Two Beauty Pageant Winners, Maruseana Sititi, (Miss Five Crowns 2018 and Miss Continents NZ 2019), and Soana Aleva (Miss Tuitui Fashion 2019 and Miss Tonga International 2019) personify grace but also grit. These Pasifika beauty queens display transparency, faith, and authenticity. Their story matters and I was interested in telling their truth the Craccum way—it’ll plant a seed of knowledge but also visibility as when you continue reading on… it’ll show a personal interface of lived experience from pageantry that needs to be told!
I first asked what inspired Soana to join a Beauty Pageant; her reply?—“My mum encouraged me.” However, it wasn’t only because Soana’s mum encouraged her to enter. A sponsor for Miss Tuitui Fashion 2019 saw her perform a Tau’olunga (Tongan traditional dance) at the Uni’s Fale Pasifika and approached Soana’s mum. You only hear about this in Hollywood. Being scouted, Soana, who’s Christian, believes joining pageants was a calling. She followed it instinctively and wholeheartedly.
“I saw it as an opportunity to share the gold of the communities here in New Zealand that have poured [so much] into me… like my uni friends, [and organisations like] Sivafaiva and Do Good Feel Good.”
Maruseana shared that as the only Pacific person in the Pageant she took joining as an opportunity to represent her community—being Samoan, Pasifika, and from South Auckland.
She said, “I joined this Pageant as I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and to grow in self love. [Later it became about me] owning my identity and wanting to make a difference with what I do and who I am and make my people proud.”
South Auckland has many negative stereotypes unfairly perpetuated by the media. Maruseana wanted to “challenge the stereotype”. She wanted to show that people from South Auckland are, as the Minister of Pacific Peoples Aupito Su’a states, a part of the 6 B’s: “Brown, beautiful, brainy, bicultural, bilingual, and bold.”
There were many significant benefits to participating in pageants for Soana and Maruseana. For Soana, participating allowed her to reconnect with her culture and identity, for the “six months leading to the pageant I felt lost and when I arrived at Tonga and learnt about my culture I understood who I was.”
Soana was “born in Tonga, but raised in Aotearoa, [and] the journey into Tonga was to heal myself and know who I am […] so putting yourself out there on the world stage opens you up with a lot of hate, judgement and expectation.”
It was through this experience that Soana garnered a new level of confidence, helping her to overcome other challenges she was facing in her life.
Soana also talks of the benefit of “gaining a sisterhood,” which had two sides;
“One was your mind is open to different types of women which inspires you on how they lead in their community. The other side is you get humbled […] so humbling that you can learn and be inspired from [other] girls’ strength […] so my good experience from the pageant was my cultural connection, confidence, and learning from other Tongan women and networking in the pageant.”
Maruseana noted as the only Pacific Islander there, “It made me appreciate my culture even more, made me disciplined to learn more about my culture […] it made me think about my parents, grandparents, and everything that came before them, it just made it that much more special for me […] the cultural identity makes you appreciative of what we have and who we are as Pasifika people.”
Maruseana’s journey into a Western pageant, not centred on a Pasifika worldview, was an added point of complexity. It was the love and proudness of her family that allowed her to thrive, ground herself in her cultural identity, and ultimately, find success. Associate Professor Melani Anae argues that securing and knowing about your ethnic identity will allow success in learning. Thus, by embracing her differences, rather than rejecting them, Maruseana stood out, not like a ‘sore thumb’, but an unapologetic Pasifika queen.
Being involved in the pageants also grew Maruseana’s self-love and confidence in public speaking. She says, “You’re going out in an industry that you know nothing about, I had no idea on what I was doing. I went in there with girls who were already experienced with modelling, walking in heels, and how to do makeup and lashes. It made me really step out of my comfort zone and actually push myself, you know, because of what I stand for and who I represent.”
A negative aspect from Soana’s experience was that “Sadly the drama wasn’t with the girls, [even though] there was competition [between us] the drama trickled down from the organisers.” She expressed strongly that one of the key challenges was that the effort her family and friends were putting in by rooting for her felt like it didn’t count for anything. This is because “when we got there and we saw a bit of the corruption and the politics it kinda took out the heart and essence of the actual pageant.”
“The hardest thing was trying to keep a happy face knowing that you were fighting in the background and the politics […] that meant biased judging, certain sponsors had more influence and power […] seeing some of the leaders fail us as young women and being taken advantage of when you’re coming in innocent is disheartening.”
She claims the Heilala Pageant’s goal of encouraging young women is hypocritical because it did the opposite. Many of the Tongan diaspora and those in Tonga—especially past pageant winner Kalo Funganitao 2018-2019—exposed the Miss Heilala committee for sexism, bullying, lack of organisation, professionalism, and lack of engagement in her final reigning speech.
“[God] fought my battle in that and he revealed the corruption live to the whole world.”
From Maru’s point of view, “There was a lot of favouritism involved, from our manager-director to one particular person […] I was trying to tell myself this is your first time doing this and this is the first time you’re being exposed to what is actually happening, I’ve seen it on TV… so to see it actually unfold in real life was really discouraging.” Maru described how there were rumours surrounding her pageant sisters—that some of those who had competed in previous years knew the director and come back because they “would already have a place as a title winner.” As a result, of the three that came back, two were crowned.
After being crowned Miss Continents NZ, Maru went to Las Vegas seeking an international title. She states that even at international competitions the higher-ups show favouritism. “In the international pageant a lot of it was based on what you need to look like, it depended on what he likes to be honest. Our director was a man and he had his vision of [what] the winner [should] look like, who they should be and where they should come from […] so if you were successful [or] already famous then you got the title.”
Similar to Soana, Maru’s faith in God helped a lot during her hard times.
They both also agree that without their support systems keeping them sane throughout their pageant journals, they wouldn’t have had that extra drive to keep on going even when it got hard.
When reflecting on what it was like to win her pageant title, Soana said she felt surprised,tired, and a huge sense of relief. “God came through, like they say, you might feel like it comes at the very last minute but it’s on time, and when he does come through it shows out […] it was a miracle.”
Soana noted she was surprised, because in Miss Heilala history there has usually only been one person crowned—her friend Yehenara Soukop. The crown Soana won, ‘Miss Tongan International’, was a new title introduced that year to commemorate the King of Tonga’s 60th birthday.
Similarly, when Maru was crowned Miss Five Crowns she said it was a genuine surprise.
“It was bittersweet as I was more surprised, then excited.”
Her whole family took up almost all the seats at the theatre so hearing her name get called, her family were shouting in support with emotion and gratitude.
“It allowed me to push away all the negative thoughts and allow myself to take it in.”
This moment was victorious because Maru became the first Samoan, first Pacific woman to attain this Miss Five Crowns title, which allowed her to stand so proud in her ancestry and her communities she represents.
After winning Miss Continents NZ, Maru travelled to Las Vegas where she won the Miss Congeniality award—that was a bigger surprise. It was overwhelming, yet humorous for her because of her Samoan family’s reaction. “When I went to my hotel room I called my family, they thought something was wrong haha, but when I told them about the award and the sache they were like ‘What is that?’.” It was a moment of laughter because her family generally doesn’t know anything about pageantry.
Through this, it humanised the experience, but at the same time she felt gratitude because not everyone garnered a special acknowledgement… so, for Maru to garner one, was humbling for her to represent her Samoan culture at an international level, creating a confidence that no systemic bias can unhinge.
So, do these Pacific queens have any advice?
Maru notes that “If you wanna go for pageantry, honestly go for it, do not overthink anything, don’t think you need to look like some type of way, take that negativity outside of your head and go for it.” She’s now successfully signed under Red 11 Model Management, venturing into modelling and aspiring to be an actress.
Soana’s advice is to “embrace the journey, as much as there is a goal or outcome you’re never gonna be in the same space in that way again, so embrace and enjoy the moment.”
Soana and her mother, a prominent Tongan performing artist, have a new project in development. They are planning to take this project to Hawaii first and then to other countries that aren’t rich in Tongan culture.
It’s vital that Pacific women are centred to increase visibility and serve as role models. Through giving space to Pasifika women, their voices are normalised and given the value they deserve. Maru and Soana, your stories will be heard.
Photos by Maruseana Sititi and Soana Aleva