Miss Phenix City from a different city

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 1, 2014 

Meet Hayley Barber, Miss Phenix City.

She wears the crown, works to promote preventative eye care for the city's elementary school students and will represent Phenix City in the Miss Alabama pageant this summer.

Oh, and Miss Phenix City hails from Pelham, a Birmingham suburb that's a 2½-hour drive away.

Barber, 19 and a sophomore at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, is already preparing for her third run at Miss Alabama -- she finished in the top 10 in 2012 as Miss Tennessee Valley and the top 5 last year as Miss Jefferson County.

A win in Miss Alabama and Barber would find herself in the Miss America pageant -- representing Phenix City.

She has never lived in Phenix City, though since being crowned last July she calls it her second home, making frequent appearances and staying with local pageant director Gina Harper, or "Mama G."

This is the new reality for small Miss America qualifier pageants like Miss Phenix City, Harper said last week. Barber's residency was briefly questioned last month in a Phenix City Council work session discussion about a Children's Miracle Network roast of Mayor Eddie Lowe that will benefit Barber's pageant-related fundraising goal for the charity.

Harper will appear in front of a council work session on Monday to explain why Miss Phenix City isn't from Phenix City, and to seek the support of council as Barber chases her dream and Harper fights to keep the pageant and its 50-plus-year history alive. The city does not give any money to the Miss Phenix City pageant, though the $600 annual Miss Alabama fee is paid by the Phenix City/Russell County Chamber of Commerce.

"I fought the battle harder than anybody," Harper said. "At first, I didn't want an outsider to represent our town. I do this for the scholarship opportunities it offers the girls."

Most Phenix City girls are not interested in pursuing the title, and a diminishing interest in the arts is part of the reason, Harper said. "You just don't have the number of Phenix City girls interested in it -- a lot of them would rather play softball than learn the talent needed to compete," said Harper, whose daughter, Jamie Harper McConnell, was Miss Phenix City in 2007. Miss America rules require at least five contestants for a pageant to exist. Three years ago, Miss Phenix City opened its borders to allow Auburn University students to compete. It wasn't enough, so two years ago the boundary was widened to a 2½-hour drive from Phenix City. Last summer, 10 young women vied for the crown Barber won.

Like Phenix City, the Miss Columbus Scholarship Pageant has opened its borders, just not as wide. Miss Columbus restricts entry to those who reside in the 12-county Columbus trade area, according to the pageant's website.

"We couldn't fight it any more," Harper said, "and I didn't want to lose the franchise."

For being crowned Miss Phenix City, Barber, a tap dancer who won a Miss Alabama talent preliminary a year ago, received about $1,500 in scholarships. But she hasn't just taken her title and scholarship money and headed back up U.S. 280 to Pelham. She returns to Phenix City on a regular basis. Phenix City Councilman Chris Blackshear said the idea of an out-of-town representative clicked for him after a discussion with Harper. Blackshear knows the pageant well and has been a judge and master of ceremonies in various years.

"You have to look at it as a job interview for her," Blackshear said. "When she wins, she is basically an employee and ambassador for Phenix City, though she gets no pay."

Barber is a lifelong resident of the Birmingham area. "I really love coming to Phenix City," she said last week as she was snowed in. "It is like my second home because I have been coming there so much. I love the community, and 'Mama G' has been such a blessing in my life."

Barber has embraced an effort to make Phenix City a better place for its youngest citizens. Just ask Griff Gordy, a Phenix City optometrist who has been working with Barber to give comprehensive eye exams to Phenix City first-graders. It is her pageant platform -- and her passion. And Phenix City children are benefitting, Gordy said.

"She has a true desire to be as proactive as possible at making Phenix City a better community," he said. "This is extremely impressive to see due to the fact that she is a student at UAB and resides in the Birmingham area."

Barber has spoken to the Alabama Optometric Association board about introducing legislation to require children to have comprehensive eye exams before they enter school.

"On a local level I have worked with Hayley to present an opportunity for her and Gordy EyeCare to go to every first-grade class in the Phenix City School System and provide vision screeners so we can identify children who may have vision deficiencies," Gordy said. "The school board unanimously passed our request and we are presently coordinating dates with the school system's head nurse."

But Gordy sees more in this venture.

"It is rare to see the passion, drive and determination in a young person like I have seen in Hayley," said Gordy, a lifelong Phenix City resident. "Her commitment to Phenix City and to her platform 'Sight for Small Eyes' has reignited my passion in my profession and my community. I am extremely grateful for her commitment to our community."

Barber said she has been working to be a good representative of Phenix City.

"Miss Phenix City is so different from any other title that I have held," she said. "I have never made as many appearances as I have in Phenix City. And I think it is going to help me in Miss Alabama. But it has allowed me to serve and reach a lot of people."

And it could be a spring board to something bigger.

Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013, is a prime example of how someone can spring to a title on an unlikely path. Like Barber, Hagan was a veteran of the Alabama pageant circuit. A 2007 graduate of Opelika High School and former Auburn University student, Hagan moved to New York City. She became Miss Brooklyn, then Miss New York.

"That is exactly what I am talking about," Harper said. "People have to change their way of thinking."

Lowe, the mayor, said Harper's presentation to Phenix City Council is not a big issue.

"It is no big deal," he said. "We're going to do the roast in April. This pageant is a good thing for Phenix City -- and we want to continue to have it."

Blackshear, the Phenix City councilman, agrees.

"When you meet her, you can see why she was in the Top 5 last year," Blackshear said. "And when she walks across that stage at Miss Alabama, she will be Miss Phenix City -- not Miss Pelham. And if she were to win Miss Alabama, she would be Miss Phenix City. I don't see any way Phenix City loses in this."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service