Leah Gibson has always dreamed of being crowned Miss America. Being crowned Miss University 2017 at the University of Mississippi last fall is helping the Starkville native’s dream come true.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough to represent my school, I would have an entire university behind me in support of my efforts to become Miss Mississippi,” said the senior broadcast journalism major and McLean Institute Innovation Scholar. “It’s always been about more than just the crown. This entire experience is so much bigger than me.”
The third African-American to wear the title, Gibson beat out six other contenders to become the university’s 68th pageant winner. Five judges from across the South evaluated each contestant in talent, interviews, evening wear and swimwear/lifestyle and fitness.
Gibson scored highest in the interview and talent portions of the competition. When asked by judge Carol Wright how the university can influence the media to keep things positive, Gibson responded, “Ethics are the most important. The campus and the university are moving forward, and that’s the message I’d put out.”
For her talent, Gibson sang Ben E. King’s classic “I (Who Have Nothing).” The audience gave her a standing ovation afterward.
“I never realized how much of an impact my position would have on other people, from all walks of life, who have followed my journey,” said Gibson, who also serves as station manager for WUMS-FM 92.1 Rebel Radio. “If I can positively impact the lives of the young and the old with my presence, my engagement and my passion, then and only then will I feel that I have fulfilled my purpose in this precious season of my life as Miss University.”
With her eyes set on ultimately winning the Miss America crown, Gibson has begun preparing for the Miss Mississippi pageant, the last preliminary before the national contest in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“I am passionate about so many things: women’s rights, children, diversity, equality, education, highway safety and more,” said Gibson, whose platform is “Drive Smart,” which promotes highway safety. She is in her seventh year of involvement with that cause.
“I started competing in the Miss Mississippi organization during my junior year of high school,” Gibson said. “By the grace of God, I won the Miss Magnolia pageant and was off to Vicksburg for my first state pageant. I placed top 10 and earned a great deal of scholarship money to put toward college.”
Gibson was also named Miss Meridian 2016 and went on to compete in Miss Mississippi last summer, where she placed in the top 15, nonfinalist talent award, and finalist for the Quality of Life Award (received for platform work).
Gibson well represents the university and its values, said Shawnboda Mead, director of UM’s Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.
“I’ve known Leah since she was a sophomore, and her love for the University of Mississippi has always been evident,” Mead said. “Leah embodies all that is good about the University of Mississippi. She is guided by an unbelievable spirit, led to serve others, and has an amazing work ethic.”
Prior to winning the campus title, Gibson competed in Miss University for the first time in 2015, but didn’t place.
“The feeling of not hearing my name called that year ignited a call to action on my own efforts and commitment toward personal growth,” she said. “I also used that moment to fuel me throughout an entire year of preparation so that I would be ready to try again. As someone heavily involved on campus, I decided to not let anything stop me from reaching a goal I had secretly set for myself so many years ago.”
Gibson credited two women as having been role models for her.
“My great-grandmother just turned 101 and has lived a life that many of us could only imagine,” she said. “Leading up to her 100th birthday, she was still gardening and leading the church choir.”
Referring to an Ole Miss alumna, Gibson said she sees Rose Jackson Flenorl, an executive at FedEx in Memphis, as a heroine.
“I wrote a story on her for the Meek School’s alumni magazine my freshman year and have been in awe of her ever since,” Gibson said. “She is a bright light in this world and always shares the most encouraging words. I am inspired by her achievements during her years at Ole Miss, and I am intrigued by her commitment to stay engaged and connected to the university. Her work speaks for itself.”
Beyond winning Miss Mississippi, Gibson said she looks forward to traveling abroad before pursuing her professional career. Her ultimate goal is to one day host her own television show.
“I want to tell stories of people who beat the odds, broke glass ceilings and made a difference,” she said.
Gibson’s parents are Kelvin and Tamara Gibson of Starkville. Her siblings are an older sister, Amber, and a younger brother, Bryce. She identified her family as her main support system.
Gibson continues to prepare for the 60th Miss Mississippi pageant in June. She meets with a trainer once a week, schedules mock interviews and rehearses her talent.
“The goal is to be well prepared,” Gibson said. “Are you ready? I am!”