Teen On The Move

Savanna Rafto of Honolulu wins a national Paul Frank contest as the perfect teen role model, and she’s looking at her future life and career in a new way

Fashion and lifestyle brand Paul Frank has selected local girl Savanna Rafto as the winner of its second annual Role Model contest, describing the 2012 Punahou graduate as someone who reflects the joyful and creative spirit of the brand and is a great role model for teen girls everywhere.


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Savanna Rafto. Photo by Anthony Consillio

MidWeek caught up with Rafto, now a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C., during her recent visit home for the holidays, and quickly discovered why she is a role model Hawaii should be very proud of. She’s easily likable, sweet, wholesome – that girl next door whom you instantly trust and feel comfortable with.

While in high school, she was part of the Malama Team as a student worker, helping kindergartners and first-graders during recess and lunch. She also was a student worker for kindergarten teacher Rebecca Kesler, a ballet teaching assistant in Punahou Dance School, and she spent her summer as a student worker in the school’s K-1 Afterschool Outdoor Education Program, as well as Keiki Kamp, where they would go on excursions and help kids gain an appreciation for the outdoors.

“I definitely love working with young kids,” says Rafto. “They’re just so wide-eyed and impressionable. They don’t know everything in the world or think they do, so they really enjoy when you show them something new.”

Rafto also has a passion for dancing, primarily in ballet, jazz and some contemporary. She danced with Punahou Dance School, and is on the dance team at American University. As part of the dance team, she still gets to work with young children in a program called Junior Eagles Clinic, where they team up with the cheer squad to teach young boys and girls cheers, stunts and tricks.

As a senior, she also helped lead a mentorship program called Girl Talk, which was developed by faculty members in the school’s psychosocial education department in response to girls expressing difficulties.

“They saw how we were maturing, and they wanted the juniors to have advice from the seniors in a way to sort of bridge the two classes,” says Rafto, who also was part of the program as a junior. “Also, to give both age groups someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of and just have support.”

When asked what the biggest problem facing teens is today, Rafto cites media pressures. “We are surrounded by images and ideas of what we should be doing, what we should look like and what we should want to accomplish,” she says. “And I think it creates an idea that can be difficult to live up to, and creates tensions between families and generations because ideals don’t always match up.

“I would tell teens to pursue their passions, try their best at everything and don’t limit themselves to what others deem is right or wrong. If something is not working, you’ll know it, and you can make the changes to fix it.”

Rafto,19, has an older sister who lives in California, and a younger brother who is a sophomore at Punahou. She credits her parents, Haven and Stein, for instilling the values of hard work and taking risks. “They always told me success doesn’t come without hard work, and opportunities not seized are opportunities wasted,” she explains. “They taught me the importance of pursuing passions and giving everything a try, even just once.”

Rafto learned about the Paul Frank Role Model contest while on a cruise in Norway with her dad. She saw a Tweet about it from Teen Vogue and decided to enter, submitting a 300-word essay on why she would make a good role model. “I grew up with the brand (Paul Frank), and I loved the idea that they were promoting a positive lifestyle,” she says. “I also saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After reviewing thousands of applicants and a Skype interview with the finalists, Paul Frank selected Rafto as its winner. “I just couldn’t believe it,” remembers Rafto. “Being picked as a finalist was already really cool, and then to hear them say ‘you won the contest’ was mind-blowing. I was so happy, so jittery. I was shaking.”

As part of her prize package, Rafto and her mom flew to Los Angeles for a two-day “Rockin Paul Frank” photo shoot with VIP treatment, including transportation in a limousine. At the photo shoot, Rafto worked with two other models and actress Bella Thorne from Disney Channel’s Shake it Up. She also was interviewed by a Teen Vogue It Girl, and was featured in a Paul Frank ad and full-page advertorial in the November issue of Teen Vogue.

In October, she also traveled to New York with her sister to attend the 2013 Teen Vogue Fashion University event, where she served as the Paul Frank ambassador; and toured the Teen Vogue offices, where she was able to meet some of the magazine’s fashion editors. And, of course, she received “cute” clothes from Paul Frank, featuring those adorable animals, including their best-known character, Julius the monkey.

“My favorite part of this experience was getting to meet so many new people,” she says. “I got to meet the Paul Frank team, including their original artistic directors, which was really nice because they had a big part in choosing who won the contest, and they also are really good contacts to have. Also, Bella Thorne, who is one of the sweetest girls I ever met. We talked about growing up in tropical weather because she grew up in Florida, and it was interesting to hear her point of view on the entertainment industry. And the people at Teen Vogue, which is another great contact to have.

“Before this, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my degree. But this experience has changed my life because I made so many friends and connections, and it’s opened me up to a side of the fashion world that I would like to explore more.”

Rafto, who is 5-foot-8, admits she has always been interested in modeling, and as a young teen even took a modeling and etiquette course at Susan Page Modeling. But she never pursued it and says her focus now is on school, where she is majoring in business administration with a minor in international business.

She names her role models as supermodel Cameron Russell, as well as her mom. “Cameron Russell because she uses her popularity to question the stereotypes that are placed on girls today,” notes Rafto. “And my mom because she has had a successful career. She has worked hard to get to where she is in life, and she has done a lot for my family and me.

“To me, a good role model is being involved in your community and respecting the people who are around you and yourself.”

And while Rafto may show a lot of rhythm and skill on the dance floor, she confesses to being a klutz, often tripping, slipping and falling. She’s even been to the ER multiple times to have her chin stitched up, and has a slight scar to prove it.

As for her plans after college, she says she wants to travel and live abroad, hopefully in Europe and, of course, get a job.

“The idea of living somewhere new and unfamiliar is scary, but necessary to grow and gain independence,” she says. “With this contest, I hope my beliefs and hopes for my generation have touched other youths and encourages them to try new things, take risks and put themselves out of their comfort zones in order to reach their potentials.

“A risk that I took was going to school on the East Coast. I’ve never been away from home for longer than a week without my parents. Going to school on the East Coast, it’s so far away, it’s a different culture, a different climate and it’s harder to get home than it is from the West Coast. So it was definitely a risk because I didn’t know if I was going to be happy out there, but it’s worked out for me.”

Another decision that worked out for her: entering the Paul Frank Role Model Contest. “She’s really worked hard all her life in everything she’s done,” adds mom Haven. “It was the perfect contest to win because she is a great role model for kids and the younger lives she touches.”

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video from Savanna Rafto’s photo shoot for Paul Frank in L.A.: