In her pink dress, Mattie Fite stood timidly beside Anna Laura Bryan. The 5-year-old redhead looked at the crown with wonder as the reigning Miss Alabama autographed a picture.
“I think I am the only redhead in the competition. There’s another contestant who might be a light redhead, but I’m the only blatant redhead,” Bryan said with pride.
After seven months of traveling across the state to luncheons, school assemblies and engagements, the Decatur native arrived in Las Vegas for the Miss America pageant Wednesday.
In six days, Bryan will walk onto the stage of the Theatre for the Performing Arts, step in front of a camera and introduce herself to a national audience as Miss Alabama.
“It’s still sinking in that I’m actually here. I’ve never even been to Las Vegas before,” Bryan said. “I feel like a little kid. What an amazing experience.”
Bryan does not take her position lightly. She understands the impact of the title.
“One of the neatest experiences is seeing the little girls’ faces. To them the title of Miss Alabama is larger than life. It is very humbling that I get to be their Miss Alabama,” Bryan said. “This may sound cliché, but maybe by caring for them and showing them love, I could change their lives, like Melinda Toole changed my life.”
As Miss Alabama 2006, Toole, who heard Bryan sing at Spirit Idol, encouraged the then-16-year-old Decatur High School junior to participate in pageants.
As a latecomer to the pageant circuit, the aspiring interior designer never dreamed the journey she started as a way to earn scholarships would take her to the national contest. But with each year of competition, Bryan’s desire and passion grew.
Bryan credited her parents, Norwood and Kathy Bryan, for the determination that motivated her to sign up for preliminary pageants year after year.
“Anna Laura is very strong,” said Bryan’s grandmother, Eva Carver. “There are moments when I would have quit, when most people would have quit, but not Anna Laura. She just kept going.”
“The person I am today is truly because of my parents,” Bryan said. “They raised me to be independent. They raised me in a Christ-like environment. They were good to say, ‘Anna Laura, here are your strengths, here are your weaknesses. Keep working on your strengths, but work harder on your weaknesses because that will make you a better person.’ ”
This week, Bryan will display her years of hard work, of eating healthy, working out, vocal classes and practice interviews.
While the televised finals will take place Saturday, the interviews begin Monday — or as Bryan, a true Alabama girl, said “the day of the national championship.”
Thirty-five contestants will interview Monday. Bryan will be the 35th.
“That’s great that I’m last. By being last I will be able to have the final impression on them,” Bryan said.
The preliminary competitions of talent, lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit, evening wear and on-stage question will begin Tuesday.
“Before every competition I pray, not that I win, but that everything I do is to honor the Lord,” Bryan said.
For strength and comfort, Bryan turns to these verses:
Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I say that to myself before I do anything. It reminds me that I’m not strong enough to do anything on my own, but anything is possible through him.
Jeremiah 29:11: “I have plans for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope for the future.” When I read that I reminded myself even if Miss Alabama doesn’t work out, his plan is far greater than anything I could plan for myself.
Ecclesiastes 3:11: “Everything is beautiful within its time.”
From a gown embellished with Swarovski crystals to a Monet print skirt to an orange and fuchsia print dress, Bryan’s wardrobe combines glamour, whimsy, fun and sass. The wardrobe is from Nicole Miller, Alice and Trixie, Iris Vicona, Aysha, Ann Northington and Nicole Miller.
“There are so many wonderful pieces, it is so hard to choose a favorite,” Bryan said. “I really do love the suit I will be wearing for the Terry Fator Show.”
The belted jacket with a three-quarter-length sleeve and above-the-knee skirt suit is made of gold metallic and trimmed in charcoal.
Created by Ann Northington of North Oaks, Bryan’s floor-length competition gown in gold tapestry features Swarovski Crystals, a scoop neck and a crop cap sleeve.
“I am very fortunate. Ann Northington has been designing my gowns for the past two years. They know my personality, they know my style, they know my colors. They make beautiful gowns,” Bryan said.
In her 2009 Miss Alabama debut, rather than custom-made clothes, Bryan wore a borrowed two-piece turquoise swimsuit, a purple gown originally worn by a contestant in the 1980s and a blue evening gown she wore two years prior.
Bryan said Catalina provided the swimsuit and Joseph Ribkoff designed the opening number outfits.
For four years, Bryan never strayed. At each Miss Alabama competition, she stood on the stage at Samford University and belted “Sempre Libera.”
When she first sung the technical and challenging piece from Verdi’s “La Traviata” as a high school senior, the aria earned her a scholarship from the Decatur Music Club. At the Miss Alabama pageant, the aria landed Bryan the overall talent title the past two years.
She will perform the song at Miss America.
“It is a very powerful song with intricate runs,” Bryan said. “I love it because it shows off my training and hard work. I am also able to show off my theatrical side.”
Out of all the competition categories, talent excites Bryan the most.
“I am so excited to do talent and to do it on the amazing stage. I just love to sing,” Bryan said.
“You can really see the physical change in Anna Laura,” John Vaughn said. “She has worked very hard and you can tell.”
As the director of the Morgan County Distinguished Young Woman program, Vaughn witnessed Bryan’s transformation from the high school senior who won the Junior Miss title in 2008 to the 23-year-old reigning Miss Alabama.
Before the state competition, Bryan adopted a strict diet and fitness regiment. The last six months, she worked to maintain, not lose, her weight. With her nonstop schedule, which included 17 appearances in a 10-day span, dieting is not an option, she said.
“Fitness has been a total lifestyle change. I am your typical Southern girl. I love my breads, barbecue and Mexican food,” Bryan said. “I allow myself to have it, but I also work out two or three times a day and drink lots of water to keep hydrated.”
In Decatur, Bryan said she enjoys running on the bike trail. At the gym, her favorite workouts include sprint intervals and weight training.
Bryan described deciding on her platform as “someone hitting me in the face with a book.” After months of pursuing different issues, Bryan, inspired by Brayden Ellis and Ellis’ service dog Puah, chose autism.
For the past four years, Bryan has delivered her “PAWS for Autism: People and Animals Working Side-by-side” message across the state. Working with the Legislature, Bryan created HB 502, which the House and Senate passed. The bill allows all types of service dogs, including autism dogs, in public and private schools.
“There is no telling what impact Anna Laura could have. It is amazing to me that some people still don’t know what autism is,” said Brayden’s mother, Wendy Ellis. “Alabama laws have changed and maybe the laws nationally can change also. This would help parents so much. It would be one thing they would not have to fight so hard for or worry about anymore.”
Wendy Ellis plans on traveling to Las Vegas for the pageant. With her she will bring a gift from Brayden for Bryan.
“It is a book recording in Brayden’s voice about a princess. It says that no matter whatever happens, Anna Laura is already a princess because of everything she has done and who she is,” Wendy Ellis said.
Bryan through the eyes of friends and family
William Bryan, brother: One word to describe Anna Laura is joyful. Everything she says and does, she’s just so happy, even if she’s had a stressful day. Of course she liked to pick on me, like big sisters do. My favorite memory with her was her winning Miss Alabama. That’s my most joyful memory with her.
Betty Jane Bryan, grandmother: She is very sweet and it is genuine. She’s also very determined and strong. Once she sets her mind to something, she’s going to do it. She was in a music program at church. She went up the steps with all the other children and stood right behind the microphone. About that time someone came along and moved the microphone down a couple of steps. Well, she just walked down the steps and took her place right behind the microphone. She’s been singing ever since.
Eva Carver, grandmother: She’s always been unique, in a good way. I knew that we had a star on our hands when she would pull out all of the potatoes in a can, flip the can over, stand on it and say, “Alright, I’ve got to sing. Y’all want to hear me sing?” She had to be 2 at the time. Who she is today comes a lot from her being a fine Christian. She is very giving and caring. There’s a spark that shows through her always and she’s being real, she’s always been that way.
John Vaughn, director of Morgan County’s Distinguished Young Women: I met Anna Laura when she was in my wife’s three-year-old choir. She loved to sing and she would sing at the top of her lungs. Then I taught her second-grade Sunday School class. She still loved to sing and she sang a lot louder than anyone else. As a senior in high school she represented Morgan County in the Junior Miss program. People ask why we changed the name from Junior Miss to Distinguished Young Woman. That is simple. It is because the word “distinguished” fits Anna Laura and our past participants so well. It has been amazing to see her grow and to know her today compared to where she was when she first started. She’s always been able to sing and perform, but the key element was her confidence. It all came together for her this year. It is so refreshing to see someone who has worked so hard for something. She wouldn’t give up.
Cindy Yates, longtime friend and neighbor: The first image of Anna Laura that enters my mind was when she was 3 years old. She had a boa around her neck, she was all dressed up and pulling a red wagon down the street. She was coming to see my son Grant. It was so funny. She was all dolled up. Anna Laura is an incredibly sweet, genuine, outgoing and warmhearted person.
Wendy Ellis, mother of Brayden Ellis: Anna Laura has done more for my daughter than I can say. She chose Brayden to be her rising star at the Miss Alabama pageant. That meant Brayden and Puah (Brayden’s autism service dog) walked out on stage with Anna Laura. I could never imagine my daughter doing that. After they walked off stage, all of the girls surrounded them. The other rising stars were more excited for Brayden than anything else. I think it hit Anna Laura all at once that it was a success. They did it together.
Amy Godwin, teacher and cheerleading coach: I first taught Anna Laura in sixth grade in my math class. She was truly a bright spot in my day. She would come in every day with the brightest smile and that wonderful glowing red hair. I do not think I have ever heard one negative thing come out of her mouth about anything or anyone and that is remarkable from a middle schooler and a high schooler. She finds the good in everything and everyone. I vividly remember us riding to Birmingham on a bus to an away football game and she had just finished one of her first pageants. As I recall, she did not win that particular one, but she said it was a great experience and something that she wanted to pursue. I told her, “Anna Laura, I have no doubt you will be Miss Alabama one day.” She humbly said, “Oh Mrs. Godwin, you are so sweet.” That is what I love about her, she is determined and humble. I have no doubt she will be the next Miss America - I am calling that one too.
Kathy Bryan, mother: I can’t describe it. I know she is Miss Alabama, but it really hit me Wednesday at the airport. She was checking in and everyone wanted to look at her crown and all the security guards wanted to get their picture with her. She was getting on a plane to go to Miss America. She looked at me and said, “This is my dream.” I said, “Well, you just go do it.” As her mother, I am so proud that she has stayed the same. Her values and her faith have never wavered. And she is so humble about all of it. She told me “I just want to do the very best I can do to represent the state. I know God has already orchestrated whoever wins perfectly.”
If you watch
What: The 86th Miss America pageant
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Judges: "Dancing With the Stars" champion Cheryl Burke; former "Entertainment Tonight" host Mary Hart; "Shark Tank" star Daymond John; "Good Morning America" weatherman Sam Champion; fashion designer Bradley Bayou; U.S. 2012 Olympic women's gymnastic team member McKayla Maroney; and 2009 Miss America Katie Stam Irk.
Bryan’s competition history
2008: Morgan County’s Junior Miss, now named Distinguished Young Woman.
2009: Miss Samford University. She was the first freshman to win the title. Made the top 10 at Miss Alabama. Won preliminary talent group.
2010: Miss Jefferson County. Made the top 11 at Miss Alabama. Won preliminary talent group.
2011: Miss Trussville. Made the top 10 at Miss Alabama. Won overall talent.
2012: Miss Hoover. Won overall talent. Won the title of Miss Alabama.
Quotes from Bryan through the years
Before the 2008 Alabama Junior Miss program: “My main focus is to just have a good time. If I go down there set on winning, I will miss out on a lot, so I will try to make a lot of friends, have a good time and make it a great growth experience.”
Before the 2009 Miss Alabama pageant: “Right now I’m not nervous, but I expect to get some jitters. This is the year to have fun and enjoy it and take what I learn to better myself for the next time.”
Before the 2010 Miss Alabama pageant: “It was very intimidating last year, but I’ve gone into it wanting to do my best and not trying to prove anything. Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to make a difference. The idea of possibly competing for Miss America doesn’t cross my mind. It’s about doing the servant’s job.”
Before the 2011 Miss Alabama pageant: “After two years, I know what the competition will be like and know what to expect. I have every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. I’m really excited and happy to be going again. It’s a great experience every year.”
After winning in June: “I was very comfortable with myself this year. It wasn’t one of those things where I was trying to make the judges like me. This is a competition — not against the other girls, but with yourself.”
Miss America Quiz
1. How many women compete in the Miss America pageant?
2. What location does not have a representative?
B. District of Columbia
C. Virgin Islands
D. Puerto Rico
3. How many Miss Alabama contestants have won Miss America?
4. How many viewers tuned in for the first live broadcast in 1954?
A. 1 million
B. 13 million
C. 27 million
D. 50 million
5. In 1997, for the first time since 1947, contestants could choose to wear a two-piece bathing suit. How many opted for a two-piece?
6. Which of these talents is banned from competition?
A. Acts with animals
B. Roller skating
7. How much money did 1926 winner Norma Smallwood make in special appearances?
8. Where did the Miss America pageant originate?
A. New York City
B. Atlantic City
C. Los Angeles
D. Las Vegas
9. Who has not hosted the Miss America pageant?
A. Matt Lauer
B. Kathy Lee Gifford
C. Tony Danza
D. Boomer Esiason
10. What state has never won a title?
11. What award did the winner of the first contest in 1921 compete for?
A. A cash prize of $5,000
B. A bronze cup
C. A Golden Mermaid trophy
D. Scholarship funds
12. In 1995, Miss Alabama Heather Whitestone, who had profound hearing loss, won Miss America. What was her talent?
D. Baton twirling
13. How many redheads have won Miss America?
14. On average, how many miles does Miss America travel a month?
15. How many runners-up have taken over the duties as Miss America?
6. A. In 1949, animal acts were banned after Miss Montana’s horse almost fell into the orchestra pit.
7. D. With $100,000, Smallwood made more than Babe Ruth and the president of the United States.
9. C. Other states and territories without a winner are Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
15. B. Miss America 1984 Vanessa Williams, the first African-American to win the title, resigned the title because of questionable photos. Suzette Charles took over, becoming the second African American to wear the crown.