A Filipina’s Journey as the newly crowned Miss Hawai‘i USA
Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant Editor
Photos courtesy Brice Kurihara
“I am very excited for this journey and I hope to make my Filipino community proud as I represent Hawai‘i,” says Savannah Gankiewicz, the newly crowned Miss Hawai‘i USA. “I am thrilled to be Filipina American and represent my community. I definitely believe representation matters and I hope to inspire other women who look like me to not be afraid to put yourself out there. America is a melting pot of ethnicities and that’s the beauty of it.”
Savannah is the daughter of Yvienne and Gerrit Peterson of Maui and Mark and Kim Gankiewicz of Stephenson, Virginia. Savannah was raised on Maui from birth to the age of six and then back and forth from Maui to Virginia. She attended Sherando High School in Virginia and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. According to her Mom Yvienne Tagorda Peterson, Savannah returned home to Maui when she turned twenty-one and has been on Maui for the last six years. Savannah is currently an international model, marketing coordinator with The Agency Maui and an entrepreneur building a business internationally.
Filipinos love pageants and love to root for their favorite contestant. Filipinos point with pride how many Filipinos have won international beauty contests. And mostly every town in the Philippines has their own queen. Here in Hawai‘i, many of the traditional Filipino organizations also have their own queen.
“I decided to enter pageants because I wanted to be a better public speaker and have a platform where I can use my voice and spread my message to other young women on cultivating self-love. My Mom was always into pageants as she was Mrs. Maui back in the day and a director for the Miss Maui Filipina so pageantry was always in my life and my Mom really inspired me to join Miss Hawai‘i USA,” explains Savannah, who entered as Miss Wailea.
“We helped her by being her support system,” Yvienne states. “As a former pageant director for the Miss Maui Filipina pageant who was able to bring home three consecutive state crowns during my term, the experience I applied was just making sure Savannah was prepared and calm throughout the experience.”
Preparing for any pageant takes a lot of hard work. Candidates undergo preparation in a variety of ways: physically and mentally. “Preparing for Miss Hawai‘i USA was a job in itself,” explains Savannah. “I focused and put everything I had into training physically but mentally as well. I was constantly reading up on current events and things that are happening not only in my country but all over the world. I had mock interviews one to two times a week and I was always studying.”
Having an experienced pageant Mom was a super plus. “Even before she won the title, I was so proud of her,” Yvienne says with a beaming smile. “Her hard work she put into studying current events, interviewing others on their perspective on social issues, and making sure she was able to articulate her thoughts within a timely manner was more a concern for her than what she portrayed on the exterior.” This was Savannah’s first time as a contestant in the Miss Hawai‘i USA pageant. In 2017, she was crowned Miss Mutya ng Pilipinas Overseas Filipino Communities.
The contestants were judged on several categories: interview, swimsuit, evening gown and an on stage question. Savannah’s on stage question was the most controversial question asked: “What are your thoughts regarding the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade.” Yvienne says “At this point, we don’t know exactly how that was answered, we just know the crowd roared in a loud applause…thank goodness!”
Savannah recalls how calm she felt until she looked at her family. “When I rewatch the crowning moment at that time I remember how calm I was during the final night. I knew whatever happens God intended for that to be. So when I heard my name I knew in my heart Miss Hawai‘i USA was meant for me. I was trying so hard to hold back my tears because the minute I looked at my family the tears came falling down. I am a very emotional person and I had tears of joy and I was so proud of myself.”
Savannah, who was also declared Miss Photogenic, says “I think the most difficult part of the pageant were the days leading up to the events. Miss Hawai‘i USA was right around the corner and I was so excited to start pageant week.”
Often times movies (and insider stories) depict beauty pageants as being very competitive but the reality is the sisterhood trumps the competitive juices. “I enjoyed making friends during my pageant experience,” declares Savannah. “I made a lot of connections and now I have a sisterhood. It is funny because there is only one winner and you would think it is super competitive but for me I made amazing friendships and I knew whoever would win we all would be so happy and supportive. That is why I love pageants. It’s all about women empowerment to me.”
According to a list appearing in Wikipedia, it’s been a very long time since the Miss Hawai‘i USA identifies her hometown as being from Maui. [See box on page 3] Although the 2022 Miss Hawai‘i USA Kiana Yamat graduated from Lahainaluna High School, her hometown is listed as Honolulu. In 2001, Christy Leonard whose hometown is listed as Lahaina won the title. In 1999, Trini-Ann Kaopuiki won the title, with a hometown listed as Honolulu but she is a St. Anthony School alum. This year’s first runner up, Kawena Kan-Hai, is also from Maui.
And there have been a number of Filipinas who were crowned Miss Hawai‘i USA, including Yamat, Aureana Tseu (2009), Nadine Tanega (1994) and Zoe Ann Roach (1983). Interestingly, the first Miss Hawai‘i USA was Elza Edsman in 1952 (competing as the representative of the Territory of Hawai‘i) and she placed 1st runner up at the 1952 Miss Universe. Those who won the Miss USA from Hawai‘i include Macel Wilson (1962), Tanya Denise Wilson (1972), Judi Andersen (1978) and Brook Lee (1997), who went on to win the Miss Universe 1997 title.
And yes, the current Miss Universe is R’Bonney Gabriel, a Filipina from Texas who was the Miss USA. Of note, there have been four Miss Universes from the Philippines: Gloria Diaz (1969), Margie Moran-Floirendo (1973), Pia Wurtzbach (2015) and Catriona Gray (2018).
The Miss USA pageant is expected to be held sometime in the fall in Reno, Nevada. “Miss USA is months away but I want to start prepping ASAP and really put in the work to be Miss USA,” says Savannah. “It is my dream job and I know with my platform I can help many women.”
Savannah details her goals as the new Miss Hawai‘i USA: “My goals for my reign as Miss Hawai‘i USA is to really utilize my platform and help the betterment of my community. I am an ambassador and program director for What Makes You Feel Beautiful, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization I work with. I believe in our mission statement to help women cultivate self-love at every age and phase of life. I plan on going into the school systems here in Hawai‘i and talk to high school girls about my F.L.Y. (first love yourself) workshops I will be having this year. I am so excited to be able to help younger women flourish and I am doing this because I wish I had this growing up.”
Savannah encourages others to participate in pageants. “My advice to any girl who wants to join pageantry is DO IT! Believe in yourself because that’s exactly what I did. You never want to have regrets later on in life for not trying and the best part about pageantry is the personal growth that comes from it. I have grown tremendously, my confidence in myself, speaking and the opportunities that arise from it.”
Savannah is so grateful to be able to represent Maui. “I am so happy that I was representing my home island of Maui. I hope I made Maui proud. I just want to say Thank You to everyone for supporting me. Joining Miss Hawai‘i USA was the best thing to happen to me and this journey I am on is one to remember.”
Alfredo Evangelista’s Mom Catalina was crowned Mrs. Philippines—a popularity contest—by the United Sons and Daughters of Ilocano Regions Organization during its Rizal Day ceremonies in 1968.