When senior public relations major Vivian O’Neal was in seventh grade, she entered the world of pageants. Taking O’Neal under her wing, a woman from her church taught her how to do hair and makeup. As she got older, her father told her that if she really wanted to pursue pageants, she could potentially earn scholarship money.
The opportunity for scholarships pushed O’Neal to become involved with the Miss America organization. In high school, she competed for Mississippi’s Outstanding Teen and hoped she would complete in the Miss America circuit one day.
On Oct. 26, O’Neal earned the title of Miss University of Southern Mississippi, granting her the opportunity to represent Southern Miss, advocate for what she believes in and compete for Miss Mississippi in the summer.
A dedicated student, a Dixie Darling and a member of Phi Mu sorority, O’Neal said she has kept herself busy her whole life.
“I knew that this was the year I needed to compete, and this was going to be the year that I would do my best. Whether that meant winning the title or not, I didn’t know, but I knew that this was going to be the year that I could put my best foot forward,” O’Neal said. “If I did win, I would be 100% ready to accept every responsibility that comes along with being Miss USM.”
Leading up to Miss USM, O’Neal said the hardest part was conquering the ability to manage her time while preparing for the competition.
“To be Miss USM, you need to be a good student. Because school, ultimately, comes first,” O’Neal said.
Southern Miss alumnae Macy Mitchell is a long-time friend of O’Neal and was Miss USM in 2016 and 2018. She said that being Miss USM means being someone for others to relate to and respect as a representation of the university, attending many events and being able to interact with members of the public on and off campus.
“I think that [O’Neal] is going to be the type of Miss USM that is going to attract people and going to attract attention. Not because of how beautiful and how talented she is, but because of her heart. And I think that’s the most important quality to have as a Miss USM,” Mitchell said.
As a senior, this was O’Neal’s last chance to compete for Miss USM. She said she felt ready to accept all of the preparation that came with it and the responsibility to come should she win.
During the pageant, O’Neal performed a jazz dance number that helped her earn her title.
“[O’Neal] has a very unique confidence, and that’s something that I like to see in someone. And what I mean by that is that Vivian is very aware of her abilities,” Mitchell said. “She’s aware that she’s a beautiful dancer and has beautiful stage presence, but at the same time, she’s also very humble. She doesn’t take any competition or any placement in competition lightly.”
Senior communications major Katelyn Perry also competed for this year’s Miss USM. She said she is proud to call O’Neal her friend and thrilled for her to be Miss USM.
“Vivian is always completely herself. She doesn’t put on airs; she doesn’t put on fronts. She does her best, and that is what it is. And I’m really, really proud of her for that,” Perry said.
Now that O’Neal is Miss USM, she said she is most excited about her opportunity to further her social impact initiative, Capable, a program to help bridge the gap between students living with and without disabilities.
O’Neal’s first social impact initiative was raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, an organization she said is close to her heart due to her brother’s muscular disease.
By adopting Capable, O’Neal said the initiative allowed her to be more hands-on with the cause.
O’Neal said education is key to breaking the barrier between students with different capabilities and has started creating a curriculum to use for students in kindergarten to third grade. She hopes to further the initiative in collaboration with Southern Miss, allowing students to be a part of Capable as well.
O’Neal said being a senior and earning the title of Miss USM allows her to reflect on what Southern Miss has done for her.
“Not only am I given the opportunity to represent the university that means so much to me, I also have the opportunity to give back to it,” O’Neal said.