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Royal destiny: Husband, wife honored to serve as mo‘i kane, wahine

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The mo‘i wahine of this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, Lokelani Kipilii, thinks her selection and that of her real-life husband, Eli, to represent King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi‘olani in this year’s festival is part of a plan for their lives that’s larger than themselves.

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The mo‘i wahine of this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, Lokelani Kipilii, thinks her selection and that of her real-life husband, Eli, to represent King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi‘olani in this year’s festival is part of a plan for their lives that’s larger than themselves.

She cited a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The 36-year-old Lokelani and her 38-year-old husband both work for Kamehameha Schools, he as a lifeguard on the Hawaii campus in Keaau and she as an administrator in the Preschools Division East Hawaii office in Hilo. She was approached about portraying Kapi‘olani by a previous mo‘i wahine, Leilani Kerr, a hula sister of Lokelani’s in New Hope Christian Fellowship’s dance ministry.

“Leilani had presented Lokelani to be considered and ironically I had asked Eli, through a business relationship, if I could add his name into our pool to be considered as mo‘i kane,” said U‘i Peralto, the festival’s Royal Court chairwoman. Usually the men are shy about participating. When I met Loke and Eli together, as a couple, then I presented the idea of this husband and wife representation. Beautiful couple!”

Eli and Lokelani, the parents of two young daughters, 10-year-old Grace-Makena and 6-year-old Hope-Anuhea, researched Kalakaua and Kapi‘olani to better understand the roles they’ll portray.

“I found out when she started her tenure, which was on Feb. 12, 1874 — Feb. 12 is my birthday, so I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’” she said. “Her tenure started in 1874; I was born 107 years later. And 36 years after that, bringing us up to 2017, here I get to represent her and portray her. And for me, that just brings chicken skin. I also found out how kind she was, how generous she was and how much she loved her people. We’ve got Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women and Children and she brought that about. That was her legacy.

“When we stepped into (the period clothes) and did the photo shoot, which was back in February, it took me to a different time and place than just being ourselves. That brought everything to life for me and how privileged we are to represent Kalakaua and Kapi‘olani.”

The couple took its research a step further, doing something many halau dancing in the competition do: going on a huaka‘i — a journey of discovery. When Lokelani Kipilii spoke to the Tribune-Herald, she and her husband were set to travel to ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the sumptuous royal home Kalakaua built for about $350,000, a kingly fortune when it was completed in 1882.

“We wanted to get a really good feel for the past monarchs who have graced the palace. We’re really excited about it,” she said.

As always, the royal couple will be decked out in period-appropriate styles.

“The last few years Iris Gil has been designing new gowns for the Royal Court,” Peralto said. “This year, we will use gowns previously designed by Iris Gil in combination with gowns made by George DeMello. We will introduce two brand new mo‘i kane jackets designed and made by Iris Gil. I have only seen the drawings which were exciting and cannot wait to see the final pieces. Iris’ designs have a way of bringing the past to present day.”

In the festival’s 54-year history, the Kipiliis are just the second married couple to assume the roles of the Merrie Monarch and his queen. The first was Kendall and Zelda Kelson, who reigned over festival proceedings in 2005 and 2006. Peralto said the Kelsons were invited to return the second year because their dressing room was under renovation in 2005, providing the couple a perhaps somewhat less than royal experience. She said the Kelsons “were gracious enough to repeat the role.”

Zelda Kelson has been battling lung cancer with the toughness and grace of a mo‘i wahine. The founder and coach of Cuzins volleyball club, Kelson returned home from Rehab Hospital of the Pacific on Oahu on March 31, just in time for the AA men’s and women’s finals at the 60th annual Haili Volleyball Tournament.

For the Kipiliis, their turn presiding over Merrie Monarch festivities is destined to become a treasured family memory.

“Our older daughter is part of the Royal Court, as well,” Lokelani explained. “She’ll be a lady in waiting to Princess Ka‘iulani, we’ve been told. It’ll be a family affair. We went to our (costume) fitting together and she was just elated to be a part of it. Not too many 10-year-olds can say they’ve had this privilege and honor.”

In their spare time, the family enjoys the outdoors, she said.

“We’ll be at the beach or camping or doing archery. My husband’s been doing it for years, but this Christmas, I got my very own bow. … And we’re just here, there and everywhere supporting our daughters in their extracurricular activities.”

Those activities include volleyball, jiu-jitsu and, yes — hula. The girls dance for kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua and will be a part of the halau’s noon performance during the festival’s Ho‘olaule‘a at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

“They’ll be there on Easter with all of his halau, from the littles all the way up to the gracious ladies. That’s something that we look forward to each year,” Lokelani said.

As it turns out, Kipilii always looks forward to Merrie Monarch.

“My husband and I go every year. We’ve been going for more than 10 years,” she noted. “It’s like a date week, I guess you could say. Some couples have date night; we have a week. We have a wonderful support system on our side that provide care for our daughters, so we can be there every night until 12, 1 a.m. We haven’t missed it for a year. And this year will be the first time that we get to view it from different seats, obviously, so we’re super excited.”

The queen said she’ll need to remind herself to remain regal and not flash “an over-the-top grin.” She said another challenge is the one faced by all the Royal Court — having to remain in their seats from their procession into the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium at 6 p.m. each night from Wednesday through Saturday until their regal exodus at the end of activities each night. That’s almost always after midnight on the three nights of competition.

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“There’s no breaks, so we just have to stay there the entire time. That’s going to be a challenge, for sure. But we’re really excited, we’re looking forward to it and we couldn’t be more blessed to have this experience.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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