She didn’t walk away with the crown, but Alexis Wineman knows she topped the American public’s list for Miss America.

Wineman, an 18-year-old from Cut Bank, Mont., made history this weekend as the first person with autism to compete in the 92-year-old beauty pageant. Though she did not become Miss America, Wineman was chosen as “America’s Choice” after beating out the other 52 contestants in an online vote that took place in the weeks leading up to the event.

Nearly 200,000 votes were cast, and the win –- announced during the live telecast of the pageant Saturday night on ABC — secured the reigning Miss Montana one of 16 spots in the semifinals.

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“I didn’t know until they announced it to everyone,” Wineman said, calling the popular vote win “unreal.”

“I felt like I was America’s Miss America,” Wineman said during her long drive back from the pageant in Las Vegas to her home in Cut Bank.

Not only did Wineman impress the public, but she made her mark in Las Vegas among a host of impressive ladies, according to Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization.

“It just seemed that anyone Alexis came into contact with just fell in love with her,” he said. “She was the talk of Las Vegas and she really is a special young lady.”

The chance to be on television was a definite highlight, Wineman said, as was the opportunity to make so many new friends during the competition. But what brought the most joy to Wineman while competing for the Miss America crown was the chance to share her story, and through that, to open people’s eyes to what is possible.

“I became an advocate for the special needs community,” said Wineman who was diagnosed with autism at age 11 and is using her position as Miss Montana to increase awareness of the developmental disorder. “I showed that you can become something great if you work hard to get there.”

Though the big day is over, Wineman won’t be settling down anytime soon, with speaking engagements lined up until her reign as Miss Montana comes to an end in June.

But first she needs a little downtime.

“I need to put all the glitter and pretty beauty stuff behind me for a couple of days,” Wineman said. “I’m going to go downstairs at my house and play on my PlayStation 2.”

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