Miss Alabama, A Champion for Ambition: Lauren Bradford ’21

Miss Alabama, A Champion for Ambition: Lauren Bradford ’21

Miss Alabama wears the crown to teach young girls their dreams are possible

Lauren Bradford plays violin at Miss Alabama

For months, Lauren Bradford ’21 woke up to her 6 a.m. alarm every day to get ready for her morning classes. She drank black coffee, slung her backpack over her shoulder and walked to Lowder Hall class. Like most Spring 2021 graduates, she walked across the stage in Jordan-Hare stadium to receive her diploma, but only a few weeks later, she was crowned Miss Alabama 2021. Now, instead of waking up for finance classes, she wakes up for interviews with FOX news and al.com.

Auburn Magazine: You won Miss Alabama on June 12, 2021, and since then, you moved from Gulf Shores to Birmingham. How are you doing? Are you getting much sleep?

Lauren Bradford: I’m doing well! Last night, I got a solid four hours of sleep because I got back late from an event and had to wake up early for an interview. I didn’t realize I would be traveling so much, and I didn’t know that it takes 30 minutes to get around Birmingham!

AM: When did you know that you wanted to compete for Miss Alabama?

 LB: I grew up in Gulf Shores, Ala., where pageants are almost non-existent. I grew up as a tomboy, a skateboarder and a member of ROTC at my high school. I didn’t know about the pageant world until I competed in Miss Gulf Shores High School, where I somehow won as a freshman. Even in that small process, what drew me in the most was my personal growth and representing something bigger than myself.

AM: In 2018, you won the title of Miss Auburn University after being on campus for only one monthwhat did you learn from that experience

LB: I competed at the Miss Auburn University pageant as a freshman because I knew the scholarship opportunities were awesome—I never expected to win when I was just 18 years old! It was a gift to be challenged as a freshman on Auburn’s campus, and it showed me what it means to represent a group of people—not just the students, but the intergenerational family that came with it. To represent something so special was what first gave me a taste of what it’s like to be Miss Alabama. When I represented Auburn University at Miss Alabama in 2019, I did all of the legwork, but this past year, I got to focus on preparing my heart for the possibility of stepping into this role.

“This past year, I got to focus on preparing my heart for the possibility of stepping into this role.”

Lauren Bradford shakes Governor Kay Ivey's hand as Miss Auburn University
Bradford meeting Alabama Governor Kay Ivey ’67 in 2021

AM: Over the past several years, you have had to give up your time and energy for Miss Alabama, even if that meant saying ‘no’ to social events and vacations during college. Would all of that sacrifice and hard work have been worth it if you didn’t win the crown this year?

LB: No matter what would have happened this year, I would have walked away feeling like a winner because I have [felt] myself grow so much. And, I have earned more than $86,000 in cash scholarships through my time competing in the Miss Alabama program, and it has allowed me to graduate debt-free and to pursue my masters of finance at Vanderbilt, and this would have been true regardless of winning the crown. I’ve also learned skills that I will be able to transfer into the professional world of finance, and I will have confidence going into my career field. 

Walking into Miss Alabama this year, I already knew [because of that] that I was a winner—I’m so thankful that the Lord took away the mindset of ‘needing’ to win, because that takes away what you gain from the experience as a whole. I was at peace during the week leading up to Miss Alabama because of this new mindset—it was all because of Him!

AM: You’ve played violin since you were 10 years old. Tell me about your violin talent and the song that you chose to perform at Miss Alabama this year.   

LB: I had to hone in on playing my violin this year because I was playing a new piece, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie “Titanic.” It was a challenge because I had never played anything like it before. I chose that song because I learned the true story of the string quartet that unanimously decided to keep playing their instruments as the ship was sinking, and I think many Alabamians feel like we are in a time where our ships are sinking after the pandemic. I wanted to bring a message of hope and encouragement to the Miss Alabama stage. I needed to make sure that I was not only able to play the song well, but that I could effectively showcase the message behind it.

Lauren Bradford is crowned

AM: A big part of your job is speaking to people. Did you always have this skill, or did you have to learn it?

LB: My three siblings and I grew up without a phone until we go to high school. Waiting to get a phone allowed me time to dream and focus on things that are important to me, like gaining social skills, and I might not have learned this if I had a phone that I was glued to. I remember when I was a freshman in high school, I was at a tennis match and I saw a family friend on the opposing team, and we had a five-minute conversation. I went back to my team, and the girl sitting next to me looked at me with wide eyes and asked how I had a conversation with an adult.

I didn’t realize that that is a challenge for my generation, so that is something that I’ve learned to fight for with my social impact initiative ‘UNPLUG: digital diet plan’, which raises awareness for the need of having a technologically balanced lifestyle and avoiding technology overuse. I might not have developed my conversation skills if I had a phone that I was glued to!

AM: You have spent two years with a younger girl that you mentored through the Miss Alabama Rising Stars program. What have you learned through this role?

LB: I have been changed by the mentorships that the organization has given me, and now that I am in a place to mentor younger girls, I understand the weight of it. They are human beings who are at a pivotal age, and I love that I get to carry the title of ‘role model’ for them!

AM: At Miss America this December, what do you want the judges to see in you?  

LB: I want them to see that I am anchored in my values, and that I’m not afraid of ambition. We live in a culture where youth are scared of ambition, and it might even be unpopular to be seen as ambitious. Young people don’t have to be afraid of their ambition, or afraid to chase their dreams, regardless of what their peers are doing. I want to be the Miss Alabama that champions ambition and shows that on the Miss America stage.

“I want to be the Miss Alabama that champions ambition and shows that on the Miss America stage.”

Chef Matt Pace ’07: Cooking Up Success

Chef Matt Pace ’07: Cooking Up Success

He took the Big Easy to the Big Apple, then beat Bobby Flay at his own game

Matt Pace

Surrounded by the Cajun creole cuisine of his hometown New Orleans, Matt Pace ’07 grew up with an innate passion for food. While he spent his childhood watching the Food Network and experimenting in the kitchen, he certainly never anticipated becoming a chef – let alone one of the few chefs to beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV show “Beat Bobby Flay.”

After bleeding orange and blue at many Auburn football games and homecomings alongside his dad, Leon Pace ’78, deciding to attend Auburn was a no-brainer for Pace. A man of many talents, Pace was on the lacrosse team, involved in the art department and sang karaoke at Rooster’s with friends. “Karaoke is what got me through my last year and senior project work,” said Pace with a laugh.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a focus in painting and an open mind for his future. While his parents lived in Nigeria for work, Pace moved to New York on a whim to support his younger brother, who was starting college at St. Johns in Queens. He made bright, graffiti-based art for a while and tried out DJing before realizing his true calling – food.

“I’m still making art, just with food instead of paint,” he said. “Being a chef is being able to be creative and tell a story with different ingredients to make somebody feel something.”

Pace went back to New Orleans, taking cooking classes and honing in on the core of Cajun creole cuisine. He returned to New York, attended restaurant management school and opened his pop-up restaurant Booqoo Beignets. Fame and success came fast to him when he opened Café Booqoo, blowing up the food scene by bringing New Orleans to New York. The restaurant was such a hit that he once had a line out the door and customers offering to wipe up dirty tables so they could try his food. Pace added, “It was stressful but I loved it.”

On the success of Café Booqoo, The Food Network tracked him down and asked him to cook on the hit show “Beat Bobby Flay.” As he walked onto the set, Pace threw beads up into the crowd as he’d done many times in the streets of New Orleans. But the nerves really set in when he had to cook against Flay. “He’s an Iron Chef with multiple restaurants, and he rarely loses.”

The dish Pace chose for the final battle was a fried lobster po’boy, something he had cooked hundreds of times in his life. The pressure was on — and much worse than he’d anticipated from watching the show.

“When you’re on the show, it’s quiet. It’s just the studio audience staring at you, the sounds of cooking and the clock ticking down.”

When it was all said and done, the judges announced Pace was the winner by unanimous decision.

“The whole experience was surreal, I was shaking. You can see it on my face, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I always felt like I was one of those people that gives themselves their own name calling themselves a chef. After the win, I realized I beat an internationally-known ‘Iron Chef’ celebrity, and no one can take that from me.”

When “Beat Bobby Flay” was over, Pace began trying to find a new spot for Café Booqoo in New York. Its location was anything but ideal, in a mostly industrial area with minimal foot traffic throughout the day. However, in 2019 Pace decided to close the doors to Café Booqoo in pursuit of new ventures.

About two weeks after closing, love struck and he met his girlfriend, Thani, from Germany.

He plans to move to Germany soon and open a new restaurant there, sticking to authentic Cajun creole cuisine while catering to the German palette.

“Now I have a better chance of a place with a little more longevity and less competition for the kind of food I want to be doing.”

“Now I have a better chance of a place with a little more longevity and less competition for the kind of food I want to be doing.”

Aisha Stroud ‘09: Banker by day, DJ Gorgeous by night

Aisha Stroud ‘09: Banker by day, DJ Gorgeous by night

Why quit your day job for a passion project when you can do both?

Aisha Stroud 09

Aisha Stroud ‘09 works in indirect funding at America’s First Credit Union by day and DJs for weddings, corporate events, nightclubs and parties by night.

Stroud decided in 2005 while at Auburn that she wanted to explore DJing. Because she had always had a love of music and even started her own dance team at Auburn called Younique, she thought her musical talents would take her far.

There were very few female DJs at the time, so Stroud studied under Auburn local DJ Hardwork while learning the ins and outs of the job. She would meet with him after class and learn more and more about what it meant to be a successful DJ.

She performed on Auburn’s campus several times, as well as the local skating rink. There she learned that DJing was not only something she enjoyed, but something she was good at.

A year before graduating from Auburn in 2009, Stroud wanted to change her major from engineering to something new, so she sat down with her counselor to discuss the best course of action to ensure she could graduate as soon as possible.

Looking at the classes she had already completed, her options were limited. Having to choose between anthropology and organic gardening, she chose to graduate in anthropology, a decision that would later help her understand how Human Resource Management works.

“A lot of the things I learned in anthropology tie into what I do and what I learned in human resources,” Stroud said. “Anthropology is the study of life and you need to be able to understand the philosophy of life to understand different kinds of people.”

Having worked at Auburn Bank for two years while she was in school, Stroud went straight to work at Wells Fargo for five years after graduating before starting at her current position at America’s First Credit Union, where she plans to move into HR in the next few years.

Stroud connects her college studies to what she does now by learning to understand people better. Studying anthropology allowed her to master interacting with all kinds of people — a skill she uses every single day. Because she was focused on graduating school, she lost track of DJing her last few years of college, but picked it back up in 2012 when she was working at Wells Fargo. Now, as DJ Gorgeous, she has been consistently DJing and building her brand for the last six years.

DJ Gorgeous performing in Birmingham.

“College was where I learned how to DJ. Auburn prepared me for what I do now because I learned how to conduct business in the most professional way. It’s where I grew up from being a teen girl to an adult woman.”

When she first started off in 2012, she took just about any gig she could get. With her current popularity, she is now able to be more selective, mainly performing for weddings and parties. Some of her regular gigs include performing at a local sports bar and Top Golf in Huntsville, but for the most part she sticks to DJing weddings and private events.

Stroud hopes to inspire others in everything she does by showing that it’s never too late to follow your dreams and accomplish your goals.

Helen Krauss Leslie ’43

Helen Krauss Leslie ’43

World War II put a quiet end to her time at Auburn, but 70 years later her spirit is as strong as ever

Helen Leslie '43 present day

In her condo building, on the shores of St. Petersburg, they call her “War Eagle.” Outside her door is an inscription of the Auburn Creed beside a porcelain tiger draped in orange and blue, a hard hat from the groundbreaking of Lowder Hall of the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business over its ears. Parked nearby is her blue car with orange stripes, perfectly matched to Auburn’s official colors.

“People in my building seem to know I’m from Auburn,” said Helen Krauss Leslie ’43. For more than 70 years Leslie has been as dedicated an alumna as they come, an astonishing thought for someone who had never heard of the place before her freshman year. “The first thing that I ever heard about Auburn was when my brother was a student at Georgia Tech; I went up to a football game and they were playing somebody called Auburn. I didn’t know who Auburn was, or where it was. Then my brother went to Auburn for a summer course and he calls my dad and says it’s a good place for me. That’s how I got there.”

Helen Leslie was born Helen Krauss in New Jersey in 1921, but moved with her family to Palmetto, Fla., in 1923, then just up Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg in 1929. She remembers not wanting to immediately go to college after high school, intending to be a “concert pianist, or something radical,” but decided to continue studying at a St. Petersburg College, a junior college close to home, taking basic courses in typing and shorthand.“Then, when my brother made me go to Auburn, I got on a train right downtown in St. Pete,” Leslie said. “I had no idea where I was going. Took an hour and a half to get to Tampa, we backed into the train station in Tampa, then took off, stopped in Albany and from there went to Opelika.”

Leslie vividly remembers her mother’s last, stern warning when she arrived in Opelika: don’t take a ride with anybody; it didn’t last. “When I got to Opelika there was a lady there seeing a student off to Atlanta and she said to me, ‘I bet you’re going to Auburn, aren’t you?’ I said, yes I am. She said ‘well, I’ll take you to Auburn,’ which she did, and dropped me off at the train station.”

Though she had arrived in Auburn, she didn’t know where Auburn was. Departing on foot from the Auburn train station, she made her way through downtown “looking for Auburn,” with little luck. “A couple people when I went by and they said ‘hey!’ I thought ‘well, they’re not talking to me, they don’t know me,’ [so] I turned around and looked and there was nobody behind me. That was my introduction to Auburn.”

The Alabama Polytechnic Institute Leslie arrived at in the Spring of 1941 was dramatically different from today, with only 4,000 students (3,000 men to 1,000 women), limited transportation and a familial insularity around town that affected all walks of life.

Leslie’s was the first wave of students to live in the new dormitories that now comprise the Quad, back when roads around it were still unpaved red clay. Outside, behind what later was the fraternity houses, was the drill field where ROTC cadets practiced, much to the enthusiasm of female students who watched from their doorsteps.

“That, for me, was quite an experience. We were very proud of the soldiers when they marched over the fields there in practice, cannons and all.”

“That, for me, was quite an experience. We were very proud of the soldiers when they marched over the fields there in practice, cannons and all.”

Helen Krauss Leslie circa 1943

In each of the four dorms was a ballroom-style basement that served as sorority headquarters and event space; Leslie was in Theta Upsilon when they became Delta Zeta, which, like most Greek institutions at the time, promoted wholesome, conservative values—sometimes competitively. “The sororities used to have a campaign on how many people they could get to Sunday School or church on a particular Sunday, so we’d walk from one to another trying to get more churches in. [We’d] at least get to two in one day.”

Though women were no longer shepherded from dorm to classroom and immediately back, there were still plenty of stringent rules governing female students that, seemingly, didn’t apply to their male counterparts. “We had to sign in and out of our dormitories and during the week we had to be back in by 9 o’clock. On the weekends you had a little extra time, if you had permission from your parents. Sometimes we’d sign out to go to the library, but we didn’t always get to the library…”

Leslie remembers the dorm’s House Mother’s nightly checks to make sure everyone was in, but none too fondly. A common phrase secretly passed around dorms for late arrivers was ‘grease your belly and slide under.’

At Auburn, Leslie was thrilled to have choices of business, home economics or education as a major when many schools had fewer options. She had her heart set on becoming an engineer, but, at the time, only the colleges of education, business and home economics were admitting female students, so she settled for business while taking as many engineering courses she could.

“I decided on business, then took some engineering courses, because I didn’t want to be a teacher and didn’t want to be a home economics person. I still had to take one home economics class–that was the acceptable profession for females at the time.”

Leslie was required to complete core undergrad classes like chemistry and history, but made a point of taking as many engineering-related courses as were available. Often the only female in any of them, there were times, like in mechanical drawing, where male jealousy threatened her to impede her studies.

“When we had to do lettering for our plates, the fellows would tell the teacher that I used a ruler to do my lettering—that I had cheated—so the professor came over and I had to prove to him that I was doing it freehand. They were jealous. I didn’t really experience too much [sexism] besides that while in class. [But] even in chemistry we didn’t have many females.”

Leslie was just one of two women who graduated from the college of business in 1943, a distinction she has never forgotten. But, while it’s easy to assume that women chafed against their limited options, in retrospect Leslie says the female students didn’t necessarily feel that way; many just wanted an opportunity to prove themselves.

“I think what we did was, we wanted to be proficient in what we were working on,” Leslie said. “Most of them were home economics people and educators because those were the choices and courses that were offered. If I wanted to go into engineering, it wasn’t open to me, and I don’t know how I would have done it.”

Despite the popularity of women’s sports only a few years earlier, enthusiasm for co-ed athletics had waned by then. Women were not encouraged to pursue physical activities and even basic outings to Lake Chewacla were few and far between. “The only women’s sport I remember is volleyball. And I think that was between the sororities, not even intramural stuff.”

Like most students, Leslie regularly attended football games at the old Alumni Stadium and distinctly remembers the wooden bleachers, wearing hats and gloves with their dates and the thrill of the Auburn Marching Band signaling kickoff. For such a small student body, the school spirit was contagious. “Football would always bring us together, basketball didn’t do much for us, but the band would play at the entryway, they made us real proud of Auburn. You always wanted to be there when the band started coming in.”

Organizations and sporting events were one way to pass the time, but the most important social events of the time, besides football games, were the dances. Organized by special committees and well-attended by students from all grades, school dances were one of the few ways to fraternize with the opposite sex before curfew.

“Where we ‘hung out’ was at the Women’s President’s office,” Leslie said. “They had curtained-off areas there where you could meet someone and study–almost like a dating parlor–but that was about it. On [College] street there was a restaurant and residence, the drugstore you hung out at, the Alumni House, but I guess we didn’t do much ‘hanging.’ There were so few of us, I don’t even remember going to the movies and, of course, no TV. But we did have electric calculators, finally.”

Students, and especially women, needed permission to leave campus, further insulating the student population from the outside world. Leslie fondly recalls day trips to “that dirty old pond” Lake Chewacla and how Phenix City was off-limits to students, but for the most part, student life revolved around the library and Toomer’s Corner. “There were only about 10 cars. I could count them on my hands, and we knew who all owned the automobiles. One of my friends had a boyfriend with a car and when he drove up, we’d all be there. But we walked every place other than that.”

Even Opelika, today only a five-minute drive from Toomer’s Corner, seemed as far away as New York City. “There was nothing between us and Opelika at the time,” Leslie said. “I don’t think the outside world affected us at all.”

Helen Krauss Leslie 43

As insulated from world affairs as Auburn was, the conflict happening overseas was unavoidable, even if it seemed destined to remain distant. Limited understanding of the scope and impact of the Nazi Party mitigated concern and life carried on as usual for the students. That all changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

Leslie’s biggest concern at the time was for her then-boyfriend, a student from Cuba who wanted to enlist but was barred from joining the US Army. “People from Cuba and other countries, non-residents of the U.S., were not accepted into the Army, but they felt compelled to be helpful. So my boyfriend flew up to Canada with a group one Sunday afternoon, signed up and then came back.

That was the beginning of that, I think, for all of us.”

The military cadets who had trained year-round, pride of the A.P.I, began disappearing from class as their draft numbers were called. As their numbers dwindled, the relentless drilling in the fields began to take on a more ominous tone. Everyone paid a lot more attention to the military then, whether it was on the field, flying in the sky or with the sailors arriving for training. Everyone was worried.

“[The men leaving] was critical and made us very much aware of what was going on in the world. People would leave and sign up and they were drafted, so they had to go. There wasn’t a thing we could do about it.” With so much focus put on the war effort, it was difficult to concentrate on school, or anything else, Leslie said. “It was tough. Almost like the world today, it seems like we can only do so little to help, to return to a safe and sane country.”

The graduating class of 1943 was shortchanged, Leslie remembers; a greatly diminished student body, an increased workforce demand and a bleak outlook on the world all seemed to contribute to their rushed commencement ceremony. The ceremony was held in February, more than three months earlier than usual, and the winter weather forced the typically outdoor event into the theater. International travel restrictions blocked the travel plans of their planned commencement speaker, so the ceremony proceeded quickly and quietly in an almost funereal atmosphere.

“We had an impromptu graduation in the theater, with no cap and no gown,” Leslie said, her disappointment still audible even 74 years later. Whatever disappointment harbored at the time was quickly pushed aside after graduation. The war effort at home was in full tilt and everyone had a part to do. Considering a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Leslie was summoned back to St. Petersburg by her father, an engineer with Carrier Air Conditioning since 1919 who ran his own supply company.

“Basically, it was my family’s business. When the war was on my dad called and said, ‘I need you back here in St. Petersburg,’ so I said OK. I had no choice. Of course, one thing led to another…” Leslie worked as secretary, treasurer, president and eventual owner for several roofing and supply companies in the Tampa Bay area, in addition to doing layout work for the Tampa Shipbuilding Co. and present-day MacDill Air Force Base. Then, as now, she encountered Auburn connections along the way.

“My suitemate, after she left college, went to Washington, D.C. and got a job in the Pentagon. My interest was there because of Carrier Air Conditioning, but when she was in the Pentagon I took a trip up there to see her and she took me on a tour to see all of that before it opened.”

Besides her business work, Leslie served on the local chamber of commerce, board of directors for the St. Pete College Foundation and in local government. Nationally, she served as chairman for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, the National Advisory Council for Small Business Administration, National Safety Council’s Women’s Conference, the Committee on Employee Recruitment and Job Development for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Visitors for Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Leslie played international chairman for the Congress of Business and Professional Women of the Americas and the Hemispheric Friendship Committee of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc. She made six Hemispheric Friendship trips to Central and South America and was a guest of the West German government in 1965 to promote international understanding, the same year she received the Certificate of Achievement from the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China for her outstanding service.

Behind it all, Leslie says, was Auburn.

“I love Auburn; I’ll always love it. Auburn led me to all the other events of my life, it took me to Central and South America, as a guest of the West German government before the wall came down; all these things probably wouldn’t have happened if not for that first experience.”

She’s paid for her opportunity in kind; an emeritus member of the Board of Directors for the Harbert College of Business, she served for decades and helped break the ground for the Lowder Building in 1988. The Helen Krauss Leslie Endowed Scholarship was created for rising sophomores in financial need from Florida, with preference given to students pursuing non-traditional career paths.

“I think my heart is still in Auburn, it always will be,” Leslie said. “When my brother pulled away that morning after his summer school was over and I found the Auburn dormitory, he got in his car and said, ‘Is there anything you need? I’m going back to Atlanta.’ He left me there all alone in Auburn. That was the beginning of a wonderful experience, of the new me.”

Helen Krauss Leslie 43

He left me there all alone in Auburn. That was the beginning of a wonderful experience, of the new me.”