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Rasa Fournier

Tomboy In A Tiara

Miss Hawaii Crystal Lee is poised and beautiful, but this self-proclaimed tomboy says she loves to do handsprings in heels

Arms and legs extended, she twirls and bends, then lifts off and, for a moment, flies. The folds of her white, gossamer skirt flutter in the air, her sequined leotard shimmering like something ethereal – a shooting star. But Miss Hawaii Crystal Lee is all flesh and blood. Look at her knees and you’ll spot a few bruises.

“I have bruises all over my knees. I’m not afraid to get hurt.” She smiles, her warm tones and facial structure reminiscent of a young Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Lee makes the moves look effortless. That’s because she has been dancing since she was 6, when she followed a close friend into dance class. Lee has been flexing her dancing toes ever since.

“When I got into dance, I had to wear all these girly outfits,” notes the professed tomboy. “Coming into dance and pageantry, I feel like I’m breaking that stereotype of what a girly-girl is.”

Then she says something that you’ll probably never hear anywhere else – something that shows what kind of timbre she’s made of: “I love to do jumps and tricks, and do back handsprings in heels.”

In heels!

She says growing up with two older brothers, instilled in her a “no fear, just do it” mentality. Together, they’d climb trees, wrestle and watch WWF.

Dancing in the talent portion of the pageants is what helped Lee successively win Miss Chinatown Hawaii 2013, then Miss Hawaii 2013. But dance also is what landed her in pageantry in the first place. For nearly 10 years, Lee has been an integral part of Hawaii’s premier dance company, 24-VII Danceforce.

“Twenty-four-VII has been dancing for the Miss Hawaii pageant since 1990, the year I was born,” points out the 22-year-old.

Catching the adrenaline rush of dancing on the Miss Hawaii stage, but more so, seeing the contestants “have the confidence to put themselves out there in a bikini, and fight for something they believed in” proved pivotal for Lee. She decided she would compete on that stage one day.

Lee’s parents, her father from Hong Kong and mom from Ohio, met while they were stationed in Hawaii working as flight attendants for World Airways. The youngest of three children (their dad being a Kung Fu aficionado, the eldest was named Bruce), Lee grew up in Waipio Gentry and attended Pearl City High School before earning a double major at UH last year in communication and French. A self-proclaimed “French geek” in high school, she helped found the school’s French Club and has managed to visit the country several times, including on a study-abroad trip in college.

As hapa-Chinese, one of Lee’s most significant journeys was a trip to China, where she tracked her family’s roots to a simple village.

“They still live on dirt floors and get their water from a well,” she says. “I’m so fortunate my grandparents worked so hard to move my family here to get us better opportunity. Now it’s my job to push my generation a little bit further.”

At 17, she ran for Miss Hawaii for the first time and earned a commendable fourth runner up out of 30 contestants. And the spark only grew into a flame, with Lee realizing that to win was going to take single-minded dedication. Her first step was to get even more experience by running for Miss Chinatown, one of the pageants that feed into Miss Hawaii.

“Winning Miss Chinatown brought a lot of pride to my family. Bring pride to the Chinese family, right?” she laughs. “I was really proud to represent my culture, but so proud now to represent my state.”

Last June she attained her years-long dream of being crowned Miss Hawaii, also earning special awards for talent, lifestyle and fitness, and Miss Photogenic. It’s easy to understand with her all-out enthusiasm for dance why the talent portion of the pageant process is what Lee gets most excited about. She has the dance arena down, having graduated to teaching at 24-VII and becoming a Rainbow Warrior Dancer when she entered college, eventually serving as captain of the team.

“I was able to dance at UH football games in the middle of a huge audience. To be on a stage with 25,000 people in front of you, and broadcasting all over the world – it’s rewarding to be on that stage and to own it,” she says, seemingly talking about both football dancing and pageantry. “Having school pride and dancing at the football games is probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” she adds.

Now, Lee is on her final stretch to the Miss America pageant, where after talent, the remaining categories are swimsuit, gown and interview. As an active woman, she already had a great physique, but some additional personal fitness training sessions have sculpted her athletic build, toning her strong limbs and giving her a slender waist.

There’s always that dreaded interview portion to contend with. We’ve all seen viral news segments and YouTube videos of gorgeous pageant participants melting into a pool of gibberish under the world spotlight. Lee admits that the interview segment is a challenge, but she’s set on standing up to that challenge and “killing” it.

In the rare event Lee has any free time these days, she enjoys getting outside, either snorkeling and searching for shells to add to her collection, or going hiking. But generally she’s busy promoting her pageant platform, which is to encourage people to donate blood. Several years ago, her maternal grandfather was diagnosed with blood cancer, requiring transfusions to stay alive. He finally succumbed in 2007 but, Lee says, his suffering was not in vain because his story speaks to people’s hearts, encouraging them to donate.

Lee also helped raise funds for Children’s Miracle Network with a Miss Hawaii Day at Windward Mall, prompting former Miss Hawaiis to join her in raising awareness.

Career-wise, Lee has worked in promotions at Hawaii Pacific Entertainment, and she hopes to one day work in advertising as the director of client services. For now, her aptitude for advertising is being funneled into her Miss Hawaii run.

“I took on the Miss Hawaii role knowing that I have a brand and I can advertise myself. I’m proud to say I started a Miss Hawaii Instagram and got 700 followers in two months. People always want to know, what does Miss Hawaii do? Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and you can see what Miss Hawaii does, how hard we work. It’s a job, but it’s a rewarding job.

“Do you want to know about the real me?” Lee suddenly asks. “Formers have told me ‘just be yourself.’ It’s hard to be yourself when you’re in the public and you’re constantly thinking, is this politically correct? What I learned is that you have to humble yourself and you’ll take constructive criticism well. You can only grow from that and you won’t get sucked into the me-meme type of feeling. Surround yourself with the people you love and you’ll stay grounded, you’ll stay humble and you’ll stay true to who you are.”

Stand with Lee by voting for her video through Sept. 12 at missamerica.org/videocontest. (Make sure you’re clicking on the correct Crystal Lee, because her namesake happens to be running simultaneously for Miss California.) Then, Sept. 15, root for Lee when Miss America is aired live on ABC from Atlantic City.

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