A few are standing with their arms held away from their sides like cartoon cowboys ready to draw their guns. "Some of the girls went to the tanning spa today," Ray Abregano says. "They don’t want to get the spray tan on their gowns."
After close to three decades of producing pageants, not much surprises Abregano. He’s an affable leader, the kind of person who is more likely to get busy than get angry.
"OK, ladies, after the opening, we’re going right into swimsuit, so remember the pareus."
While the 22 contestants for Miss Hawaii practice for pageant night, Abregano is in the audience calling out directions to them. When a singer hits a lovely note, he gasps in appreciation even if he’s heard her sing the song a dozen times. When a dancer pulls off a difficult trick, he giggles in delight. He loves this.
For Abregano it started in 1976. He was teaching drama at St. Anthony School in Wailuku, and one of his students asked him to help her prepare for the Miss Maui pageant.
"She did ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and came in fourth runner-up," he remembers.
Abregano seems to remember everyone’s talent, good, not-so-good and what-were-they-thinking.
Abregano, now dean of faculty at Saint Louis School, produced the first televised Miss Hawaii pageant in 1984. He gleefully recalls when Traci Toguchi sang "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" on live TV. Her performance was interrupted by a taxi dispatcher radioing "Pick up outside the Hilton" that somehow infiltrated the sound system. He made Toguchi start over. She did and won Miss Hawaii that night.
The spray tans will last through tomorrow’s pageant. "Some pageant contestants get fake abs drawn on their stomachs," Abregano says. "It looks real onstage. But we don’t allow that in Miss Hawaii."
A few of the girls have visible tattoos. Pageant contestants no longer avoid those or hide them with makeup.
"A couple years ago, our Miss Hawaii Kanoe Gibson won swimsuit in Atlantic City with a tattoo on her hip that showed above her two-piece," Abregano says, nodding in affirmation that times have indeed changed. "It was a tattoo of the whole Hawaiian island chain. She was first runner-up to Miss America."
This year, of the 22 contestants, several girls have their master’s degrees. One is fluent in the Hawaiian language. One dances in Kealii Reichel’s halau. There are two University of Hawaii athletes.
The biggest change over the years hasn’t been the hip-hop music or the tattoos or the two-piece swimsuits. It’s the way the contestants get along with one another.
"This is the generation that grew up playing soccer. They think green, they think globally," Abregano says. "There’s real camaraderie. It’s not cutthroat like before."
Abregano rolls his eyes remembering those old days, and then he laughs and tells the contestants to get ready to practice evening gown.