Alexina Federhen winning the Miss Vermont competition wearing a white dress and a tiara, holding a bouquet of flowers, with other contestants applauding behind her.

For Miss Vermont, Pageants Are a Platform for Social Change

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By Lindsay Lennon

Alexina Federhen ’19 is well aware of what most people assume when they hear that she—Miss Vermont—is stopping by an event.

She knows what’s expected of her as the state’s top beauty queen, and she delivers. She’s poised and stylish, always up for a photo with a child (or a cow). And she spends time promoting a worthy cause—in her case, mental health awareness.

In short, Federhen is everything you’d picture in a Miss America contestant (which she was, in December 2022) and is relishing her reign as Miss Vermont, which ends in April 2023.

But she stresses that both the statewide and national competitions—and the women who participate in them—have worked hard to move away from the stereotypical, beauty-focused contest.

This year’s Miss America winner, in fact, is studying nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

“In recent years, we’ve seen really smart women competing,” says Federhen, who majored in design and environmental analysis in Human Ecology. “It’s not to say they haven’t been there before, but I think you’re seeing those two worlds collide.”

Miss Vermont wearing a tiara and white sash has a conversation with a child wearing a winter hat and coat at an event.
At a fair in Peru, VT. (Provided)

And some fellow Cornellians competed in Miss America within recent memory: Joanna Guy ’13 (then Miss Maryland) finished in the top 10 in 2013, and Camille Sims ’15 (then Miss New York) was second runner up in 2016.

Federhen was 15 when she nabbed her first national title of USA Ambassador Teen, going on to win Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen as a high school senior.

She continued competing while attending Cornell, where she was an Alpha Phi sorority sister and a Gates Millennium National Scholar, and won the “Miss Metropolitan” regional crown on the Miss New York circuit her sophomore year.

In recent years, we’ve seen really smart women competing. It’s not to say they haven’t been there before, but I think you’re seeing those two worlds collide.

After being laid off from a Boston architectural firm during the pandemic, she returned home to launch her own graphic design studio specializing in brand strategy and resume pageants in earnest.

In April 2022, she took the stage at the Miss Vermont competition. During the “social impact” segment, she discussed a youth mental health initiative she founded, and was candid about her own struggles with anxiety and depression. (For her talent, she sang Adele’s “Turning Tables.”) She won—becoming the first Latina to do so.

Seven months later, she headed to Miss America. Federhen was hopeful, but knew history was against her. It’s been dubbed “the curse”: Vermont is the only state never to have had a contestant make the competition’s top 10.

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Miss Vermont wearing a black-and-white flannel shirt and tiara and white sash posing with a Holstein cow.
Visiting Holsteins in West Rupert. (Provided)

Despite her polished pitch on mental health awareness and tuneful mash-up of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” Federhen didn’t advance to the final group—but she has no regrets.

“Representing my small state on that stage was pretty remarkable,” she says.

“But my biggest takeaway was being able to be so vulnerable, open, and honest about my struggles. Depression and anxiety are not exclusive to people who look sad all the time. The people with the biggest smiles in the room could be struggling the most.”

Growing up in the small southern Vermont town of Bennington, Federhen came from a single-parent home with a modest income, and was one of the few Hispanic residents; born with a neurological disorder that impacted her reading and writing comprehension, she says, she was the target of bullying.

Her first glimpse of the possibilities beyond her small community came when, at age eight, she met the then-reigning Miss Vermont at a parade. She was struck by her beauty—but more so, by how she treated others.

“She made me feel important,” recalls Federhen. “That interaction changed my entire life.”

A year later, Federhen entered a “just for fun” pageant at a county fair. The communal aspect hooked her, as did the volunteer opportunities.

By high school, Federhen was participating in state-level competitions. The stakes were higher: not only did she have a shot at Miss America, but she could win scholarships.

(And in fact, she would ultimately graduate from college debt free, thanks to support from the Miss America organization.)

“I fell in love with finding other people who cared about something larger than themselves,” Federhen recalls. “I know that sounds corny, and there are stereotypes around why people compete. But for me, it was a community.”

Miss Vermont 2022 at the Miss America competition in a green formal gown
Representing the Green Mountain State at Miss America. (Miss America Organization)

In her whirlwind year as Miss Vermont, Federhen’s schedule is a potpourri of service work, public speaking, and meet-and-greets. One day, she’s vlogging from the Rutland Whoopie Pie Festival, husking corn at a regional fair, or promoting maple products; the next, she’s delivering the keynote address for Mental Health Advocacy Day, discussing her work developing an anti-bullying curriculum for K–12 students.

“I think people see the sash, and they assume I’m there for pictures and then I’m going to leave—and I end up being there for five hours, helping clean up and talking to kids and community members,” Federhen observes. “My low-key favorite part of being Miss Vermont is surprising people.”

Top: Capturing the Miss Vermont title. (Jon Adams Photography)

Published February 23, 2023


  1. Jennifer Om, Class of 1999

    When you say, “born with a neurological disorder that impacted reading and writing comprehension” that sounds like dyslexia. It’s just as important to destigmatize dyslexia as it is to do so with mental health challenges. Dyslexia affects 1 in 5 people and needs to be recognized.

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