The crowning moment of 2020 just may be the beginning of Ki‘ilani Arruda’s reign as Miss Teen USA.
As Ki‘ilani Arruda reflects on her many blessings this past Thanksgiving, bringing home the national title of Miss Teen USA is surely among them.
“I’m thankful for my family, and I’m so excited that I get to share this title with them and be home with them for the holidays,” says Arruda, 18. “And I’m thankful for everybody who helped me through this journey. It was really a team effort.”
Arruda, who was born and raised in Kapa‘a on Kaua‘i, was crowned Miss Teen USA Nov. 7 in Memphis, Tennessee. She entered her first pageant a couple of years ago, at mom Napua’s urging, winning Miss Kaua‘i Teen USA and taking second runner-up at Miss Hawai‘i Teen USA. She then returned the following year to capture the state title and now Miss Teen USA.
“I didn’t want to do it (pageants) at first because I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I looked into it and saw it’s a really great opportunity overall and to get more confidence,” recalls Arruda, who’s only the second local to claim the national title since Kelly Hu accomplished the feat in 1985. “One thing led to another, and I was working really hard to get to where I am now. I’m really excited to be Miss Teen USA and have this whole year to expand on my platform.”
While not a requirement, Arruda chose to have a platform — autism awareness — knowing she would have the chance to bring more attention to a cause she holds dear to her heart.
“My little brother (Channing), when he was 2, he was diagnosed with autism, and for me and my family, it was difficult to navigate his diagnosis,” shares Arruda, who also has a younger sister named Lea. “I want to educate people about autism, and create a community of families who have loved ones with autism to provide the support that they need.”
In addition to being an advocate for autism, Arruda is also looking forward to working with the nonprofit Best Buddies, which the Miss Universe Organization (that Miss Teen USA falls under) has been actively involved with for many years.
Currently a student at University of Puget Sound, but distance learning from her home in Kapa‘a, Arruda is majoring in molecular and cellular biology, and minoring in Spanish, with a goal to become a dermatologist in Hawai‘i.
“Personally, I’ve struggled with self-confidence in the past due to my blemishes,” says Arruda when asked about problems teens are faced with today. “That’s why I want to be a dermatologist.
“We live in a world of filters. I want to help them to be more comfortable in their own skin and with themselves — to look beyond the smoke and mirrors.”
Beyond the crown, Arruda calls herself an island girl who loves to be barefoot everywhere she goes. But she’s grown to love being a pageant girl, too, and has picked up a few beauty tricks along the way.
“What I learned from doing pageants is that makeup is so different for each person, so know what makes you comfortable and what enhances your natural features,” she says. “Practice makes perfect and take your time. Before pageants, I was a novice at makeup, but I found what works for me.”
Among her must-have beauty products are “some sort of Chapstick … anything that smells really good” and sunscreen.
“Sunscreen is super important and I use it every day,” she says. “Protecting your skin from the sun is the best thing to do to maintain one’s beauty and longevity. Also, by eating healthy and drinking lots of water.”
Arruda is a graduate of Island School in Līhu‘e, where she served as student body president, maintained a 4.0 GPA, played volleyball and was on the track and field and swim teams. She’s currently on the roster for the women’s swim team at University of Puget Sound, but hasn’t been able to compete yet because they haven’t had any swim meets due to rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
She’s also a foodie, and can often be found in the kitchen cooking, baking and eating. That explains her list of favorite TV shows, which include Chopped, Iron Chef America and Zumbo’s Just Desserts.
“I like trying new things and I love making crepes — sweet and savory crepes,” she says. “That’s my signature.”
As for music, she likes Fleetwood Mac and is obsessed (like the rest of the world) with Korean boy band BTS.
“They’re my favorite,” she says. “It’s so crazy, the fan base is huge. I haven’t (seen them perform live) but that’s on my bucket list. My prelim pageant director (Avery Kano) said he would take me to Korea if I won (Miss Teen USA) and I did, so one day we’ll go.”
2020 has been a year of uncertainty for many, but Arruda has learned to overcome these challenging times with grit and grace. Some of her life’s major milestones all took place during the coronavirus pandemic — high school graduation, first year in college, Miss Teen USA. But she’s made the most of the situation, and found the positivity in it, such as being able to unwind the way she loves most — with her family.
“Over quarantine, we spent a lot of quality time together, and we were lucky we could still hang out in our yard,” she says. “My dog loves to play fetch, so I enjoy going outside and getting some exercise with him.”
Looking ahead, Arruda says she hopes to continue her work in the community locally and nationally, while making her family and Hawai‘i proud.
“My mom is my mentor, I’m a mama’s girl,” she says. “She was a single mom for most of my life. I really felt like I had a really strong female empowerment in my life. She worked really hard to provide the opportunities that I have now, so I hope that with my success, it’s also her success and I get to share that with her, which is really special to me.
“I really appreciate her for that, and with this title, I would hope that I made her proud.”