OPELIKA, Ala. —
The east Alabama city of Opelika was celebrating Sunday after a hometown woman won the Miss America pageant.
Miss America Mallory Hagan grew up in the city of 26,000 about 60 miles east of Montgomery. An old railroad town, Opelika adjoins Auburn, the home of Auburn University.
While Hagan won the pageant competing as Miss New York, she has only lived in the state a few years after moving to New York City from Alabama in 2008.
“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” said Tina Gunnels, who has known Hagan for years.
Gunnels’ son John attended Opelika High School with Hagan, and she still lives in the same neighborhood as Hagan’s parents. Describing herself as a “neighborhood mom,” Gunnels said she and her husband used to take Hagan and other kids to the beach for spring break, and Hagan often hung out at their home with her then-boyfriend, a good friend of John Gunnels.
Gunnels recalled a day about a decade ago when Hagan was visiting and began talking about her plans for the future.
“When Mallory was like 13 years old she was sitting on my deck and said, ‘Miss Tina, my goal is one day I’d like to grow up to be Miss America,”’ Gunnels said Sunday. “She accomplished that goal.”
Hagan has always been very independent and was unafraid even as a child to do things that other youth shied away from, such as talking to adults, Gunnels said. With a mother who ran a dance studio, Hagan developed a talent for dancing early in life and knew small-town Alabama wasn’t the place for her to achieve her dreams.
Hagan competed on the state pageant circuit and won a qualifying competition to appear in the Miss Alabama several years ago. After graduating Opelika High School in 2007 and briefly attending Auburn, Hagan moved to New York on her own to chase her dreams and attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“You hear about those famous football players who accomplish a lot through determination and hard work, and she’s like them,” Gunnels said. “I think she willed this to happen. She’s just that determined. Who would have thought that a girl from Opelika, Ala., would ever do that?”
Another neighbor, Melinda Meals, said Hagan came across during the Miss America broadcast not as a “Barbie” but as “a normal person having a good time.”
“Everybody is so delighted,” said Meals, who lives beside Hagan’s parents.
Friends and admirers watched the pageant at a restaurant, clapping and cheering when Hagan was announced as the winner. Kari Pierce, who works with Hagan’s mother and has known the new Miss America since birth, was thrilled Hagan won, but she wasn’t at all surprised.
“We’ve always known. We always said, ‘Mallory’s going to be Miss America,”’ she said.