Hawaii's Ki'ilani Arruda crowned Miss Teen USA 2020 during pageant at Graceland
As the 16 finalists in Saturday night's Miss Teen USA pageant paraded across the Graceland stage in their Sherri Hill-designed evening gowns, Elvis Presley's recording of "Pocketful of Rainbows," from the 1960 movie "G.I. Blues," was played over the sound system.
"I don't worry/ Whenever skies are gray above/ Got a pocketful of rainbows/ Got a heart full of love..."
The sentiment was appropriately upbeat, but a selection from a film Elvis made the following year, "Blue Hawaii," might have been more prescient: Miss Teen USA 2020 — crowned after a roughly 90-minute ceremony inside a socially distanced Soundstage at Graceland — is Ki'ilani Arruda, representing Hawaii.
A self-described "island girl," Arruda was the second Miss Hawaii Teen USA to win the title. The first, in 1985, was Kelly Hu, who went on the play a supervillain, Lady Deathstrike, in the second "X-Men" movie, "X2: X-Men United."
Arruda has less glamorous plans: She hopes to become a dermatologist, according to a biography supplied by the Miss Universe Organization, which produces Miss Universe, Miss USA, and the latter's "little sister" pageant (to again make an Elvis allusion), Miss Teen USA.
To that end, Arruda is currently a freshman at the University of Puget Sound, studying molecular and cellular biology. Growing up on the "Garden Island" of Kaua’i, Arruda also is an advocate for autism awareness. (The subject is close to her heart because she has an autistic younger brother.)
Unlike the previous evening's protracted Miss USA and Miss Teen USA preliminary competitions, which required all 102 contestants to model active and evening wear for the judges at the Soundstage, Saturday's Miss Teen USA pageant supplied plenty of Memphis and Graceland tourism promotion to the home viewers — including many overseas — who watched the livestreamed pageant on the Miss USA Facebook page and other social media channels.
Shown on the Soundstage's video screens, a humorous TikTok montage showcased the girls — who have been based week at the hotel adjacent to the Presley mansion, The Guesthouse at Graceland — striking Elvis poses in Elvis jumpsuits, scored to a remixed version of the Presley song "Bossa Nova Baby."
Pageant hosts Cheslie Kryst (the reigning Miss USA 2019) and Allie LaForce (Miss Teen USA 2005 and an "NBA on TNT" reporter) and such special guests as the current Miss Universe, Zozi Tunzi of South Africa, and the current Miss Teen USA, Kaliegh Garris, touted the host city.
"A special shout-out to Memphis, one of the greatest and also safest places to host a production," LaForce said. Garris, meanwhile, said she especially appreciated visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. "I think Memphis is just filled with history," she said, adding that she appreciated learning about "everything that got us where we are today."
When Miss Universe Organization president Paula Shugart took the stage, Kryst asked her: "What do you love about this magical city?"
"We have had a great event here," Shugart replied. "Their safety protocols and everything is amazing."
The 16 Miss Teen USA finalists announced near the start of the show included two Tri-State representatives, Anna Claire Hay, from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and "hometown girl" (in the words of the host) Ansley Ecker, a Munford High School graduate who plans to major in physical therapy at the University of Memphis.
However, neither girl made it from the pool of 16 finalists into the Top Five list that preceded the announcement that Miss Teen USA Hawaii was the new Miss Teen USA. Miss Oregon Teen USA Shayla Montgomery was first runner-up, while Miss Georgia Teen USA Shayla Jackson was second runner-up.
Although no candidate was endorsed, the recent presidential election was referred to frequently if obliquely, with many of the contestants mentioning that they turned 18 this year, and so were able to vote. Said LaForce: "It's so great to see the young women doing their civic duty and voting for the first time in their lives."
But the evening's pervasive theme was the COVID-19 pandemic, which had curtailed the contestants' schedules and kept them largely confined to the Graceland campus, where they have been tested daily for the coronavirus since arriving in Memphis early this week.
In a startling visual reminder of the pandemic, the young women wore masks when they returned to the stage en masse near the end of the show, for the announcement of the winner. The black masks that obscured their typically beaming smiles provided a stark contrast to the bright colors of their glittering gowns, the painstaking preparation of their coiffures, and the signature pageant sashes emblazoned in bold red letters with their state names.
With the Miss Teen USA contest now in the record books, Graceland next will host the week's most significant pageant event: Miss USA. The show airs live at 7 p.m. Monday on the FYI cable channel. LaForce will again host, this time joined by professional football player turned television personality Akbar Gbaja-Biamila.