by Lynn Cook
In 1973, Miss Hawaii Kanoe Kaumeheiwa Miller stepped onto the field in the middle of a stadium in England. She was set to perform a half-time hula at the biggest game of the English soccer season. The weather was bad. The field iced over. Her lei froze. In a ti leaf skirt and strapless top, barefoot, she bravely began her dance. "Soon I couldn’t feel my feet. Then my legs went numb. There were 100,000 screaming fans watching," she remembers. "I kept smiling, even though I was crying. Finally, four big soccer players came out and carried me off the field. In the locker room, they wrapped me in towels and rubbed my feet. Even crying and cold, I realized that these handsome blokes were kind of fun!"
Beauty in Diversity
Kanoe Kaumeheiwa Miller
(top to bottom)
Photos: Dana Edmunds
(top & bottom);
courtesy D. Nakanelua-Richards
Miss Hawaii. She’s a trooper. Since 1948, when the pageant was inaugurated by the Hawaii State Jaycees, Miss Hawaii has shown the world what Island women are made of: grace, strength, resourcefulness. Sometimes she wears hundreds of flowers, sometimes a single blossom—either way, she has come to symbolize the beauty of the Islands. As for the royal image, well... Kanoe laughs when she tells of leaving her crown on her car seat: "I was rushing. When I came back to the car, I sat right down on the crown. I fixed it with some old wire and dashed to my appearance. To this day, one point is still wired up. I like to think it made me less formidable, more of a local girl."
Hawaiian Airlines has helped to support the Miss Hawaii Pageant since the event’s inception. In the early days, many of the contestants became Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants. Some were drafted into the airline’s marketing department—they packed their bags and traveled the world with teams from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. The 1962 Miss Hawaii, Patricia Lei Anderson-Murray, remembers flying to London to perform at a gala concert. Arriving alone, she learned that the Hawaiian Airlines musicians set to accompany her were stranded in Chicago. Not wanting Hawaii to be dropped from the program, Anderson went straight to the house orchestra, only to find that the lone Hawaiian song in their repertoire was Blue Hawaii. "No choice," she laughs. "I performed solo in a very long concert version!" The next morning the Hawaiian entertainers arrived. They spent the day playing music in the lobby before flying home.In 1976, after many years of running the pageant, the Jaycees were ready to pass the torch to another organization. After the Hawaii Visitors Bureau declined, Hawaiian Airlines took over the pageant and became the first—and for many years, the only—corporate sponsor of a Miss America-sanctioned state scholarship pageant. In return, things were more formalized between the airline and Miss Hawaii: She now had a full-time job at Hawaiian, traveling the world to introduce the Islands. Well aware of the power of Hawaiian music, the airline also hired musicians to travel with Miss Hawaii. Together, the pageant winners and the melody-makers took aloha to the world.
Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, who won the crown in 1984, had been hired by Hawaiian Airlines in 1978 and was already working in the sales promotion department when she won—so she had first-hand knowledge of the round-the-clock energy it takes to be Miss Hawaii. Her interest in the title was sparked when she was getting off an airplane one day with a co-worker who asked, "Why don’t you run?" Debbie describes herself as the granddaughter of a quiet taro farmer from Maui, "not the pageant type at all.
"Besides that," she laughs, "I was old." At twenty-six, she had considerable life experience over the average eighteen-year-old contestant. "I really couldn’t imagine the swimsuit-and-heels part of the deal," she says. "I loved to lift weights. My favorite outfit was a cut-off T-shirt and weight gloves." She had studied to be an athletic director. She was also a dancer. At the age of six, she had begun hula studies with famous kumu hula, teacher Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake. Debbie describes hula as "as much a part of my life as eating or breathing," so the talent portion of the event was not a concern. In the end, she didn’t really ask anyone for advice on whether she should compete. She heeded her kumu’s counsel that things happen at the right time and the right place, showed up, signed up and won her first competition. Then reality set in. She "belonged" to the pageant, day and night, for a three-month training period leading up to the Miss Hawaii competition and then to the Miss America extravaganza in Atlantic City. "My trainers were great. I would do almost anything for them," she says. Almost. When they noticed her bulging biceps and suggested a break in weight training, Debbie snuck out to the gym at night.