Island Royalty

From Miss Hawaii 1959, to solo dancer at the Royal Hawaiian, to kumu hula and lei maker, Maui’s Gordean Bailey has spent a lifetime sharing the culture of aloha.

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Story by Lehia Apana

A young Gordean presents a lei to Elvis Presley during an early visit to Hawai‘i by the king of rock-n-roll.

“You see Elvis and me over there?”

Gordean Bailey poses the question so nonchalantly that I check to see whether she means the Elvis. I squeeze past a medley of hula supplies and decades’ worth of mementos scattered about her Kula home, and move in for a closer look.

Sure enough, a poster-sized, black-and-white photo leans against a wall. Elvis stands there, looking suave in an unbuttoned tropical shirt and his signature white hip-hugger pants. An eighteen-year-old Gordean, in nearly matching aloha wear, flashes a delicate smile as she drapes a lei around his neck.

“He was here to do Blue Hawaii, but he really wasn’t, you know, Elvis yet,” she says modestly, presumably to tame my utter elation. “I was going to University of Hawai‘i at that time and some friends of mine worked on the school paper. They told me, ‘We need you to come and give him a lei.’ So there we are at Hemenway Hall.”

As a former Miss Hawaii, Gordean is no stranger to celebrity encounters or photographers’ flashbulbs. But these days you’ll more likely find the seventy-seven-year-old in rubber boots, behind the wheel of a riding mower — which is exactly as I encounter her on this crisp Upcountry morning, her high-pitched voice barely audible over the roaring horsepower.

“I’ll meet you at the bottom of the property — we can talk story in my studio,” she exclaims, and motors past a row of protea before disappearing behind a hydrangea hedge.


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