Moana Whaanga, the first Maori woman to be crowned Miss New Zealand and the first Kiwi to compete at Miss Universe, died on Wednesday night.

She was 82.

Whaanga (nee Manley), who moved from Rotorua to Auckland as a child, was also a champion swimmer who was selected for the Commonwealth Games.

She entered the 1954 Miss New Zealand pageant to help raise money for her swimming club and was surprised when she was crowned the winner.

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"I was a very shy girl. The only thing that I had going for me what that I was a swimmer, and that took a lot of the shyness away. I remember this time being very special," she told Mana magazine in 2016.

The Maori world was so proud of having their first beauty queen that many groups organised a huge fundraising drive to send Whaanga to the 1954 Miss Universe contest in California.

In Rotorua, the people of Te Arawa, led by Guide Rangi, dug deep into their pockets to support Whaanga's bid.

She married Maui Whaanga, from Nuhaka, and the couple spent many years teaching together at rural schools.

She was a loving mother to Moana Iti, Moerangi, Mark Mel and Mia. She had 16 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Whaanga was surrounded by whanau when she died after suffering a stroke a week ago.

Mel said his mother would be missed.

"Mum was a private person. She loved her whanau, she loved New Zealand. You could ask if she was a Maori first, or a Kiwi first or a mother first. Mum encompassed all roles and brought everyone together. That is her legacy."

A service for Whaanga will be held on Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Chapel, 19 Redoubt Rd, Manukau.