Saturday | September 24, 2016
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Big & Beautiful: Pageant honors women of today, yesteryear

Ms. Aloha Nui is a one-of-a-kind pageant that pays homage to the big and beautiful, while also perpetuating Hawaii’s cultural traditions and aloha spirit.

“The pageant was created to honor the women of great stature in the traditional manner in weighing in at 200 pounds and over and those women who personify the spirit of aloha,” said Leiola Garmon Mitchell, pageant coordinator. “Many women in our Hawaiian Monarchy were of great stature, embodied the aloha spirit, cared for the people and were loved by the people. Ms. Aloha Nui honors the women of today and the women of yesteryear.”

Ms. Aloha Nui, the first runner-up and talent winner will be crowned Saturday at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Five Big Island women, ages 28 to 48, are competing this year and they demonstrate how beauty is diverse, she said.

Preparations by the all-volunteer pageant staff began in June. The contestants have only met a couple of times during the past two months. Judges will rate them on their interviews, talents, evening attire, aloha attire, stage presence, posture and poise, Garmon Mitchell said.

The grand prize includes $500 from the Hawaii Island Festival, as well as a two-night stay at the resort, with meals at Rays on the Bay and a day spa package for two. There are also gifts from area restaurants and businesses. For instance, Nita Pilago, owner of Wahine Toa, donated the featured aloha attire to the contestants, Garmon Mitchell said.

The pageant would not be what it is without the overwhelming generosity and support from the community, she added.

Ms. Aloha Nui is a signature event of the Hawaii Island Festival, a monthlong celebration perpetuating Hawaiian culture and heritage. The pageant has been around since 1993 and had been part of the Aloha Festivals, Garmon Mitchell said.

Born and raised in Kealakekua, Nicole “Koko” Maragos is the returning veteran. This is her third year competing and she was the 2011 runner-up. Still, she gets nervous when appearing on stage.

Maragos, a babysitter and waitress at The Korner Pocket Bar & Grill, enjoys meeting and getting to know all the women year after year. She likened the pageant to a family and thinks the event is a great way to get involved in the community.

For as long as she can remember, Maragos has been “a big girl” and was even bullied in school. What she likes about the pageant is how it embraces and celebrates the beauty of plus-size women, raising their confidence and making them feel accepted. It encourages everyone to embrace their differences and the positive side of being large, as well as to leave their insecurities behind. “The pageant reminds us to accept ourselves and others,” she added.

Hilo resident Jessica Kunishige is no stranger to the world of pageants. She attends these events in support of her 17-year-old daughter who is a regular competitor. It was her daughter and husband who decided she should compete in Ms. Aloha Nui.

“This pageant is unique because it expresses true beauty, with what’s inside — the aloha spirit — counting the most,” she said.

A self-described tomboy and sports lover, Kunishige was at first hesitant about being in the spotlight. But the more she learned and got involved, Kunishige fell in love with the event’s mission, particularly how it helps keep Hawaiian history, culture and traditions alive. Kunishige, a certified nurse assistant and 808cakes co-owner, also has greater appreciation for what her daughter does.

For several years, Donna Acdal’s sister-in-law has asked her to participate in the pageant. Each time she declined. But this year Acdal changed her answer.

“I feel braver and more comfortable with my appearance,” she said. “I also feel like it’s my turn to take a chance in life and do something that’s fun and exciting for me.”

Acdal is a 48-year-old medical assistant and mother of four who lives in Honokaa. Now that most of her children are young adults, Acdal decided to start focusing on her own needs. These include walking more, lifting weights and doing other exercises. From these activities, her self-confidence grew.

Acdal only blossomed more by participating in the pageant. She said it forced her to get out of her shell and stop putting little walls up. She enjoys the friendships with the contestants and pageant staff.

“This has been a fun thing to do with lots of fun people,” she said. “All the women are strong, beautiful and talented, with no hangups or issues.”

When Acdal steps on stage Saturday, she will be unveiling her new self. But more importantly, younger girls, particularly those who are heavier, might be encouraged by the contestants to accept themselves. She hopes the girls go wild with inspirations and go after them.

“Appearance is not everything. It might be what you get judged on at first, but it’s not all what you are,” she said. “It’s your heart and your spirit. It’s you.”

Kailua-Kona resident Dorothy Ulu’s pageant participation is a tribute to her uncle, Robert Roy. Before he died in May, he wanted 43-year-old Ulu to do something for herself. Ulu said she’s always been the type to do anything and everything for others without ever wanting anything in return. So when Garmon Mitchell asked Ulu to compete, her aunties — Marilyn Mitchell and Shelia Roy — accepted on her behalf.

Ulu is so glad they did, saying the pageant was a unique opportunity for them to do it together as a family and have uplifting experiences that bring them closer together. Ulu also confessed she likes the extra attention and pampering.

Ulu, a former housekeeper and personal chef, has been taking care of her uncle’s sheep ranch since April. She had no idea what pageants were like until she entered one. “It’s filled my house and life up with even more joy,” she added.

Amy Mills, 36, has never been in a pageant and doesn’t consider herself a beauty queen. Garmon Mitchell fondly described Mills as “an opera singing farm girl.”

Mills is a performer who has a bachelor’s degree in music and vocal performance from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She moved back home to Waimea two years ago to spend as much time as possible with her grandmother, Marie McDonald, a well-known lei and kapa maker. She wanted to learn McDonald’s craft and carry on the family’s farming tradition. Her family grows flowers and vegetables.

Mills thinks Ms. Aloha Nui is wonderful because it showcases women who love their extra weight and are beautiful inside and out. She spoke about how Hawaiians revered larger women, who were often referred to as momona (sweet). She thinks all women deserve to be loved and accepted in society, no matter their shape, color or creed.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. It costs $10 to attend or $5 with a festival ribbon. For more information, visit HawaiiIslandFestival.org.