represent the U.S. at the Miss Universe pageant in Mexico City (CBS, 9 p.m. ET). She is a breathtaking 5'10" beauty with a quick intelligence, a dazzling smile and an easy laugh. No one would suspect that beneath the carefully cultivated poise lies a painful secret: She has barely spoken to her mother, Patricia Moore, 38, a special education teacher in her hometown of Detroit, in more than a decade. "I can honestly say I don't love her," says Kenya. "I don't even know her." The depth of her hurt is apparent in the title of a poem she wrote about her mother six months ago: "I Didn't Ask to Be Your Mistake."

Though Patricia took a step toward rapprochement the day after the pageant—and, she says matter-of-factly, "the door for communication has been and always will remain open"—she has not extended the apology her daughter demands. As Kenya and other family members tell it, the trouble began in 1970, even before Kenya was born, when her 16-year-old mother became pregnant by her 16-year-old boyfriend, Ronald Grant. One of five children in a middle-class family (her father owned a construction company; her mother owned a clothing store), Patricia was sent to live with her older sister Lori, then a student at Central Michigan University. To her family, "getting pregnant was considered shameful," says Lori, now an attorney in Atlanta. Ronald wanted the child but felt unable to provide a proper home (a restaurant manager, he lives now in Houston and has maintained contact with Kenya). When Patricia talked about putting Kenya up for adoption, Ronald asked his mother, Doris Grant, now 62, to raise the little girl as her own. Doris agreed. Patricia did not even name her baby. Instead, Lori christened her Kenya because, she says, like the country, "she was dark and beautiful."

In the years that followed, Patricia, who neither married nor had other children, refused to accept Kenya as her daughter. She declines to discuss the details of the estrangement. "I'm a very private person," she says. "It doesn't matter how dim Kenya portrays me, because I know exactly who I am." As Kenya tells it, when seeing Patricia at regular family gatherings as a child, she tried unsuccessfully to make contact. "She would treat me like I was invisible," says Kenya. By the time she was 12, says Kenya, she stopped trying to communicate with her mother. "I decided never to let her hurt me again," she explains. Her pain, she admits, turned to anger, most of which she directed at her grandmother. Though she lived for a few years with Patricia's well-off family, Kenya was raised primarily by Doris, who lived with her husband, Virgil, and their five children in an impoverished neighborhood in west Detroit. Doris, caretaker of an elderly couple, scraped together money to buy a gown for Kenya's first pageant at 14. But nothing could satisfy Kenya. "I was bitter," she says. "I hurt her feelings, saying, 'You're not my mother.' "

Modeling and pageants brought Kenya money and success—and also some serious trouble. At 16, she won the Miss Black World Michigan contest and met a man who, says Doris, was "cut out of the wrong cloth." Handsome and charming, he was also, says Kenya, jealous, controlling and eventually physically abusive. She ended the explosive three-year relationship after, she claims, he stabbed her with a nail file. (No formal charges were ever made.)

Today Moore is wiser about her choice in men. "If there is any sign of their being insecure, I won't get involved," she says. One admirer is Arsenio Hall, on whose show Moore appeared and who subsequently took her to a Lakers game and then dinner at L.A.'s ultrahip restaurant the Ivy. When her pageant days are over, she hopes to begin understanding that sad early chapter of her life by enrolling at UCLA to study child psychology, "it's a way for me to help other kids avoid growing up miserable and bitter," she says. Meanwhile, an apology is an absolute requisite for real mending. But as Kenya prepares for her final pageant. Patricia offers only a blessing from afar. "I'm praying for her," says Patricia. "I wish her all the luck and success in the world."

MARILYN ACHIRON
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.