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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Ex-Cherry Blossom queen learns to stay true to self

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Last year's Cherry Blossom Festival queen Catherine Toth, right, congratulates this year's new queen, Lisa Okinaga, at the Festival Ball. Okinaga is the festival's 50th queen.

Chris Kanemura • The Honolulu Advertiser

I lost 20 bucks on what I thought was a sure bet: I wouldn't cry at Festival Ball, the night I gave up my crown.

What was there to cry about?

The six of us had done everything we had set out to accomplish — working with seniors and children, organizing a blood drive, promoting the 50th Cherry Blossom Festival — and we had no regrets.

But it hasn't been an easy year.

To be thrust in the spotlight, to be held up to criticism, to be expected to always exude confidence and graciousness even when all you want to do is change into pajamas and crawl back into bed ... I never got used to the feeling of constantly being watched, judged and critiqued. But I tried to never let it get to me.

I made a promise to myself to be sincere and appreciative, to make the best of every situation. No matter what.

Because this wasn't about me. This experience was larger than any one of us. We were afforded this opportunity through the generosity of and support from others — festival sponsors, volunteers, instructors, advisers, co-workers, parents, brothers, sisters, boyfriends — who not only believed in the festival but believed in us.

And making every moment count meant more than just smiling when the cameras were on.

So I ignored the disapproving looks and hurtful comments.

"She's too loud."

"She's not wearing panty hose."

"She can't even speak Japanese."

It was the hardest lesson to learn, but the one that inevitably made me stronger: Be true to yourself.

I had a responsibility to five other court members: I wanted to make sure their experience was as fulfilling and as meaningful as they had imagined a year ago, when we stood on stage with our glittery new crowns and idealistic intentions.

If I accomplished anything this past year, I hope I did that.

I hope they remember staying up all night in San Francisco, laughing at the Neo Prints we took. Or watching the video of the skit we did in Los Angeles over and over again. Or passing sashimi and seared 'ahi under the tables at formal dinners.

Despite the long nights and early mornings, despite that we never had a free weekend in 16 months, despite the lack of normalcy in our lives, we had lots of fun. Enough fun to make us want to get together, to laugh on the phone, to make weekend plans that don't require matching outfits.

And although I had been counting the days to Festival Ball for the past three months, I wasn't prepared to be as overwhelmed with emotion as I was that night.

For the first time it all made sense. I understood why we were here.

We had wanted to make a difference, to leave an impression, to make an impact. And even if we reached one person during our reign, that was enough.

But instead we were the ones whose lives changed. It was the people we met along the way who left that lasting impression, who shaped our perspectives, who made a difference to us.

I didn't cry because my reign was over, because I had to step out of the spotlight, or because I wouldn't get to wear a crown on weekends (at least in public).

I cried because I never felt more honored to have been in the company of those five women on the 49th court, who taught me that being true to yourself is about being honest, confident in who you are and always striving to be better. It's about being humble and gracious, genuine and compassionate.

And learning that was well worth the 20 bucks.