Miss Alabama USA finds confidence, opportunity in title win
By Jennifer Crossley Howard
The road to a pageant crown can take years. Some young women, after countless dresses, carefully plotted talent routines and interview rehearsals, never make it into the top ten, much less take the crown.
For Alexandria Flanigan, the road proved a bit shorter. She won on her first try.
Growing up, she admired the women who competed in Miss Alabama USA.
“These women were intelligent, beautiful, strong and bold,” she says. “I thought, ‘I like these women. They are people I could look up to.’ I love powerful women who try to make a difference.”
Now she is in their company.
In January at Auburn University, Flanigan was crowned Miss Alabama USA, becoming the first woman of color from Cullman to do so. The opportunity to overcome stage fright and boost her confidence attracted Flanigan to the pageant experience; the self-described introvert got what she asked for.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “I didn’t expect what came out of it, but I will say what I was looking for, I found.”
She signed up somewhat on a whim, with no pageant coach, and saved to buy her own dress. She only told her closest friends and family she was competing. “I’ve always had an issue with stage fright,” Flanigan says.
But she worked to build her confidence. She mastered a confident strut down her apartment hallway, in the kitchen, on any given sidewalk. “If I was outside and there was a straight away, I’d walk.”
To supplement her pageant education she hit the Internet, watching videos of interviews on YouTube. Her win was a result of time, effort and determination, according to one friend.
“She has tremendous favor on her end,” says Laura Quick, CEO of Good Grit Magazine. “She is not afraid of hard work. She decided (to do it), and did it.”
Flanigan grew up the daughter of a truck driver and Tyson Foods employee in Cullman. The midsize town, which sits right off Interstate 65, is a sort of landmark bridging north and central Alabama. Cullman is perhaps best known for its German heritage (and its annual Oktoberfest each fall), as well as its tourist attractions, including the Benedictine monastery and Ave Maria Grotto, the charming garden setting for 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous religious structures of the world.
Beyond the tourism, the city’s advocates point to its industrial growth and revitalized downtown area.
Flanigan talks lovingly of her hometown, where she experienced a fond childhood save some heartbreak.
“I did experience racism,” she says. “I grew up mixed (race) in the ’90s.” Growing up, she says she didn’t give a lot of thought to one day representing her hometown, though in hindsight, a mixed-race woman representing Cullman might have been unimaginable decades ago.
“Looking back, I think it would have shocked people,” she says. “I think it shocked people now.”
Quick, who is a resident of Cullman, concurs. “Winning this shocked her as much as it shocked anyone,” she says. Flanigan as Miss Alabama USA, Quick adds, “gives people permission to think Cullman is a place for them, too.”
Flanigan says she wants to be a light, and to look forward. “My outlook on life is not to focus on the negative, or on people who care way too much what I look like,” she says.
An ambassador for Cullman
Her focus on positivity is getting a big push forward since her pageant win: The Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce named Flanigan as an interim ambassador of Alabama’s changing image.
“Many areas of the South have a history of racial inequality,” says Jeff Tolbert, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce. “We strive to be better than that history in Cullman and continue to prove that skin color does not determine success here.
“A huge group of local businesses and individuals are supporting Alexandria in preparation for the national pageant later this year,” Tolbert adds. “A national title is not out of our reach.”
Though she is a pre-law student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and spends much of her time in the Rocket City, Flanigan takes much pride in her hometown. Heritage Park, Duck Pond and Karma’s Coffee House are some favorite spots. “It’s crazy to watch how much (Cullman) has grown.”
Flanigan commutes an hour each way to class from Cullman; she had a brief break between the spring semester and summer school but stayed busy with appearances as Miss Alabama USA. She has mastered organization enough that she is still able to fit in workouts at the university’s gym along with her philosophy classes and pageant duties, which include in person and virtual appearances. After graduation in December, she might take a break before attending law school.
Flanigan aspires to practice corporate law, to give a voice to those who do not have one. She will be the first college graduate in her immediate family, and the first attorney. As for law school, Flanigan has visited campuses and is interested in several, including Samford University in Birmingham and Emory University in Atlanta.
Even with the pressures of school and making appearances as Miss Alabama USA, Flanigan has found time to volunteer for a cause she believes in. She is an advocate for clean water through the nonprofit Filter of Hope, a Christian ministry that raises money to get clean water to countries in the Caribbean and Central America. She saw an ad on social media and immediately applied to be an ambassador.
This fall, Flanigan will represent Alabama in the Miss USA pageant. (The winner of Miss USA will compete in the Miss Universe pageant.) The pageant is tentatively planned to take place in November in Tulsa, Okla.
“I am excited to see how this goes,” she says.
About the pageant
The Miss Alabama USA and Miss Alabama Teen USA pageants are official preliminaries to the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants. Contestants are judged in three equal categories: personal interview, swimsuit for the Miss Alabama contestants, and evening gown. There is no performing talent competition, and no previous pageant experience is necessary.
According to the official pageant website, the pageants “are looking for diverse young women who are not only beautiful, but intelligent and willing to share their hearts and minds as ambassadors to our state and nation.” For the winner, her year as a titleholder “is certain to be one full of personal growth and development.”