Maui’s Savannah Gankiewicz returned to a homecoming celebration at Kahului Airport on Tuesday evening after earning the coveted Miss Hawaii USA crown over the weekend.
“I still am in disbelief,” said the 27-year-old title holder during a phone interview with Maui Now on Wednesday. “It’s been a few days, but it’s slowly sinking in,” said Gankiewicz who described the feeling as “surreal.”
In addition to the overall state title, Gankiewicz, who entered as Miss Wailea, also brought home the Most Photogenic award. Joining Gankiewicz on her flight home was Noelani DeNisi who brought home the title of Miss Hawaii Teen USA just hours earlier at a sister event also held at the Hawai’i Convention Center.
“It’s just an astonishing feeling… two Maui girls got to bring home the titles. And it’s just great as well because she’s going to be my little sister through this and we’re going to be going to national’s together,” said Gankiewicz.
Gankiewicz was born on Oʻahu and was raised on both Maui where her mom is from, and in Virginia with her father. “Everyone is always confused. What is Gankiewicz? So I have to tell them, my dad is Polish and Vietnamese and my mom is full Filipina.”
She went to middle school and high school on the mainland and completed some college there before returning to Maui at the age of 21.
“It was really difficult because I had two homes, but at the same time, when I was in Virginia, I just always considered Hawaiʻi my home, because that is where I felt more myself.”
A self-described travel bug, Gankiewicz moved to the Philippines to model and compete in the Mutya Ng Pilipinas pageant, where she won the Miss Overseas Community title in 2017. She also spent time in Los Angeles where she was signed with a modeling agency before returning to Maui just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gankiewicz said her time at home allowed her to get herself grounded and focus on her dreams. “I knew modeling was always something that I loved to do, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be a part of my community more, and inspire other women to go for their dreams. No dream is too big,” she said.
Gankiewicz signed up to compete in her last eligible year, saying she wanted to have no regrets. “I’m all about timing, and I waited. This is my last year–I’m 27 now–and I waited until I knew I was ready.”
She prepared over a period of 8-9 months, by taking inspiration from her own role models the likes of whom include Catriona Gray a Filipino-Australian model who won the title of Miss Universe in 2018.
“I always thought, there’s so many women who are just like her–who have this platform to inspire others, because she inspired me… So I wanted to be another inspiration to my community,” said Gankiewicz.
Under the Miss Universe umbrella, the Miss Hawaii USA competition did not feature a talent portion to the competition, but there was an advocacy element that allowed contestants to voice their support towards a specific cause.
Gankiewicz selected What Makes You Feel Beautiful, a 501 (c)3 nonprofit based on Maui that advocates for female empowerment. “It helps women cultivate self love. It helps them to stop being so critical, and it teaches us how to have a self-care routine and leadership capabilities,” she said.
“We’ve always planned for me in 2023 to go into the Maui high schools and talk to younger girls, so they know how to have that self love, and they know how to have dreams and inspiration,” said Gankiewicz, who serves as a facilitator for the program.
As a model, international businesswoman, an advocate for younger women, and now a title holder of Miss Hawaii USA, Gankiewicz said, “I just really hope I can inspire other girls to not only have one dream, but multiple dreams. They can do it all, no matter what. It’s just having the right mindset, and knowing that you can conquer anything.”
With her win, Gankiewicz advances to the national Miss USA pageant this fall in Reno, Nevada.
While all are vying for the same title, Gankiewicz said she’s excited about the opportunities ahead. “You get to meet 50 other contestants who have the same goals and dream, but we are all empowered and we all uplift each other.”
Gankiewicz is the first Maui contestant to earn the Miss Hawaii USA title in more than 20 years, according to pageant enthusiasts. In 2001, Christy Leonard won the title, and in 1999, Trini Kaopuiki brought home the crown. As for the teen title, Noelani DeNisi follows in the footsteps of Joahnnalee Ucol who was crowned in 2016.