By Mary Colurso | firstname.lastname@example.org
Brianna Burrell is ready to rule — with smarts and grace, heart and commitment, a devotion to her home state and a passion for science, math and technology.
She’s the new Miss Alabama, crowned on July 1 at Samford University’s Wright Center in Birmingham. Burrell competed as Miss Baldwin County, impressing the judges and earning the title after just two years in the Miss Alabama organization. She’ll move on to the Miss America pageant in January, representing her state for a national audience.
Burrell became the third Black woman ever to earn the Miss Alabama title in the contest’s 102-year history. The two previous winners were Kalyn Chapman James in 1993 and Tiara Pennington in 2019-2020. Pennington held the title for an extra year due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
AL.com caught up with Burrell just a few days into her reign as Miss Alabama, sitting down with her at the Tutwiler Hotel for a wide-ranging interview. Here are excerpts from that 90-minute conversation, which covered everything from Burrell’s affection for her hometown — she’s a Mobile native, and proud of it — to her thoughts on empowered women. (Former First Lady Michelle Obama is one of her celebrity role models.)
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You were crowned Miss Alabama on a Saturday night at the Wright Center [at Samford University]. When you woke up the next morning, what was your first thought?
Brianna Burrell: I was staring at the ceiling and I was just like, “Am I in a dream?” My ears were muffled by the pillow and I was staring at the ceiling, and I’m breathing and feeling the covers and I’m like, “Nope, this is real! I am here; I am Miss Alabama 2023.” It’s just a sense of awe, it’s a sense of accomplishment, and I’m just ready for those feelings, over and over and over, for the next 365 days.
You were probably up early that day, to get started on the job of interviews.
Yes, I was up at around 6 o’clock, and went to sleep the night before around 2 (a.m.), so it was just, like, a bounce-back. But I was grateful, and I knew I had a responsibility. OK, let’s get some tea, wake up and hit the ground running.
You’re the third Black woman to be named Miss Alabama in the history of the competition. Do you see that as a milestone?
Definitely. It’s another step toward a great future that’s representative of all demographics in the state of Alabama. I’m just grateful that I get to knock down another door, so it’s easier for those outside of me and outside of my year. They can just step into it. Hopefully, we’ll see more people of other demographics on that stage, because maybe they haven’t seen that representation. Now, because I’m here, they see other women that look like me, on this stage, they’re like, “OK, she did it; I can do it, too.”
Before the competition, you talked to Kalyn Chapman James, the first Black women to be named Miss Alabama. What did you discuss? Did she encourage you or give you tips?
Just seeing how she took her year to blaze a path for other people to come behind her, I took it as inspiration. She didn’t just do this for herself, she did it to better her community, to represent more people than just her. She gave me advice — this is what you should do to protect your hair, this is how you should choose your wardrobe, things like that. You should start reaching out to these people to make better connections. She had a lot of advice and wisdom that she poured into me, about maneuvering through this organization.
She is a native Mobilian, as well. She’s like a celebrity in our hometown. So when she called me up, I’m like, “Are you the real Kalyn Chapman James? How did you get my number? Oh, my goodness, I’m excited! Yes, let’s have lunch, let’s do lunch.” But I’m amazed and just grateful for her mentorship, to help me prepare for this moment in my life. … It was just that last little bit of encouragement that I needed before I was going to head off to the competition. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak with her. It was amazing.
You were born and raised in Mobile. What makes your hometown special?
Mobile is truly the people. It’s the home of Mardi Gras, and everyone loves to say that, but it’s truly about the people. You go there, and they may be a complete stranger, but they treat you like family. … It’s the culture of the people and the cuisine, the events that we have. It’s being a part of that community and knowing there are certain events that make Mobile what it is. Of course, we have Mardi Gras, but we also have our food fest, we have the Gulf Coast Challenge, we have the chili cook-off. It’s exciting when you know July is coming around, all right, it’s going to be the fireworks show at Battleship Memorial Park.
So it’s more than just close to the beach?
Now, that is a perk. It’s beautiful when you’re driving and you’re only 40 minutes from the beach, and you get to see the sunsets and the beautiful skylines. But it’s much more than just the beach.
What do you think about the food in Mobile?
It is amazing to have such fresh cuisine, when they literally catch it in the back of the restaurant and put it straight to your plate. It’s amazing.
Your Miss Alabama bio says you like to cook. Tell us about that.
I do. I come from a family of cooks. My dad, my mom — which is surprising, and he’s breaking gender norms — my dad is the main cook in the household. Seeing him wake up in the morning and cook us breakfast, or cook us dinner, and just use every pot, dish, spoon you can think of. It’s just that home feeling, that fellowship, where we get to gather around a huge table of food and just eat, be merry and have fun.
Do you have a favorite dish to cook, or a go-to dish that everyone likes?
There’s something that I always make with my friends. It’s called “Bay-ffalo Dip.” Most people are used to Buffalo Chicken Dip, but I twisted it into my own Bri version. It’s called “Bay-ffalo,” being that I’m on the bay. I’m using Conecuh sausage and deer sausage, because my dad is also a hunter. Then I’m also using crawfish and shrimp, as well, with some cheddar, Monterey, spicy Colby-Jack, all different types of cheeses, and ranch. You put it in the oven, 350 (degrees) for about 20 minutes and it comes out nice and crispy. You can either eat it by itself or with some crackers, on bread, delicious.
It’s like a casserole?
A casserole kind of dish, perfect for game days or just dinner. I’m telling you, it’s amazing. You heard it here first. That’s the one thing people ask me for. Don’t ask me to cook a turkey; don’t ask me to cook anything else. But they want the Bay-ffalo Dip.
You’re a graduate of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, where you majored in political science and biology, correct?
Yes. Go, Jags!
Why was that the right school for you?
Well, surprisingly enough, I had planned to go to Auburn University. That was my dream school. My aunt lived up there, so we would visit her, and I loved it. But there were some things that happened, and I had to do a shift, really quick. And even though South wasn’t my first option, I started to grow to love the university. I had family who went there, and you know, the university was in my backyard, so I could go to the games any time.
After I did my first official tour, I was, “There’s more to this university than meets the eye.” After a month or two of tossing between Auburn University and South, I made the decision and made the switch from Auburn. I went to South Alabama and I’m so glad that I did. I fell in love with it the first day on campus and I am grateful to say the I bleed red, white and blue.
You mentioned gameday and the Jaguars. You must be a football fan?
Oh, yes. I mean, you have to be in the South.
As a football fan, how do you feel that your school isn’t on the same level as the Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers?
Even though it’s not up there with the Crimson Tide or Auburn University’s team, it’s making a name for itself. It’s one of the youngest here in the South, even when I was going there. In the seven years they had the program, they started to make a name for themselves. They started to put the talent in their work in the Sunbelt Conference, and they were fighting every year to get that title.
I’m proud of the Jags back home and coach Kane (Wommack) right now. He’s doing an amazing job. Last year, the talent was phenomenal. Every game, it was either going into overtime or it was such a close game. I was proud to lose my voice at those games.
Did you have a gameday routine?
Yes! So, actually, for a couple of years, I cheered at South Alabama. The game day routine was waking up, putting on my favorite song getting ready, teasing my hair, making sure my curls are poppin,’ and calling, checking in with the team, seeing if anything’s changed, getting on the bus, heading down to Ladd-Peebles. That’s not part of the gameday routine anymore, because they have the new stadium, Hancock Whitney.
We would have this thing called the Prowl. The team would come out and the cheerleaders, the community, the students, faculty, staff, the entire city of Mobile, they’re out there, cheering on those Jags, giving them that last push and that last hype moment before they hit that field. It was amazing. If we didn’t win or even if we did win, the Prowl was my favorite part of the gameday.
You plan to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama, studying educational administration, correct?
Yes, I’m trading my red, white and blue for red and white, crimson and white. I was looking at different universities throughout the state, and their master’s program in educational administration really tied me into their university. I started to research it more, and all that I have to do, and I made that call and put in my application. So I’ll be attending online for my master’s.
But you’ll defer for a year?
Yes, while I’m serving as Miss Alabama.
Do you think your football allegiance will change? Can you have allegiances to two different schools?
I think I can have two. It’s just like you have friends. You don’t have friends that you love more, one than the other, right? So I’ll still root for my Jags, but I guess I gotta get ready to root for the Crimson Tide, too.
Do you think you’ll start saying, “Roll Tide”?
“Roll Tide!” Yes, I will.
Tell us about your career goals in education.
After receiving my master’s, I want to start working in curriculum development. A lot of my community service has been developing curriculum that is applicable to the real world for the students, but also engaging, interactive, creative — things that they don’t see, usually or traditionally, in the classroom. Where they can have career exploration or just a hobby.
I would love to work in curriculum development and hopefully work my way to becoming a principal. Then I would love to go to law school and get a degree in child advocacy law, as well.
Your community service work relates to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), and boosting those topics in schools. Why did you choose STEM?
I guess I’m a little bit of a nerd or a geek, but that’s OK. I grew up and I was very curious. I wanted to see how things worked. I was this kid who was taking things apart and, “Oh, this is what it looks like on the inside.” I would take apart radios, TVs, pens, anything I could get my hands on. Some of my dad’s tools — he doesn’t know that — but I put them back together, and they worked. So I was doing something right.
But I was very inquisitive, and I had a natural ability with my hands, and my parents picked up on this. Instead of destroying the stuff in their house, you know, they put me in extracurricular activities after school, and enrolled me in a magnet school that focused on science, technology and math. But even in that moment, I was the only person of color and the only girl in those spaces. At times, being so young, I was fearful of speaking out or saying my thoughts on things or showing what I could do, because I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t look like the other people around me who were getting those accolades.
But I had friends, who said, “That’s so cool. I do that, too, but I don’t want to sign up for it.” I was like, “Why not? You come join me and we can work together and be in those spaces so they can know how to work with people who are different than them and other than them.” Even in my community and my family, my family didn’t have those opportunities that my parents awarded to me and my siblings.
How did your interest in STEM lead to community service?
I saw that there was a need for community service for advocacy in these areas, so students who resembled me who didn’t have those opportunities were able to have access to that. From then on, I volunteered for the Girls Clubs; I volunteered at Girls in Engineering Math and Science, and I saw that there was a lack of accessibility. It wasn’t that the students weren’t interested in it; they just didn’t have the resources. They didn’t have the opportunity to explore in those areas.
It’s amazing to see how their eyes light up when they realize, “I like this; I’m good at this; I want to pursue this.” And then when they see there are careers in those fields, they’re like, “I want to do that. I want to be that.” It gives them another opportunity to dream bigger and to want more for their life.
I’m just grateful that in the short years I have been really focused on this community service, that I’ve seen the turnaround in my students, in their behavior, how they act in the classroom, even how they act at the Boys and Girls Club. They are natural-born leaders; they just had to have that push, that door open. That’s what really drives my community service, to make sure I’m opening the doors to new frontiers for those students.
Isn’t it scary to think that girls are still afraid to raise their hands in class? Or that they’re hesitant to say, “I’m interested in chemistry or engineering”?
I know for me, it was something that wasn’t seen as cute or glamorous, or something that women did. But I was like, “I don’t care. I’m good at it and I enjoy doing it.” So I want to instill that mindset into the students, that your life shouldn’t be dictated by the words or the opinions of other people. If you have a passion to go at it, 100 percent, wholeheartedly. And make sure that the things that you’re good at, that you’re committed to them, but you’re also committed to pouring back to other people and to the society. So it’s not just you that’s being benefited, but other people.
So part of your goal is to change mindsets, the way kids think about science and math.
Yes, and not just for kids, but for adults as well. Part of my community service is increasing representation in the STEM field. Many times we highlight Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, but we forget to highlight people like James West (who invented the electret microphone, which advanced the sound industry).
We have inventors like Valerie Thomas, even though she had a struggle growing up with her education, she was a NASA engineer, and just through happenstance, when she created the illusion transmitter, she also created 3-D movies.
When we highlight these people of color, when we highlight these women making strides in communities where that representation hasn’t been, we get to inspire the next group of innovators and thinkers and doers. Who knows what they can create to push us to better frontiers?
Now you’ve got us thinking about the movie “Hidden Figures” and Lonnie Johnson, the guy who invented the Super Soaker.
I love Dr. Johnson; he’s actually a native Mobilian. To have that history circle back to Mobile, I’m like, “Yeah, whoo! Get to represent again!”
Do you have lots of trophies at home, maybe earned at science events while growing up?
Well, I now have a room of ribbons, medals, trophies, plaques and certificates that I’m grateful to look back and see the accomplishments. But also see the path that I’ve gone on, from that little girl in middle school to right now as Miss Alabama. I know that little girl in middle school wouldn’t believe you, if you told her that she was going to be Miss Alabama one day. But just to see that full experience, it’s just a great pat on the back, really.
Did you ever invent anything?
Well, aside from the Bay-ffalo Dip (laughs) … There are a few hacks that I use here and there, that eased my life. … Really, that’s all engineering is, where you see a problem, you’re frustrated by it, and you find the quickest, most creative way to solve it.
Are you a super-organized person?
I would say there’s a balance. Usually my work area is super-organized, because I know that’s the things I’m focused on. But sometimes my closet can get a little messy, you know — on laundry days, specifically. But I do like to say that I am chaotically organized.
BEING MISS ALABAMA
What are some things you want to do with your year as Miss Alabama?
I know that there are a lot of museums here in Birmingham that I would love to highlight as part of the educational explorations. I would love to collaborate with the McWane Center, hopefully host a project workshop where I can maybe invite some kids from the community and they can have fun. We can pass out tiaras or something to the girls and they can see that there’s a cross between the queen life, but also the STEM life.
I would love to start making some career expos and show the career exploration side of STEM, where high school students can start thinking about those things and start planning goals and paths for their lives, where they’re like, “Oh, OK, I can do this. I can mix my love of music with my love of engineering,” and things like that.
I would love to continue to expand on my book, not just for K through 5, but for middle schoolers, so they can enjoy it. My book is more kid-targeted for a younger group of students, where they can have that exploration and representation, and learn about things and people who look like them, and learn about people who don’t look like them.
I would love to continue to work with AMSTI (Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) and the governor’s advisory council for STEM advocacy, to make sure the curriculum isn’t just for my year, but for years to come. So we can see that change, so by 2050, those STEM jobs that are going to be available, in cyber security and bio-mechanics, they’re available and they are ready to be filled by graduates who are going to be leaving and are going to be inspired by my curriculum, and want to push us to those advancements in STEM.
Tell us a little more about your book.
It’s called “Investigation Nation.” After my research of curriculum, I decided to consolidate it to where I can easily converse with students about a group of inventors. It’s formatted in a cartoon setting, in alphabetical order, from A to Z, so they can have a mnemonic way of remembering these STEM images of color.
We can talk about Lonnie Johnson, a native Mobilian, he was also a NASA engineer and then created the Super Soaker, and made summers just a blast. We can jump down to Valerie Thomas, we can jump to Philip Downing, who created the tracks that change how trains go, but he also invented the post box. So that blue thing you see bolted to the ground, that wasn’t always a thing, and he invented it. We can jump over to Alfred Cralle, who Invented the ice cream scoop. I think everyone needs to give him a round of applause. I mean, I love ice cream, and I can get it faster? Great.
I also hold project or experiment workshops that highlight one invention or one person in the book, so the kids can also remember and be involved with what they just learned about. I’m excited to expand that, hopefully as a coloring book or a chapter series, and all of the sales go back to the teachers in the community. We donate if they have a need for more goggles or lab coats or gloves — anything that I can provide for the classroom to make their learning time easier and smoother, the better.
Why did you want to be part of the Miss Alabama Organization?
I was actually searching for ways to further my education, and I was looking for scholarships, I was looking for programs that wouldn’t be as burdensome to myself and my parents. And I happened upon the Facebook post for a preliminary two years ago. The first preliminary I competed in was Miss Mobile Bay. I did some research and thought it was just a community pageant. But I saw that it was a preliminary for Miss Alabama and in return, Miss America.
I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to get into Miss America. That’s, like, a real-deal thing.” But once I saw the pillars that it stood for, the accomplishments that it helped provide for other young women searching for ways to further their community service, I thought, “This is something that I could see myself doing.” I’m already doing the community service; I’m looking for ways to further my education. Well, why not?
You were named first runner-up in 2022. That was your first year competing for Miss Alabama?
Yes, my first year. But it shows that once you put your mind to something, anything is possible. When they called my name for first runner-up, it was kind of like God nudged, like “OK, you got this close, with just this. How far more can you go?” I was like, “OK, all right,” so I hit the ground running again. I reflected on my community service and my plan, I went even farther, I went even harder, and now here I am.
Are there any pageant people in your family?
No, my sister has done some modeling, so I’m used to the modeling world, but no pageants. I did a high school pageant, and I did a pageant in college. But other than that, no. I did do Distinguished Young Women, but that’s a different system. … The true organization of Miss America, I did not do. And just by happenstance, I saw that Facebook post. And I was just, like, “Let’s do it!”
Miss Alabama contestants tend to be achievers, so …
They’re all so accomplished. We have nurses working in the NICU, we had those who are pursuing their master’s, getting their doctorate from the University of Florida. It’s not just all about the beauty, even though that’s an amazing thing to encompass — to feel beautiful and dress up — but you also are a woman of substance and stature and you’re doing things that are going to create better futures and make a huge impact on your community. So I’m just grateful to stand alongside of them.
Miss Alabama and Miss America talk about nurturing strong and empowered women. Do you think of yourself as a feminist?
I think of myself as a woman with a goal. I don’t like to put labels on things, but if that fits as the definition of a feminist, then yes. If it doesn’t, then OK. I’m just a person, a woman who has a goal and I want to see it accomplished, so I can better the community and the society, towards better futures.
Why should other women consider getting involved with Miss Alabama?
Take it from me, my experience and my story: It is an organization that will better you. Just stepping into it, you have to have a plan, so it pushes you to start thinking about: What can I offer to the world? It’s a self-reflection moment. What am I passionate about? What plans do I have to achieve? What goals do I have for myself, professionally and personally? So just from signing up alone, you are already working toward a better you.
It’s an amazing opportunity to gain scholarship dollars and further finance your educational goals. In just my two years alone, I’ve gotten approximately $29,000 in scholarship money that I can use to clear my student loan debt, but also gain another degree.
If you don’t want the crown, if you don’t want to win, you can win in another area and further your education. It also allows you to meet and become friends and create relationships with some amazing women. And who wouldn’t want a great sister — one who challenges you to do more and be better — but who also supports you in those down moments, where you just walk in and you want to cry? You don’t even have to say a word, but they’re there for you, in the highs and the lows. This organization is going to better you. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
What’s your response to people who say Miss Alabama is outdated and irrelevant? Or that it’s all about being pretty?
I would say, ‘Have you researched the organization? Can you tell me the pillars of the organization? What year have you competed? What was your involvement in the organization? Have you donated money to the scholarships they provide? Have you reached out for community service?’ I’ll hit them with questions, because that shows they’re not knowledgeable about what this organization is truly for.
FORCE FOR UNITY
Our state seems very polarized right now. There are many social and political issues that divide us. How can Miss Alabama be a force for unity when the people you’re going to meet are so divided?
Well, first we have to step in unbiased. We can’t come in with, ‘Oh, this is what I’m going to say because they believe this.’ We have to be a listening ear, listening to receive rather than respond. So many times when everyone is talking, no one is hearing. And if we have those tough conversations, they are going to be jaw-clenching. They are going to be breathtaking.
But we have to be prepared to have the conversations. We know what the past is like. Let’s talk about it, see how it can play out in the present and then go and try to do better in the future. But really having those conversations and sitting with people who don’t look like us, reaching across the table to people who don’t come from the same communities as we do — that is what is going to help us to be more united.
It’s recognizing that everyone is different, and that’s OK. Let’s see how we can take our differences and work toward one united goal.
Is this a good time to be a woman in the state of Alabama?
Yes, because with the challenges we face, it’s the time for women to rise up, voice their opinions, fight for their rights and be able to say, “I gave and contributed to the state, to the betterment and quality of life in the state.” So don’t look at it and be fearful, look at it and be moved, be motivated to challenge what we have faced in times past, so we can create a great present and an even better future.
People are usually excited to meet Miss Alabama. You’re a public figure now. Are you going to be on point with everything — your clothes, your makeup, your hair, whatever else — when you walk out the door?
I’m a public figure now, so it is one of the goals. I may not be done up to the nines every time, but maybe to the eights or sevens. You know, where I am presenting myself in a fashion where I am ready for anything, at any time — whether that be at the grocery store or the gym. But it’s also encouraging me to make sure that I’m ready for anything. Expect the unexpected.
Little girls tend to look at Miss Alabama like she’s a Disney princess. Are you ready for that?
It’s so sweet. I’ve always worked with children, so I love seeing their faces light up, even without the crown. But now they’re zoned in for it. They’re not even looking at my face. They’re like, “Where’s the crown? It’s so sparkly, and I want to touch it, and oh, my goodness!”
But it’s those moments where they remember, oh, I met this Miss Alabama when I was this years old. And I got to talk to her and plant that seed, and maybe we have a future Miss Alabama. Or if she wants to join the (Alabama’s) Rising Stars program or the (Miss Alabama’s) Teen program, it’s just encouraging young girls to reach for the stars.
Preparing for the Miss America competition is part of what you’ll do this year. Any thoughts on that? Is it a big deal?
Miss America, that’s a pretty big deal, a national representative. I’m ready to take the work that I’ve done these past two years, and expand it to broader boundaries across the state, and hopefully across the nation. I’m excited to see what Miss America is going to look like over the next couple of years.
You sang “Alabaster Box” for your talent at Miss Alabama. Do you have vocal training or did you grow up singing in church?
I am a pastor’s kid, so singing in church wasn’t really an option for me. It was, “OK, you’re leading worship; let’s see.” But I’m grateful that it’s something that I love doing, and I’m blessed to have the talent and the skill. When I saw there was a talent portion, I was just, “Yes! I get to show another part of who I am.” It’s more than just the community service and the style; I also have a skill of singing. It’s also a way to spread something that’s very close to me, my faith.
I was wracking my brain. What to sing? Should I go with show tunes? Do I do Broadway, musical theater? Should I do rock, pop? What is it that shows who Bri is, and what she loves? I settled on “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans, one of my favorite gospel singers and one of my favorite songs across all genres.
But the thing is, it’s a six-minute song, and there are different pieces and movements of the song. So I’m like, “How can I get this entire message and story down to 90 seconds?” But it was successful. I worked with a music producer to cut the music down, and the rest was history. I won the talent preliminary last year and this year. I’m just grateful I was able to use that platform and that stage to talk about a message of faith.
Have you ever sung the national anthem? Miss Alabama typically gets asked to do that.
Oh, yes, I sing that back home all the time, for different appearances, whether it be a ballgame, tennis, sporting event, military things. I’ve practiced multiple times, so I’m ready.
Do you have a celebrity role model?
Yes! It has to be Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama or Zendaya. Michelle because she’s just such a powerful woman. She has initiatives; I’ve seen her follow through with them. But she’s such a light spirit, a welcoming spirit, with an amazing sense of fashion. Oh, my goodness! And she’s tall, so Michelle, if you want to lend me some clothes …
And then, of course, Zendaya, she is such an amazing woman in her craft. She’s an amazing person with children. I grew up with her, so she feels like a sister or a cousin. She also has an amazing sense of fashion and amazing initiatives that she’s breaking out with in her communities. I am just truly inspired by them.
(Note: Brianna Burrell stands 6 feet tall and says she loves to wear heels, 4 inches or higher. “I’m averaging 6′4,” to be honest,” Burrell says. “But I embrace it. Why not be taller, above average? That’s what I strive for.”
This may seem like a strange question, since you were born and raised in Alabama, but do you feel Southern?
Oh, definitely. I love a good warm day with a glass of sweet tea. I love being around my family and having laughs that just fill the entire room, maybe even outside if someone’s driving by. I love cooking and cuisine, and the food that we have is the best in the nation. The West Coast, they have their food, and they have Italian food up North, a melting pot of food in New York. But there’s something about the South. You can feel the love in the food. They don’t use measurements, they just, “Um, OK, that’s enough.”
I don’t think I have an accent, but sometimes I’ll slip in a “y’all” here or there. I’m proud to represent the South. Everything’s bigger in the South. And better.