A 23-year-old blonde from Brooklyn, N.Y., won the Miss America crown Saturday night after deftly dealing with a question about armed guards in schools and raising the issue of child sexual abuse in her contestant platform.
En route to her victory in the Las Vegas pageant, Mallory Hagan also tap danced to James Brown's "Get Up Off of That Thing," strutted down the runway in an asymmetrical white gown, and donned a revealing black string bikini.
The petite contestant defeated Miss South Carolina Ali Rogers, who took second, and Miss Oklahoma Alicia Clifton, who finished third.
She wins a $50,000 college scholarship and gets the crown for one year. Her platform, the issue she will promote during her reign, is fighting child sexual abuse.
In comments after winning her crown, she told The Associated Press that it was her mother who first suggested that for her official platform. She said that her mother, aunt, grandmother and cousins had suffered abuse, and 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."
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's boyfriend Charmel Maynard said he hopes her 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," said Maynard.
Hagan left her native Alabama for New York at 18 with less than $1,000 in her pocket. She began competing in pageants when she was 13 and tried for Miss New York in 2010 and 2011 before winning last year.
She has been living in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn and studying communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Hagan, who aspires to be a global cosmetic company executive, is the first Miss America from Brooklyn and the fourth from New York state. The previous winner from that state was actress Vanessa Williams, who became the first black winner when she took the crown in 1984.
She was good enough during preliminary Miss America contests to be chosen as one of 16 semifinalists who moved on to compete in the main show. Her bid lasted through swimsuit, evening wear, and talent competitions that saw cuts after each round.
Moments before she won, "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 was 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, 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 92nd Miss America annual show held this year at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip is the culmination of a week of preliminary competitions and months of preparations for the titleholders from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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 and civil rights have changed.
More recently, the rise of reality television has provided a superabundance of options for Americans interested in seeing attractive young people in competitive pursuits.