"I just knew that the energy of NYC was something that I really loved," she told the AP after her victory. "I was always a little more liberal-thinking than my hometown. And I just knew that I needed to get out for a little bit, and I needed to find myself."
Hagan said it was her mother who encouraged her to address the problem of child sex abuse, which had "rippled through" her family.
Hagan's mother, Mandy Moore, was overcome with emotion and wiped tears away as she spoke.
"It's very overwhelming," she said. "It's all hitting me so fast."
Hagan said she will work to make education to prevent child abuse mandatory in all 50 states.
Also working against Hagan was her final question, should schools hire armed guards in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.
Conventional wisdom holds that contestants who receive questions about controversial topics are less likely to win. But Hagan said she didn't panic.
"I'm not sure that it came out as eloquently as I would have liked it to, but my views remain the same: It's never OK to fight violence with violence."
With crown, she receives a $50,000 college scholarship and a year as an instant celebrity and role model. She defeated Miss South Carolina Ali Rogers, who took second, and Miss Oklahoma Alicia Clifton, who finished third.
Hagan has always been "very independent," said Gunnels, who describes herself as a "neighborhood mom" in the old railroad town near Auburn University.
"I think she willed this to happen," said Gunnels. "She's just that determined. Who would have that that a girl from Opelika, Alabama, would ever do that?"
Moore is based in Phoenix. Jay Reeves contributed from Birmingham, Ala., and Deepti Hajela from New York City.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier