’96 alumna and former Miss Universe to host Silversword Reunion
How a young wahine who rode the #53 Bus from Pearl City every day to get to school landed on the international stage is a Cinderella story. At 26 years old and 128 days, Brook Meahealani Lee became the then-oldest woman to be crowned Miss Universe in 1997. It was as much a surprise to her, as it was to a worldwide audience of more than 600 million viewers.
“It was a lot to process at the time,” said Lee, a ’96 alumna who majored in English with a minor in Communication. “One moment I was in Shreveport, Louisiana, the next I’m in Miami, Florida. Next was Toronto, Canada and then back to Los Angeles. It was a whirlwind that year.”
Of mixed Hawaiian, Korean, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and Chinese ancestry, Lee became the first indigenous person and Asian American to wear the crown. It was a sparkling moment, for sure, preceded only by equally memorable answers to two of the Miss Universe Final questions.
However, before getting to what made Lee’s remarks so memorable, there’s a bit of backstory. At that time, Lee’s predecessor, Miss Universe 1996, Alicia Machado, came under public scrutiny for her weight gain, drawing considerable press attention. So when host George Hamilton asked, “Miss Universe has recently been the subject of a lot of press attention about her weight. If this happened to you, how would you handle it?”
Lee perfectly offered up one of the best answers in pageant history. “I would take a good hard look at myself and I’d look from the inside out and I’d know that I was the same girl that was crowned that day,” Lee said. “So if I go up or go down—I get taller, I get shorter. My nose gets bigger… smaller. I’m still who I was when that crown was on my head and I’m a good representative no matter what.”
Yet, it was her response to the Miss Universe Final Question #3 that drew the loudest cheers and hysterical laughter from the audience and Hamilton. If social media existed then, her answer surely would have gone viral. And not for the unfortunate reasons most pageant answers make the social media rounds these days—Lee’s was amusing, frank and completely authentic in a very Hawaiian sense.
Asked: “If there were no rules in your life, for one day, and you could be outrageous, what would you do?” Lee unhesitatingly responded with: “I would eat everything in the world. You do not understand. I would eat everything twice.”
“It was a little bit of a jab at the President of Miss Universe Organization, who was the one who criticized the weight gain of my predessor,” said Lee, recalling that moment on stage. “But I don’t think he ever got it.”
Prior to winning Miss Hawaii USA and then being crowned Miss USA, Lee had minimal pageant experience. She said the first Miss Hawaii Competition she competed in, she lost big time. She would go on to win the title in 1997, which earned her a scholarship to Chaminade University. Walking through Henry Hall, Lee reminisced about her time on campus, pointing out Room 227 as the classroom where she sat for her English classes.
“I feel like I’m Jane Jetson; everything is so new,” quipped Lee, who will emcee the Silversword Reunion in October. Gesturing to the Sullivan Family Library, she pointed out that it didn’t exist when she was around, nor did the Athletics Coaches’ Office Complex below the parking structure.
While a lot has changed and improved since Lee’s time at Chaminade, some things remain the same. The Kalaepohaku campus is still as inviting, and students still need to climb all the steps to reach “Mount Kiefer.”
After her reign as Miss Universe, Lee made several cameo appearances in movies and television shows, and has hosted many television shows in Asia and the United States. She has also been a judge at Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and served as a color commentator for past Universe Pageants.
After permanently returning to Oahu from Los Angeles three years ago, Lee now juggles her time between being a mother of two, a supportive spouse and three gigs. She is the host of KHON2’s “Modern Wahine Hawaii;” she is the co-host for the Podcast “It’s a Hawaii Thing;” and she dances hula at Halekulani’s House Without a Key.” She also believes in service to the community, taking on the Artistic Director role with the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, where she produces the annual Lei of Stars installation of Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame inductees, and serves as the secretary for the nonprofit BEHawaii.
“My work with BEHawaii has been deeply meaningful as we started around a simple dining room table in Kapālama committed to elevating musicians in Hawaii and branching out in ways I would have never imagined,” Lee said. “BEHawaii is committed to finding solutions for our Lāhui in diverse ways, and holding fast to our Kūpuna and their wisdom.”
The group also launched the Lei Poinaʻole Project, which aims to revitalize, strengthen and support the Hawaiʻi lei industry. Lei Poina‘ole means “the never forgotten lei,” and the project is committed to this vision, so that the Hawaiʻi lei industry and its people are never forgotten.
To increase awareness and generate demand for locally grown flowers, materials, and lei, program leaders said the message is simple: “When you buy locally produced lei, you are nourishing our ʻāina, supporting Hawaiʻi farmers, preserving local traditions, and sharing aloha throughout our community.”
And aloha is what Lee has shared and breathed ever since she was a keiki riding the #53 Bus to school.