- Cullman, Alabama

June 24, 2013

The Miss Alabama experience

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— Win or lose, if you have worked hard and are determined, being onstage at the Miss Alabama pageant is an honor and an enlightening experience.

Most girls, especially the younger ones, called Rising Stars, who do not compete, but get to enjoy the pageant by spending time with the contestant, say that it was fun, and their moms will chime in with, “When it quits being fun, we’ll stop,” but hardly anyone tells you how hard the adult contestants work to qualify for this competition.

Mary Elizabeth Barker/Caitlin Brunell

For nine-year-old Mary Elizabeth Barker, an East Elementary student who will be entering the fourth grade this fall, it was an amazing experience.

Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Brady and Joy Barker of Cullman was a Rising Star, sort of like a “little sister” to the Miss Alabama contestant. Mary Elizabeth was invited to be a Rising Star by Miss Rocket City, Caitlin Brunell, a family friend. Caitlin’s platform was Caitlin’s Closet, which provides the contestant with an opportunity to do community service while strengthening their platform for the prestigious contest.

Caitlin’s Closet (CC) is a nonprofit that Caitlin started in 2006. It provides clothing for women who cannot afford to buy them on their own. “Things like dresses for teens wanting to attend their prom or homecoming, interview suits for women trying to get back on their feet and into the workforce, and wedding dresses to future brides,” she explained.

“One in four girls are not able to attend their prom and while some may think it is just about a dress and their outward appearance it is so much more,” she said passionately. “These dresses allow girls to feel beautiful and confident in who they are... something that every woman wants to feel. My hope with CC in being a national network is that it will create a domino effect where the giving just continues.”

 It is in this kind of atmosphere that girls like Mary Elizabeth find mentors and role models. She got to spend the day with Caitlin, and was onstage with her for one segment of the program.

“It has been such a joy to be able to get to know Mary Elizabeth,” said Caitlin. “I was able to hang out with her at a few appearances. We enjoyed that week doing rehearsals, going to lunch, and performing one of the preliminary nights. I think of her as the sister I never had and it is a blessing to be able to be a part of her life. I hope I am able to set an example for her and be someone she looks up to.”  

Although Mary Elizabeth described being under the bright lights as an “amazing feeling” she is undecided about just which lights she wants most, the glamour and glitz of the pageant world, the Friday night lights of cheering or if she will one day trade her softball uniform in for an  evening gown. “That’s a hard question,” she said thoughtfully. For now, she is just glad she doesn’t have to make that choice.

Mary Elizabeth collected almost $100 for the Children’s Miracle Network. The Rising Star program has raised over $6,000 for the charity since the program began.

For the older girls in the pageant, it was a different story. A lot of them will tell you its fun, but you hardly ever hear about how hard it is, and what a lot of time and effort goes into preparing for the competition.

Rebecca Long

“It is hard work,” said 2013 Miss Wallace State, Rebecca Long, whose platform is Locks of Love, a charity that provides wigs for children with cancer. Rebecca has donated four times, for a total of 47 inches of hair. “We have to work on our platform on a daily basis, lots of girl’s workout in a gym for hours every day. You have to be on top of your game as far as knowing about current events in the state, and about politics in general,” Long stressed. “There is so much more to this than knowing where your lipstick is and how to fix your hair.”

You might be surprised to learn that the contestants are required to do their own hair and makeup for the Miss Alabama pageant. “We have to be self-reliant that whole week,” she explained. “We had, ‘dressing room moms’ who helped with wardrobe changes, but they couldn’t help us get ready as far as hair and makeup.”

Winning Miss WSCC was exciting, but Rebecca said it was time to get really serious about the Miss Alabama pageant. “I was serious about Miss WSCC, but this was a whole different scale,” she said earnestly. “I knew that if I was chosen as Miss WSCC that I would be representing my school, as Miss Alabama, the winner represents the whole state, so I really wanted to be well prepared.”

Because Rebecca is a dance teacher at Dale Serrano Dance Studios, she didn’t have to spend as much time in the gym as some of the girls, and it was easy to decide what she would do for her talent segment. She chose “What A Feeling” from “Flashdance.”

The petite 19-year-old got a lot of encouragement from Rob Metcalf, who helped her choose an evening gown by explaining to her that the V-shaped neckline and the inverted ”V” slit in the hemline accentuated her figure and gave the illusion of extra height, “I’m barely 5 foot, 1 inch and some clothes make me look like a 14-year-old,” she laughed. “But he helped me to learn that its okay to be small as long as you can walk out on that stage and pretend that you are a six-foot tall Victorian’s Secret model,” she said. The ability to project herself in that role has given her a lot of self-confidence and poise. “There is only one of me, and I can’t change the size and shape that God has given me, but I can be the best ‘me’ that I can be, and use my talents to help the Children’s Miracle Network. The scholarship money I’ve earned through the WSCC pageant and the Miss Alabama program have helped to make it possible for me to pay some of my way through college and nursing school without being in a lot of debt when I graduate.”

Rebecca earned $3,000 in scholarship money at the Miss Alabama pageant, and was awarded free tuition at WSCC for two years.  

The Miss Alabama scholarships include $750 for participating in the Miss Alabama Pageant, $250 as one of eight non-finalist Talent Award winners (which was a great honor out of 51 contestants) $1,000 from Brookwood Medical Center Auxiliary, and $1,000 from the Kelly Jones Carr, Miss Alabama 2001, Scholarship.

The 2012 graduate of Hayden High School, who was valedictorian of her class, is working on her associates degree at WSCC, and hopes to go on to either Samford or UAB to earn a nursing degree. She hasn’t always wanted to be a nurse, though. “First I wanted to be a lawyer, then a Broadway dancer, but I tried out for Tinkerbell at Disney World last year and made it into the top seven finalists out of 170 people. I’ll try again,” she laughed. “I really want to be Tinkerbell!”

Rebecca’s parents are Bob and Yolanda Long. Bob Long serves as Chief of Police in Hanceville.

Sara Beth Drake

2012 Miss Wallace State, Sara Beth Drake, recently took the stage at the Miss Alabama Pageant for the second time. “I was much more relaxed this time,” smiled Sara. “I knew what to expect and it was not as stressful as the first time.”

That might be because Sara Beth was the youngest contestant ever to enter the prestigious competition. “I had just graduated from Vinemont High School two weeks before and already had my associate’s degree when I qualified for the pageant. I was eligible because I had accumulated 32 credit hours by being on the fast track at WSCC,” she explained. “Most of the other contestants in the Miss Alabama competition at that time were 18-24 and it was a little intimidating.”

Sara Beth is now a sophomore at Jacksonville State University, working on a degree in pre-engineering.

This year Sara Beth qualified because she is the reigning Miss Jacksonville State University, which is another preliminary to the Miss Alabama pageant.

Surprisingly, Sara Beth had only competed on-stage once before becoming Miss WSCC. “I tried competing when I was in the eleventh grade, but didn’t place, so I never really thought about doing one again.”

The incentive that she needed to sign up for the pageant was that the winner of the Miss WSCC would get scholarship assistance, which motivated her to try again. Her mom, Kimberly Drake was a big help, “My mom was there for me every step of the way,” said Sara Beth.

Sara Beth says that last year she didn’t know what to expect, but that this year she was much more relaxed. “It was much more fun this year,” she said enthusiastically. “There was much less stress, and the interview segment went really well. They have an inner room set up for the interview, with a video camera and a spotlight on the contestant.”

The judges are primarily concerned with how well the contestant maintains her composure under pressure.

Sara Beth attributes her boost in self-confidence to knowing what to expect in the interview. “It took a big load off of my shoulders,” she sighed. “The interview is set up sort of like a job interview — for the winner, it will be a job,” she pointed out. “The judges are trying to see if a contestant would do well.”

The Miss Alabama pageant is considered one of the toughest preliminaries for the Miss America pageant because Alabama, along with Texas have more contestants than any other state. Winning Miss Alabama gives a contestant a real feel for what the next step is — Miss America. “If you win this, the drill is just about like the Miss America pageant, so you are well prepared,” Sara Beth pointed out.

There were 51 contestants in this year’s Miss Alabama pageant.

Like Rebecca, Sara Beth was motivated by the scholarship opportunities that winning might bring her. She walked away from the Miss Jacksonville pageant with over $15,000 and over $1,000 in cash scholarships from the Miss Alabama pageant.

A member of the JSU dance line “The Marching Ballerinas,” Sara Beth was named “Rookie of the Year.” She is on the SGA forum, the basketball dance team and was named Phi Mu of the Year by her sorority.

Her Miss Alabama Platform was Literacy Matters. “We have a problem here in Alabama because one in four, or 15 percent of Alabama residents are functionally illiterate, mainly because so many of them had to quit school to join the workforce.”

Sara Beth’s family has always been politically active in the community and state. Her grandfather, Tom Drake, was Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives under Gov. George Wallace’s tenure. Her parents are attorneys Tommy and Kimberly Drake.

Her next step? “I’ll go back next year to win,” she said determinedly.

They say that the third time is the charm — with that positive attitude, it might just be.