June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

It has been 18 months since she was crowned Miss Waikiki, but the memory remains as fresh to Liane Mark as the scent of the lei that was draped around her neck that January evening. “I had this incredible feeling of accomplishment and sense of possibility for the future,” says Mark, 24. That night, after returning to the home she shares with her father, she noticed another sensation: Her feet were numb. “Daddy and I thought it was my shoes. I had to wear these 4½-in. crystal heels for the pageant, and we thought it was just my big ol’ Hawaiian feet rebelling.”

Over the next few weeks, however, as the numbness moved up her torso, Mark realized the problem wasn’t her footwear. A neurologist in a Honolulu hospital broke the news. “He said, ‘Liane, you have multiple sclerosis,'” she recalls. “And all I could say was ‘What?'”

Despite the shock, Mark has hardly tottered. In fact, on the evening of June 7, she will don her spikes again and stride across a stage in Honolulu to compete for the Miss Hawaii crown. She has chosen MS education as her pageant platform. And win or lose, she will have advanced her cause: to bring hope and inspiration to the 400,000 Americans, mostly women age 20 to 50, who have the often degenerative neurological disease. “In a lot of ways Liane’s found her calling,” says a friend, aspiring actress Alice Bugman, 25. “MS has given her a focus. It’s what she’s here for now, to help other people.”

Mark discovered her mission just hours after her diagnosis. In the hospital she received a visit from her pastor, who gave her what she now describes as life-altering advice. “He told me not to ask, ‘Why, God? Why me?'” she says, “but ‘How can I use this to make things better for other people?'”

One of the first people she called was her now fiancé, veteran movie stuntman Alex Daniels, 46. “I told him that I would understand if he didn’t want to be with me, because this might be a burden later on in life,” says Mark. “I said over and over that my MS wasn’t going to go away, and the only thing he said was, ‘Well, I’m not going away either.'”

Until that point Mark—a Yale grad in psychology and theater studies—had focused mostly on her career. The daughter of Herbert, 71, a retired architect, and Marsha Loyer, 53, a retired physician who moved to Oregon after the couple’s divorce in 1988, she won her first pageant in high school. After college she competed in other pageants as a means of paying off $90,000 in school loans. Mark’s ultimate aim, though, was to become an actress. She landed a bit part in TV’s Baywatch Hawaii, playing the crazed ex of Daisy Fuentes’s boyfriend. But, after her diagnosis, she began skipping auditions to volunteer at her local MS Society chapter.

Soon she was tapped by the national organization to be one of its handful of goodwill ambassadors. These days Mark logs 10,000 miles each month speaking at schools, hospitals and fund-raisers around the country. She tells others who are coping with MS about her own triumphs and challenges. “I talk about my fear of needles,” says Mark, who takes the drug Avonex to slow the disease’s progression—and recruits her father and friends to administer the weekly shots. “I had to learn to ask for help.”

“The classic image of someone with MS is a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair,” says MS Society president Mike Dugan. “Liane is a moving spokesperson and a terrific counter to that stereotype.”

She also tries to clear up misconceptions among her fellow MS victims, 40 percent of whom put off seeking treatment, believing that if they don’t feel sick every day, the disease isn’t progressing. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Mark, whose own symptoms—including the numbness in her hands and feet—fluctuate unpredictably. “MS is like an iceberg,” she says. “There are things you can see on the surface, but there’s so much more going on underneath.”

Although Mark has a relatively slow-moving form of the disease, she knows it could land her in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, she has no plans to give up either of her high-profile pursuits. Her role as an MS volunteer is “a job and an honor,” she says. And, she adds with a wink, “I’ve always wanted to be Miss America.”

Christina Cheakalos

Johnny Dodd in Waikiki

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