Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Crowning Glory

by Lynn Cook

Beauty in Diversity
Angela Baraquio,
Debbie Nakanelua-Richards,
Kanoe Kaumeheiwa Miller
(top to bottom)
Photos: Dana Edmunds
(top & bottom);
courtesy D. Nakanelua-Richards

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!"

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.

Debbie Nakanelua-Richards
(second from left) braves
the snows of Niagara Falls
during the dedication of a
new charter route.
(Hawaiian Airlines Archives)

Heading for the Miss America event, Debbie says, there was concern that Hawaii was being represented by a "half-naked hula dancer." After a brief try at dancing in a full-length, covered dress, Nakanelua went back to her sarong-style bare-midriff hula costume and "performed as I would at home." She landed in the top ten finalists. Today she is an accomplished member of Pa Ku‘i A Holo, a group that practices the ancient Hawaiian fighting art of lua. She serves as Hawaiian Airlines’ senior manager for government and community relations, and for the past fifteen years, has performed hula every Sunday evening at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki. Kanoe Kaumeheiwa Miller, who won the Miss Congeniality title when she was at the Miss America pageant, can be found there every other night of the week. For the past twenty-seven years, she has had a full-time job dancing hula at the Halekulani.

Nakanelua believes that the Miss Hawaii Pageant experience is an opportunity for young women to teach the world about the Islands and to make the most of the thousands of dollars in pageant scholarship monies that winners receive. And over the years, many have used the scholarship money to great advantage. "We have a former Miss Hawaii with a Ph.D. in genetic medicine, another in anthropology, pediatricians, attorneys, a Broadway star," says the current Miss Hawaii Pageant executive director Thom McGarvey.

Certainly, filmmaker, actress and writer Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey Buyers, Miss Hawaii 1978, put her scholarships to good use: She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and created the award-winning documentary, Then There Were None.

When she held the crown, Elizabeth traveled often on promotional tours with the late Lindsey Pollock, then head of public relations for Hawaiian Airlines and the person most responsible for Hawaiian’s sponsorship of the pageant. His oft-repeated story tells of the Saudi prince who was "so smitten with Elizabeth that he followed us everywhere. One day she came back from an appearance, held her arm out and showed the ‘little watch’ he had gifted her. The room went still when everyone saw the diamond-studded Piaget. She had no idea!"

Lindsey’s favorite Miss Hawaii tale involved Miss Hawaii 1986, Cheryl Bartlett, and an audience with the King of Tonga. Seated in a Tongan village square on lauhala (pandanus) mats, Cheryl was presented with the King’s gift of a full-grown pig. "What do I do?!" she asked Lindsey, who was seated next to her, in a desperate whisper. Lindsey, a native Hawaiian, was well-versed in the ways of the Pacific nations. "Give the King your best Miss Hawaii smile, and we will figure out where to put the pig later," he quietly replied. Some believe the Miss Hawaii pig went on to live a long, happy life; others think he wound up as dinner soon after.

The late Lindsey Pollock
was the man most
responsible for bringing
the pageant to
Hawaiian Airlines.

(Hawaiian Airlines Archives)

In 1985, the Hilton Hawaiian Village became a sponsor and the official home of the pageant—certainly a change from the era of the Jaycees, when the Sand Island 50th State Fair location required contestants and the audience to take a ferryboat ride. (Over the years, the contest has been held at McKinley High School, the Waikiki Shell, the Monarch Room of the Sheraton Waikiki, even in the old Honolulu Stadium, fondly known as the Termite Palace.) The pageant is now aired live each summer on the K5 television station, and as a major sponsor, Hawaiian Airlines continues to be the official airline carrier for Miss Hawaii.

"Think about it," says Thom McGarvey. "We are nearly the smallest state and certainly the farthest away from Atlantic City, yet two Miss Hawaii winners, Carolyn Sapp in 1991 and Angela Baraquio in 2000, became Miss America. Twenty-one states have never had a Miss America. Our list of Miss America semi-finalists, Miss Congeniality winners, talent and scholarship recipients numbers nearly forty!" The reason for the exceptional success of the young women of Hawaii? McGarvey thinks it is a combination of the ha‘aha‘a, or unpretentious, quality of Hawaii’s contestants and their dedication to aloha.

That ha‘aha‘a quality was on display recently when Miss Hawaii 1962, Patricia Lei Anderson-Murray, tried out for a part in Lee Cataluna’s and Keola Beamer’s hilarious musical, You Somebody. The script called for a "former Miss Hawaii" to sing and dance her way into the dreams of the young girl who wanted to be "somebody." Patricia laughs when she describes her try-out to play herself: "I’d had a fall, and I was in a cast with a broken leg. Remembering my Miss Hawaii lessons and the Hawaiian Airlines ‘you can do it’ spirit, I simply put on a crown and auditioned, singing I Could Have Danced All Night. I got the part!"