‘The best rollercoaster ride ever’: 1988 Miss Kona Coffee reflects on journey to become Hawaii’s first winner of Miss America

  • West Hawaii Today file photo Carolyn Sapp used the 1988 Miss Kona Coffee competition as a steppingstone to winning Miss America four years later. “Somebody said ‘you should do this pageant, but you won’t win because you’re haole,’” she said of the Kona event.

On a dare, Carolyn Sapp entered the 1988 Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Competition, winning the title and embarking her on a path that would lead to the title of Miss America 1992.

“I was working three jobs at the time, as the manager at Fantasia Furniture store and also working on the Princess cruises which was a small dinner cruise out of Kailua Pier hostessing, waitressing, dancing hula and singing plus waitressing at a diner,” Sapp, who now has the last name Sapp Daniels, recalled.

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On top of all that, she was going to night school at the University of Hawaii extension, which was located at the former Kona Surf Hotel and paddling for Kai Ehitu Canoe Club.

“I loved it. I was immersing myself in life. Somebody said ‘you should do this pageant, but you won’t win because you’re haole,’” she said.

She had no idea what the pageant was about.

“My boyfriend at the time dared me to do it. I was like why not? I was 20 and I had no clue what I was doing, but it was fun. And I won,” she said. “It just started the rollercoaster. It was amazing. I loved being Miss Kona Coffee. Not only did I win scholarship money to utilize full time at UH, but that was also my first trip to Japan.”

She said the trip was a special journey, an honor to represent the Big Island and to represent Kona Coffee specifically.

“I remember when they asked me in the interview do you drink coffee, which at that point I didn’t, but told them I loved Kona Coffee ice cream,” she chuckled. “After going to Japan, I became fully immersed in the coffee and had such amazing sponsored. The farms of Kona supported my journey to the end when I won Miss America.”

After winning the title of Miss Kona Coffee she went on to Miss Hawaii and won fourth runner up, which gave her a full ride to Hawaii Pacific University for one year.

“It was mind-boggling because here I am, working three jobs and going to night school,” she said. “I moved in with my grandparents in Kalihi (Oahu) and went to school full-time. I was also traveling to Japan all the time because I started working with DBEDT (Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) doing cross cultural exchange programs, performing, speaking and doing proclamations from the State of Hawaii. It was a magical time. Things just kept going.”

She said Kona Coffee farmers supported her throughout the journey.

“If it wasn’t for Kona Coffee and the farmers support I couldn’t have done it,” she said.

The following year she competed in Miss Hawaii as Miss Waikiki and was selected first runner-up, awarding her another one year full ride at HPU.

“I could see how beneficial the scholarship program was, especially for someone like me. It opened up my eyes to a different lifestyle of service,” she said. “I wasn’t in a position at 21 to go and get scholarships based on merit. I followed a nontraditional path.”

She next competed in the Miss Hawaii pageant as Miss Honolulu, again placing first runner up and another scholarship to HPU.

With her college paid by scholarships, she decided to compete one last time as Miss HPU and to her surprised won the title of Miss Hawaii and went on to be the first Miss America from Hawaii.

“I have my roots in Kona. The coffee farmers continued to support me all the way through Miss America,” she explained. “When I went to Miss America I brought a couple hundred small Kona Coffee plants to give to every single contestant and executive director from each state.”

After Miss America she was on the speaking circuit and started the Safe Places for Abused Women and Children foundation. She continued to advocate, speak and bring about awareness for women and children in education.

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Today, she lives in Southern California with her husband and three children.

“I had so much fun representing Miss Kona Coffee, Miss Hawaii and Miss America. It was the best roller coaster ride ever,” she said, “When the door opens, fly through it. Don’t hesitate.”