Two months after assuming the Miss California USA title after her predecessor was fired, Tami Farrell was home in Southern Oregon this weekend celebrating her marriage engagement and relaxing with family and friends.

Two months after assuming the Miss California USA title after her predecessor was fired, Tami Farrell was home in Southern Oregon this weekend celebrating her marriage engagement and relaxing with family and friends.

“I love coming home,” Farrell says. “It's like a breath of fresh air.”

Farrell, who graduated from Phoenix High School in 2003, says the last two months have been a whirlwind of controversy over the dismissal of her predecessor, Carrie Prejean. Her unexpected push into the public eye has in some ways placed her “in the line of fire” over the debate over gay marriage, which Prejean publicly opposed, she says. But it also has presented opportunities likely to help advance Farrell's acting career.

“As an actor, you couldn't pay for that kind of press,” she says.

Prejean was fired in June for “contract violations,” including an “unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the Miss California USA organization,” according to a statement by the pageant's executive director, Keith Lewis.

Prejean's dismissal came as a surprise to Farrell because pageant owner Donald Trump previously had stood by Prejean. He defended Prejean after her remarks opposing gay marriage at the Miss USA pageant sparked an uproar and again when topless photos taken of her at age 17 surfaced on the Internet.

In assuming Prejean's duties as Miss California USA, Farrell has taken on the role of trying to diffuse the media madness over the controversy.

“Everyone asks me that question (What's your position on gay marriage?)” Farrell says. “With all the controversy, I think it's hilarious people are looking to a beauty queen to answer a question philosophers and politicians have been debating for years.”

“I don't want to be an advocate for either side,” Farrell adds. “It's a divisive question, and I want to focus on the positive aspects of Miss California.”

She says she has been trying to redirect attention to highlighting California's tourist attractions as well as some of her favorite charities such as the Oregon-based Sparrow Clubs USA and the American Heart Association.

Farrell became involved in Sparrow Clubs as a student at Phoenix High School. Students participating in the program do community service to raise money for a child with a life-threatening or debilitating disease through business sponsors.

Farrell, 24, graduated from Phoenix High School in 2003. That same year, she was crowned Miss Teen USA.

She then studied acting at the New York School for Film and Television, now the New York Conservatory for the Dramatic Arts, in New York City.

She says she decided to return to pageantry after a tumor was found on her thyroid. Her initial fears were that the tumor was cancerous. It turned out to be benign, but the scare and subsequent removal of half of her thyroid distracted her from her goals, she says.

Her aunt, Teresa Savage, of Sacramento, Calif., suggested she compete in the Miss Malibu USA pageant to help focus on what she wanted and to help ignite her career.

“The pageant forced me to take care of myself and put myself first,” Farrell says. “It restored my ambition and drive.”

The spotlight from the Miss California USA pageant already has opened doors for her career.

Farrell will star as “Rachel” in a thriller film called “Rachel's Return.” It's due to be released in the next year to year and a half, she says. It's not yet clear whether it will be released initially in theaters or on DVD.

She and her fiance, Buddy Wyrick, of Los Angeles, also co-authored a screenplay, which they now are showing to production companies.

This weekend in Southern Oregon has been in stark contrast to the media furor she faces in Los Angeles.

She accompanied Wyrick and his family from Mississippi and Texas on a trip Saturday to the pristine Crater Lake National Park. In the evening, she, Wyrick and their families and friends celebrated the couple's engagement next to the Rogue River. Farrell's parents, Tim and Stephanie, still live in Phoenix.

“I feel blessed to have grown up here,” Farrell says. “I've traveled all over the world, and I still think Southern Oregon is the most beautiful place. This is definitely a place where I would want to settle down and have a family.”

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.