LAS VEGAS >> A woman who grew up in Alabama and moved to New York City is the new Miss America, winning the title after tap dancing to a James Brown tune, deftly dealing with a question about guns, and raising the issue of child sexual abuse in her contestant platform.
In addition to dancing to “Get Up Off of That Thing,” 23-year-old Mallory Hagan strutted down the runway during the Las Vegas pageant Saturday night in an asymmetrical white gown and donned a revealing black string bikini.
She won a $50,000 college scholarship and a year as an instant celebrity and role model to many girls as she defeated Miss South Carolina Ali Rogers, who took second, and Miss Oklahoma Alicia Clifton, who finished third.
She told The Associated Press in an interview after her win that it was her mother who encouraged her to tackle the issue of child sex abuse in her platform — the issue she will promote during her reign.
She said that sexual abuse had “rippled through” her family, touching her mother, aunt, grandmother and cousins. Her mother had trouble at first convincing others of the trauma she had faced.
“That kind of sent her into a whirlwind of anxiety and depression. So as a teen I lost my mom kind of for a couple years,” she said. “She was dealing with her own issues, and that’s something that now as an adult I understand, but then I certainly did not.”
During an interview backstage, Hagan’s mother Mandy Moore wiped tears away as she spoke.
“It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “It’s all hitting me so fast.”
Hagan said she will work to make child abuse education mandatory in all 50 states.
“It’s something I can hopefully change for the next generation,” she said.
Hagan left her native Alabama for New York at 18 with less than $1,000 in her pocket. She tried for the Miss New York title in 2010 and 2011 before winning last year.
She studied communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology and has been living in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Hagan, who aspires to be a global cosmetic company executive, ends a long dry spell for New York in the competition. The previous winner from that state was actress Vanessa Williams, who became the first black winner when she took the crown in 1984. Hagan is the first Brooklyn-dweller to claim the title.
During the competition, she survived the cuts as the contestants competed in swimsuit, evening wear, and talent events.
In the final moments of the show, “Good Morning America” weatherman Sam Champion asked her if schools should hire armed guards in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. shooting.
“I don’t think the proper way to fight violence is with violence,” she replied. “I think the proper way is to educate people on guns and the ways we can use them properly. We can lock them up, we can have gun safety classes, we can have a longer waiting period.”
Hagan defeated titleholders from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Several of her competitors had grabbed headlines this year because of their backstories.
Miss District of Columbia plans to undergo a preventive double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer, which killed her mother and grandmother.
Miss Montana was the pageant’s first autistic contestant. Miss Iowa has Tourette’s syndrome. And Miss Maine lost more than 50 pounds before winning her state crown.
During the opening number at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, when all the queens gave short quips about their states, Hagan referenced last year’s superstorm, saying, “Sandy may have been swept away our shores but never our spirit.”
The pageant, which started as little more than an Atlantic City bathing suit revue, broke viewership records in its heyday and bills itself as one of the world’s largest scholarships programs for women.
But like other pageants, the show has struggled to stay relevant as national attitudes regarding women’s rights have changed.
Hagan’s boyfriend Charmel Maynard said he thinks that pageants are dismissed by some, but he hopes Hagan’s willingness to take on the sexual abuse issue will lend legitimacy to her new role.
“I don’t think it’s taken seriously, but I think she’s going to be a great ambassador and it could change,” he said.