Who are Azalea Festival 2017’s special guests? Here’s the lineup

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WILMINGTON — While pre-festival activity has swirled for months, the 70th North Carolina Azalea Festival officially kicked off Thursday with Governor Roy Cooper’s proclamation and the naming of Kira Kazantsev as Queen Azalea.

(Watch the Festival’s video introduction)

Kazantsev is Miss America 2015, a writer, keynote speaker, host and podcaster. She studied political science, global studies and geography at Hofstra University Honors College; she graduated in 2013. She now lives in Los Angeles and is the director of community engagement for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

She is known for her advocacy on women’s issues and anti-bullying. As an advocate against domestic violence, Kira has been a long-time partner with Safe Horizon, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the country. She recently received their “Voice of Empowerment” award and serves on its Leaders on the Horizon board.

In her role as Queen Azalea, she is the official hostess of the festival. Her first official action takes place next week, in the annual pre-festival Azalea Sweep. That’s when the Queen joins festival volunteers to clean a section of Wilmington.

Returning to the festival this year as a special guest is Miss North Carolina, McKenzie Faggart. Faggart served as a member of the Queen’s Court in 2016.

Faggart, a native of Concord, has been involved with the Miss America Organization since the age of 16. She was North Carolina’s Outstanding Teen in 2011 and finished in the Top 12 at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, earning the People’s Choice award.

After being bullied in high school, Faggart created “The SAFE Project” to share her story and to help others. The SAFE campaign against bullying, is an acronym for Support one another, Accept differences and individuality, Forgive wrong doings (or ask for forgiveness), and Evolve into a better self, stronger than before.

Faggart developed “Masterclasses with McKenzie,” and travels to dance studios statewide to share her platform.

Other special Azalea Festival guests

Two other special guests are members of the military.

Lieutenant General Robert Ruark, military deputy to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, will attend Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9, events at the and serve as grand marshal of the parade.

Ruark is a native of Baltimore, Maryland, who was commissioned in 1981 through the NROTC program at Miami (Ohio) University. He has commanded at the company, detachment, battalion, regiment, and group levels.

He has served on six Marine Expeditionary Unit deployments, in Operation Desert Storm, in the Adriatic Sea, Rwanda and in East Timor. He also commanded the 1st Marine Logistics Group in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has been the Director for Logistics at the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Central Command, and the Joint Staff.

Special guest Major General Dondie E. Costin is chief of chaplains for the United States Air Force, based in the Pentagon. Costin is a Wilmington native who has served on multiple overseas assignments.

As chief of chaplains, Costin is the senior pastor for more than 664,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the U.S. and overseas.

He leads an Air Force Chaplain Corps of approximately 2,000 chaplains and chaplain assistants from the active duty and Air Reserve components.

As a member of the Armed Forces Chaplain Board, he and his colleagues advise the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on religious, ethical and quality-of-life concerns.

Joining the festival as an invited guest is the “Queen of Everyday Glam!” Emily Loftiss. A former pageant queen and Radio City Rockette, Loftiss is known for her appearances on celebrity television shows and as a style and beauty expert. The readership for her blog, “Loftiss Says,” extends across international borders.

She also hosts a weekly Facebook live show, “Everyday Glam with Emily Loftiss.”

Summer Olympian Jordyn Wieber will join the festival for Wednesday and Thursday events, April 5 and 6.
Wieber, a Michigan native, became the 2011 American Cup Champion, beating out the reigning world all-around champion at the time.

She went on to become the best gymnast in the world when she won the all-around at the 2011 World Championships and was undefeated in six major gymnastics competitions in 2011 and 2012. She then became known as part of the “Fierce Five,” the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team that captured the team gold medal at the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Disney celebrity Paris Berelc, known for her role as Skylar on Disney’s XD’s “Lab Rats: Elite Force,” will be signing autographs at a free meet and greet on Saturday, April 8 at the Street Fair Presented by Wells Fargo. The event is from 1 to 3 p.m. in a Meet and Greet Tent at the corner of Princess and Water streets.

The final invited guest is artist Sean Ruttkay. Ruttkay’s artwork, a digital photograph of an azalea emerging from the ocean, was unveiled last fall as the official artwork and commemorative print of the 70th North Carolina Azalea Festival. His print is currently for sale at the festival ticket office for $50.

For information on the upcoming 70th annual North Carolina Azalea Festival, visit www.ncazaleafestival.org, or contact Executive Director Alison Baringer at alison@ncazaleafestival.org or 910-216-9400.