05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
As soon as I saw her," recalls Regis Philbin, "I knew she would win." The Miss America Pageant cohost (with pal Kathie Lee Gifford) doesn't need 20/20 hindsight. Amid the usual quarts of hair spray and mounds of mascara on display in Atlantic City last September, a naturally elegant Kimberly Aiken, in a chic chignon and barely-there blusher, proved to be a fresh breeze for the judges as well. It wasn't just the then-18-year-old's pared-down panache that captured the crown. The almond-eyed Miss South Carolina also scored with her plea to help the homeless, whose ranks once included her uncle. Since winning, Aiken has lobbied the government and helped build low-income housing in Atlanta for Habitat for Humanity International.
Aiken's attitude bolsters her altruism. Says she: "I've never let anybody get me down about anything." With her current travels taking her far from her parents (owners of a home health care business) and college beau Louis Barber, 19, Aiken stays pageant-perfect by swearing off junk food. "I don't want to have breakouts," she says. "I face the public every day." Still, Aiken, who'll start her sophomore year studying accounting at the University of South Carolina this fall, looks forward to returning to civilian life. "I'm a people person," she says, "but this year I've really learned the value of being by myself."