Savannah Mar’i Gankiewicz sits down with us ahead of the upcoming Miss USA pageant
Savannah Mar’i Gankiewicz, the current holder of the Miss Hawaii USA title is the first winner coming from Maui in more than 20 years; following Trini Kaopuiki in 1999 and Christy Leonard in 2001. She was born in Oʻahu and lived in Maui with her mother, who is Filipina, and in Virginia with her father, who is Polish and Vietnamese. At one point, she also moved to the Philippines to compete in the Mutya Ng Pilipinas pageant, where she won the Miss Overseas Community title in 2017. She is also an advocate for What Makes You Feel Beautiful, a 501 (c)3 nonprofit based on Maui that advocates for female empowerment.
In light of her mixed heritage, she shared via Instagram:
“To know my heritage and be able to understand the sacrifices my grandparents made to migrate to America has provided me with the resilience, strength, and tenacity to be able to pursue this journey of mine.” She adds, “As Miss Hawaii USA, and a woman born from Asian heritage and descent, I hope to be a symbol and beacon of light for other Asian-Americans, for generations to come, to follow their hopes and dreams. Not just for our own personal pursuits, but for our families who sacrificed so much, to give us stepping stones for these opportunities.”
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Gankiewicz is slated to compete for the Miss USA title on September 29, 2023, at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada.
In an exclusive interview with Gankiewicz, she shares her thoughts on the upcoming Miss USA pageant, her experiences as someone of mixed descent, her time in the Philippines, her advocacies, as well as the recent fires in her home island of Maui.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You are the first to represent Hawaii in Miss USA from Maui in over 20 years. What does this mean to you?
“It means so much to me. I just want to make not only my island but my state proud when I go to Miss USA. It’s such an honor to represent them and I know I also made all my family members proud.”
How have the days been since your victory? Has it sunk in?
“I won on January 15, so it’s been months now since winning Miss USA and I still can’t believe it. This has been a dream for so long and it finally happened. Now I’ve been busy with my nonprofit and doing as much community work as possible. Right now, I just want to be an impactful leader during my reign, and really leave a good impression.”
Heading into Miss USA, are you more nervous or excited?
“I’m so excited. I thought I would be nervous. But I keep saying to myself, ‘I want my fate to be decided. I want the chance to be Miss USA, and have that platform.’ And I cannot wait to meet the other girls. We’ve been talking on Instagram and having some good girl talk. I’m so excited because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get to walk on that Miss USA stage.”
Being of Filipino, Polish, and Vietnamese descent, and having a mixed heritage, do you ever feel as if you don’t particularly belong anywhere?
“Growing up, it was hard. I felt like I’m not Vietnamese, I’m not Polish, I’m not American, and I’m not Filipino because I’m a mix. It was really hard trying to find my grounding in that. But as I got older I realized it is amazing that I can say that I’m of all those ethnicities. And as an adult, I tried to really understand each culture and I’m very proud to represent all these ethnicities.”
That being said, what does it mean for you to represent Hawaii? And do you think nationalities and heritage matter in that regard?
“Hawaii is a multicultural state; there are many Filipinos here. And I feel like going into Miss USA, I don’t want to—I feel as if it doesn’t really matter, whatever your ethnicity is. However, what does matter is the fact that I have grown up with all these cultures, and I’ve taken it all in. And from what I’ve learned and maybe what I can show America, is that the country as a whole is a melting pot of ethnicities.”
You moved to the Philippines to model and compete in the Mutya ng Pilipinas pageant where you won the title of Miss Overseas Communities in 2017. What did that experience mean to you?
“It was such a surreal experience. I remember I was 21 years old and my Lola told me, ‘Please do Mutya ng Pilipinas. It would mean so much.’ And I wasn’t a beauty queen yet but I knew I wanted to get the exposure and I wanted to have that experience of going to the Philippines where I came from. I’ve never been to Manila so when I immersed myself in the culture and I got to see where my grandma and my grandfather came from, it was so amazing. And then when I won Miss Overseas Communities, I was just in shock. I was so excited, you know, being 21, and in a new country. And from there, I actually lived in Manila for over a year.”
When did you know that you wanted to pursue modeling and pageantry?
“Ever since I was a little girl. I just loved being feminine, I loved makeup, I loved being on stage, but most of all, I loved having a voice. When I was younger, I was told that I always had an opinion and that I always fought for it. So at first, my family thought that I should be a lawyer because I was good at arguing my point. But then I realized that being a beauty queen, you can also have a platform to inspire people. And so when I decided to pursue modeling and see the world and meet all kinds of cultures, it just really opened up so many doors.”
Who would you say are your biggest supporters who have helped you get to where you are?
“Definitely my family and my best friends. My mom is my biggest cheerleader. She is the one that introduced me to pageantry and she actually was Mrs. Maui back in the day. So I got to see firsthand what meant to be a beauty queen. And my best friends, they really— it’s the support system. I feel like when you have a really strong support system, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
What about individuals that you regard as inspirations, people that you look up to and try to emulate?
“I would say the Director of What Makes You Feel Beautiful. Her name is Monica Marrow. I’m the program director and ambassador for this nonprofit organization and she inspired me to imitate how she is with people. And the way she uplifts and empowers women of all ages, that’s something that I want to do.”
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During Miss Hawaii, you decided to talk about the What Makes You Feel Beautiful nonprofit in Maui that advocates for female empowerment. Can you share why you selected them specifically?
“I always say What Makes You Feel Beautiful, it found me. Growing up, I did not have any self-love—I didn’t see my value. And the mission of What Makes You Feel Beautiful is to help girls and women cultivate self-love at every age and phase of life through education and mentorship. And I wish I had this program, this organization when I was around 10 or 16 years old. It’s important that we teach younger women how to love ourselves first unconditionally because once we do that we can we can do anything we put our mind to.”
What are some of the projects and initiatives that you take part in for What Makes You Feel Beautiful?
“As a program director for the First Love Yourself youth program, my job is to facilitate workshops for young women between the ages of 13 to 17. I have worked with girls around my age, and I help them see their value in themselves, how to cultivate self-love, and I also teach them how to overcome self-critical thoughts. They’re very intimate, small workshops so we can open up and it’s been amazing. I have gone to the Big Island and I’ve come to schools, and I have done so much within this organization and my community and I hope to keep doing it.”
We’ve heard about the recent fires in Maui. How is it over there?
“We had fires in Lahaina, North Kihei, and Kula, the worst one being in Lahaina, where hundreds and thousands of homes went into flames, and there are still about maybe 1000 people missing. And it’s been especially tragic because Lahaina is the oldest town in Maui and it used to be the capital of the Hawaii kingdom, so people have lived there for generations.”
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“There are shelters here and I have been volunteering at war memorial. There are quite a few hundred people at this shelter but what is so beautiful coming from Hawaii is our culture to help. Everyone is one big family, one big ohana, and just to see all these volunteers who haven’t been necessarily impacted, but just want to help, it’s really great to see that humanity is not lost and that there’s still kindness. And we’re still accepting donations from all over the state and even across the nation. There are people sending donations to Maui to help individuals who have lost everything. And it’s not just houses that have been lost, it’s businesses and people that have unfortunately passed.”
Is there anything that you would like to tell your fans from all over the world and in the Philippines?
“I would love to say thank you, everyone, for the support, especially the Philippines. Everyone knows that pageantry there is like the Olympics and living in Manila has helped me grow so much as a woman. And I just want to say, never be afraid to go after what you want. I’m here standing at 27 and I am so proud of myself for going after the dreams that I’ve always wanted to go after.”
Photos by Fadil Berisha