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