MEMPHIS, TENN. (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Miss Teen USA crown is coming back to Hawaii after Kauai’s own Ki’ilani Arruda won the national competition Saturday night.
Arruda flew to Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. for the competition, which had strict COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
She beat out contestants from 49 other states and the District of Columbia to win the title.
“I’m just so grateful to be able to represent Hawaii at the national level,” Arruda said. “It’s really just a dream come true.”
Arruda is a freshman distance-learning at the University of Puget Sound where she’s studying molecular and cellular biology on a pre-med track, while earning a minor in Spanish.
She’s an alumna of Island School on Kauai where she was a respected athlete and honor roll student.
With her brother as an inspiration, Arruda uses her platform to advocate for autism awareness. Her hope is that we can build a world that is accepting and inclusive for all people.
She got emotional as she remembered her younger brother who was diagnosed with autism, and is non-verbal, but slowly learning to speak.
“He said I love you after I won my crown when I facetimed him, and that made me cry. It just warms my heart,” she said.
“People who have family members who are diagnosed with autism, it’s so special and each and every of them have some special story that should be shared with the world,” she added.
The last time a contestant from Hawaii won the title was actress and model Kelly Hu in 1985.
Sonya Balmores, another Kauai contestant, came close in 2004, being crowned 1st runner-up.
This year’s contest was visibly different with contestants socially distanced and wearing face masks at times, and the crowd limited in size.
Her Miss Hawaii USA “big sister" Samantha Neyland is also in Memphis for the Miss USA competition, which will be held Monday.