“I feel like I have a responsibility to be a better leader, to hold myself to a higher standard and help people,” says Flanigan, who was crowned on Jan. 10 at a ceremony in Auburn. “To use my influence and have a strong impact on my community.”
Flanigan, 24, is first Black woman to win the title as Miss Cullman, and her pioneering role is not lost on her.
“When people are shocked, I understand,” Flanigan says. “There has been a reputation that people of color don’t go to Cullman, don’t live in Cullman. I would say that Cullman has come a long way.”
Cullman County’s population is about 96 percent white, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates, and the area has a history of racial inequality and strife. The city of Cullman, for example, once was known as an intimidating “sundown town” that made it clear Black people weren’t welcome after dark.
Flanigan knows all this, and says she experienced racism while growing up in Hanceville, which is part of Cullman County. But the new Miss Alabama USA is an ambitious and altruistic woman who adheres to the principle of “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Instead of abandoning her hometown, she aims to make it better.
“I love the state of Alabama,” Flanigan says during an interview with AL.com. “I love being from here. I love the sense of family and community. I was born and raised here. My dad was born and raised here. It’s taken time for Cullman to change, and I want to see change and acceptance. Being racist and thinking the color of people’s skin defines them is ignorant. (Cullman) is known for that, unfortunately. But I’m not going to let people dictate who I am by what they say. A place doesn’t define you, but you can define that place.
“I believe I was born here for a reason,” Flanigan continues. “I believe I was raised here for a reason. It had a huge contribution to who I am today. I didn’t choose it, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s home to me.”
Talk to Flanigan for an hour or so, and you’ll find that certain humanitarian motifs — spotting injustice, aiding the needy, giving voice to the voiceless — are laced into her conversation and fused into her outlook on life. Her desire to encourage racial progress in Cullman, where she still lives, is just one example.
“Philanthropy is big with me, not just because it’s the right thing to do,” Flanigan says. “I want to help.”
Flanigan, a junior at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is immersed in a pre-law program, majoring in philosophy and political science. She’s the pre-law honor society treasurer at UAH, and involved in the university chapter of the NAACP. In law school, she plans to focus on corporate and securities law, but Flanigan says her dream is to have her own practice and offer free legal services to people who can’t afford them.
“Fresh out of law school, I would like to work in the corporate world, because it will give me a lot of knowledge,” Flanigan says. “Being an attorney is kind of a stepping stone for the things I want to do. I really want to understand all types of people. Attorneys have a great influence and power for good.”
Flanigan say she aims to give back to the community — funding scholarships and giving resources to schools are on her to-do list for the future — and one day, she hopes to be “a judge or in Congress and do what I can.”
Right now, she’s an an advocacy ambassador for Filter of Hope, an organization that helps poor families get filters for clean drinking water. Flanigan says she’ll be raising money for Filter of Hope this summer, and if she reaches her $4,000 goal, she’ll travel to another country in December to see the installation of 100 water filters built with that sum.
“I love the vision of what they do,” Flanigan says. “It’s Christian-based, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be in it. It’s something I believe in, and want to get behind, and want to support. Water, clean water, is essential to our lives and there are people who don’t have it. Sometimes we forget how blessed we are.”
Flanigan, who attends Desperation Church in Cullman and Church of the Highlands in Huntsville, says she had a religious awakening at age 19 that led her to take two years off from school and devote herself to ministry work.
“I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” Flanigan says. “I was searching. I became a Christian that year, and it really changed my life. I wanted to do more with ministry, more in my life, and find purpose. The first year, I did what I could at Desperation Church, and the second year I decided to attend Highlands College in Birmingham. There, I believe I found my purpose, to be an attorney and help people.
“When you’re at Highlands, you have a track that you choose. Mine was outreach. I worked at Gate City, Woodlawn, places like that. Being around the students and the people that were there, it started bothering me. There are people who need help. Some people have more opportunities than others. I want to be there for people who are overlooked, people who are rejected.
“A couple came and spoke to us,” Flanigan recalls. “They said ministry in church was not what they were called to do. Their ministry was in the secular world. I started crying, because I felt like these people were talking to me. That shook me. I knew what I needed to do.”
As Miss Alabama USA, Flanigan will have a public platform that enables her to reach more people than she would otherwise, via speaking engagements, community appearances and the like. She’s not sure what the next 12 months will bring, but Flanigan says she’s determined to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.
“I was told this year is what I make it,” she says. “I will try my best to be the most authentic I can be, the most transparent and honest.”
Flanigan will move on to compete for Miss USA later this year, most likely in November, and says she’s happily attuned to the message the Miss USA organization projects with its state and national pageants.
“You can be beautiful and strong and graceful and intelligent,” Flanigan says. “You can be anything you want to be.”
Here are some other things you might want to know about the new Miss Alabama USA:
- She’s the daughter of Renee and Jeff Flanigan. She was born at a hospital in Birmingham, so is technically a Birmingham native, but grew up in Hanceville. She graduated from Good Hope High School in Cullman. The Flanigans have a blended family of eight children, ages 17 to 41. Alexandria is the third youngest. Her mother has an office job at Tyson Foods; her father is a truck driver.
- Flanigan was living on campus as a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, but had to leave in spring 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit. She lives in Cullman now and takes most of her classes online via Zoom.
- During her spare time, Flanigan enjoys reading, writing poetry and writing music. “I love hiking, finding new adventures and long drives,” she says. “I love driving around country roads, where it’s so peaceful.”
- She works out daily — Pilates and yoga — and says her health regimen includes drinking water, sleeping well, trying to reduce stress and eating healthy food. “I love food, all kinds of food,” Flanigan says. “I don’t eat healthy all the time, but I try to eat right and give my body what it needs. I’m not a stick; I’m a little curvy.”
- She’s done some modeling and got her start with the help of Talent Tribe Management, a Nashville company. “I love modeling with all my heart,” Flanigan says. “It’s probably my favorite thing to do. I love being on the runway, just being on the catwalk, being in that atmosphere. I love fashion. I love clothes. It’s mesmerizing to me.” She was a model at Nashville Fashion Week in 2019. She’s also appeared in a commercial for PBS.
- Flanigan says her modeling background came in handy for her first real pageant, competing for Miss Alabama USA. “I don’t know how I would have walked in those heels otherwise,” Flanigan says. “They were 5 or 6 inches.”
- Instead of hiring a pageant coach, Flanigan prepared for Miss Alabama USA by watching YouTube videos. She did her own hair and makeup, and chose her own wardrobe. Her basic approach to the pageant: “I’m just going to pretend I’m modeling, and go with it.”
- Flanigan says she always wanted to compete for Miss USA Alabama, but “never had the guts” to enter. The coronavirus pandemic changed her outlook, however. “Life is so short,” Flanigan says. “I was competing to overcome fear.”
- When she found out she’d been chosen as Miss Alabama USA, Flanigan was shocked. “I was floored,” she says. “I didn’t think I would win. This was the first time I’d done this. I was competing with girls who’d been doing it for two or three years.”
- As she took her first walk as Miss Alabama USA, wearing a crown and carrying an armful of roses, everything was “a blur for me,” Flanigan says. “I couldn’t comprehend it. The thoughts that were going through my head … it was the Lord. I felt like I was the most unqualified. I still feel unqualified, if I’m going to be honest. I believe He has a plan and this is part of His plan for my life. I want to take it all in.”
- Flanigan was pleased to make the acquaintance of the new Miss Alabama Teen USA, Dailyn Swann. “She’s sweet and mature,” Flanigan says. “I can see our relationship growing into a friendship.”