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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Friendship blossoms for royal court

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is another in a series of stories by Cherry Blossom Queen Catherine E. Toth about what she and her court are learning from their reign. Toth, an Advertiser feature writer, assumed the title March 24; we'll keep in touch every couple of months as the six young women learn more about themselves, their culture and the people and places they come to know.

Closing ceremonies April 29.

Finally, the festival had come to an end, in a small room in McCoy Pavilion. Surrounded by the families who had stood alongside us, the 49th Cherry Blossom Festival contestants — semifinalists, we're called — said our thank-yous and goodbyes.

Court members Lezlie Yamauchi, Jeanette Knutson and Catherine E. Toth learned to laugh at themselves during their first media event, a stint on the "Channel 2 Morning News" with Manolo Morales, far left, and cameraman Bob Cramer.

Courtesy of Catherine E. Toth

It was the first time all 15 contestants had gotten together since Festival Ball night March 24. Having been apart for a month hadn't changed a thing, except that several former contestants had drastically chopped their tresses. One girl had cut her hair two days after taking down her up-do that night, for the last time. Then she colored it a burst of citrus. "Why not?" she replied, shrugging off the compliments. "It just wasn't me."

It's funny how true that is. None of us routinely hire make-up consultants to plaster our faces with five different eye shadows and fake eyelashes on a regular basis. None of us have used so many bobby pins and hair spray in our lives. And none of us had ever had to endure five hours strapped into a kimono. That really wasn't us.

It didn't occur to me until after that final night that we didn't know a whole lot about each other outside of the festival. Sure, I knew everyone's middle names, where they went to high school and who couldn't get into nightclubs yet. But beyond these basics, we were still strangers.

The day after we went our separate ways, I was overwhelmed with an anxiety that I would never see any of the contestants again. I scrambled to call everyone, left messages on voice-mail and committed to entering every phone number into my hand-held organizer.

"I miss you guys," one girl lamented when I visited her at work.

"It's so weird not having anything to do this weekend," whimpered another.

The adjustment was difficult. Some girls got really sick, suffering from crash-and-burn after weeks of constant go-go-go. Others felt lost, wondering what to do with their sudden free time.

But for the court members, free time is still precious. We had a function the very next night, and coming together for the first time as a court was surprisingly awkward. Where was everyone else?

They were moving on.

Two girls got gigs working the catwalk for designer Anne Namba. The students threw themselves back into school, frantically making up for all the slacking they had done during the festival. The two soon-to-be brides got busy with their wedding plans.

As for the rest of us, we were now faced with the daunting responsibility of representing the Japanese American community, ironic, considering three of the six court members are hapa.

Although my intention in participating in the festival included finding where I belong in the grand scheme of things, I realized quickly that part of that self-discovery was to learn how to connect with others who are on that same search. Who were these 14 other women who sacrificed their time, health and sometimes sanity to participate in something some people consider a complete waste of time?

Now, without classes to keep us connected or impromptu questions to rant about, we had to figure out what we all had in common. So we went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen, shopped at Ala Moana Center and spent Easter lounging around one court member's living room. We chatted excitedly like high-schoolers at a sleepover, talking about problematic relationships, dead-end jobs, dates from hell.

We discovered something about ourselves in learning about each other. We know who religiously watches WWF and who can't miss her Japanese dramas on KIKU. We know who has VIP cards to Ocean's and who shops at Hot Topic. We know who can get into movies for free and who can get us discounts at Burberry, Abercrombie & Fitch and Arden B.

It's difficult to be separated, especially after creating such an emotional bond. And what I treasure more than any prize or crown is being able to continue this journey for the next year. I was crazy to think I knew everyone so well. Our court visit to San Francisco three weeks ago confirmed that.

While most of the trip was spent meeting courts from other Cherry Blossom festivals and touring the city, our most memorable moments took place in our hotel room, where the five of us stayed up foolishly late, laughing at the Neoprints we took and sharing details of past relationships. Just being us, no crowns or sashes.

I know who snores, who writes in a journal, who is not a morning person.

But more than that, I found out that we all have insecurities and a need to feel accepted. The one with the hardest exterior has the softest heart. The one who seems so together feels so lost. And admitting this, letting our guards down, has made us stronger together.

Contestants and festival coordinators have reiterated so many times that the Cherry Blossom Festival is not a beauty pageant. But maybe it is.

I thought about that at the closing ceremonies, when we all were together again. We laughed so hard, holding our stomachs, as we changed into our costumes for the traditional end-of-festival skit.

Those who weren't on the court were enthusiastic about helping us with community service projects and planning get-togethers that had nothing to do with the festival. "We're so proud of you guys," one told us, nearly knocking us over with hugs.

And I thought: "Maybe this is a beauty pageant."

Not the plastic, materialist concept of beauty, what you see on magazine covers and in music videos. This beauty radiated from within, as each contestant bear-hugged her parents and thanked each other for the memories.

We have learned by example, watching last year's court graciously acknowledge the hard work of the festival's volunteers and following the lead of our doting advisers, who taught us to appreciate every moment.

That night, I changed my mind: I am, in fact, surrounded by beauty.