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Native Carolinian and former Miss USA describes her struggle with depression in new book

April Simpkins, mother and co-author of a book with her daughter Chelsie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, who committed suicide in 2022. Simpkins is speaking at the 71st Miss Universe Pageant in New Orleans about mental health.
Courtesy
April Simpkins, mother and co-author of a book with her daughter Chelsie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, who committed suicide in 2022. Simpkins is speaking at the 71st Miss Universe Pageant in New Orleans about mental health.

Two years ago, Carolinas native Chelsie Kryst, a 30-year-old former Miss USA, attorney, and special correspondent for the television show "Extra" jumped to her death from her apartment building in New York City.

Kryst always looked beautiful and sounded confident and happy on "Extra" as she interviewed celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Taylor Swift and Meryl Streep. But behind the smile, was an oftentimes sad and lonely person who questioned her numerous successes, such as getting an MBA and law degree at the same time, being licensed to practice law in two states, a winner of many beauty pageants, and a spokesperson for Dress for Success.

In a note to her mother, April Simpkins, Kryst asked her to publish a book she’d written. “By the Time You Read This: The Space Between Cheslie’s Smile and Mental Illness.” It was released last week. Kryst wrote about some of her challenges on the pageant circuit that dealt with racism and self-esteem, which she hid from most family members and friends. Simpkins co-authored the book and in an interview with WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn, she described Krist this way.

 

April Simpkins (l) a former Mrs. North Carolina and her daughter, Cheslie Kryst (r) Miss USA 2019.
Book: "By The Time You Read This"
April Simpkins (l) a former Mrs. North Carolina and her daughter, Cheslie Kryst (r) Miss USA 2019.

April Simpkins: Vibrant and just a ball of sunshine when she entered the house. You felt the energy shift because she would bring so much warmth with her, and she was insightful, giving, intelligent and engaging. She was just so many incredible wonderful, beautiful things, but she was also a person who was battling a mental illness.

Gwendolyn Glenn: In reading her book, she said when she was young, she thought she wasn't pretty. Tell me about that side of her.

Simpkins: When I saw Cheslie, I saw her inside and outside as beautiful but when little elementary school kids and little junior high school kids saw her, they saw an intimidating force and searched for her weaknesses and insecurities and played those over and over. And I think you know, as any child targeted by a bully, those words sometimes stick and can impact how you see yourself.

Glenn: I was going to say, and she carried that with her through adulthood.

Simpkins: She talks about this in the book, how right after she won her title, she was immediately kind of pushed into these interviews and the press conference. She brings that up again that she sees herself as this nerdy kid with the unibrow, always reading. It never left her.

Glenn: She was also very spiritual, talked often about God and God's plans and that whether or not she won something or succeeded, that God had a different plan for her and would open another door.

Simpkins: Yes, she talked about that often. How, when she didn't win in pageants, it opened a completely different door for her. And so, she did view things that way. As God has a master plan. And I don't have the power to change that.

Carolinas native Cheslie Kryst crowned Miss USA 2019
Book: "By The Time You Read This"
Carolinas native Cheslie Kryst crowned Miss USA 2019

Glenn: Does she have a lot of close friends because it surprised me in the book. She described herself as an introvert. Did you see her that way?

Simpkins: She was 100% an introvert. She drew her energy from being alone and being around lots and lots of people and engaging with lots of people emptied her tank. She did have an amazing, incredible group of friends, and I still see her friends as my daughters, many of them with her from the time she was an undergrad right through adulthood.

Glenn: And being an introvert, having to be in the public eye as much as she was, how did that affect her?

Simpkins: She loved it, you know. Cheslie famously said, one of the reasons why "Extra" was such a great job for her is because she was just nosy and she loved to ask people questions. And so, it certainly gave her that. But, you know, Cheslie was also an attorney, and she often had to stand in front of a judge and others and she was not shy about standing in front of people or being questioned. It just wasn't how she drew energy.

Glenn: Getting back to her feelings of not being pretty, do you think the pageants, were a way for her to validate herself.

Simpkins: She said as much when she started, you know, until she gained more confidence through her own self-evolution, but initially to have someone put a crown on your head and say you've won the beauty pageant can be validating.

Historic trifecta, for the first time, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen are Black. The year is 2019. 28-year-old Cheslie Krystn (far right) of the Carolinas was crowned Miss USA in 2019, joining 18-year-old Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris (middle) and 25-year-old Miss America Nia Franklin (far left).
Book: "By the Time You Read This"
Historic trifecta, for the first time, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen are Black. In 2019, 28-year-old Cheslie Kryst (right) of the Carolinas was crowned Miss USA, joining 18-year-old Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris (middle) and 25-year-old Miss America Nia Franklin (left).

Glenn: She also talked in the book about having imposter syndrome. Explain that.

Simpkins: You know, there's so many people who battle imposter syndrome, that feeling that you don't have what it takes or that you're not enough, or someone could certainly do it better and you're just kind of faking it till you make it and you might be discovered to carry that.

Glenn: Was she always a perfectionist and prepared for the questions for the pageants? How she prepared for taking the bar and she took bars in North and South Carolina? Was she always that perfectionist and that prepared?

Simpkins: Yes. And I think in hindsight it probably balanced and had a lot to do with her impostor syndrome. Even when her belongings arrived here at the house, she had journals where she would take meticulous notes. Everything is always in an outline, in a step-by-step format with a checklist and she's checking things off.

Chelsie Kryst placing crown on Grammy recording artist Lizzo during interview for Extra where the former Miss USA was a special correspondent
Book: "By The Time Your Read This"
Chelsie Kryst placing crown on Grammy recording artist Lizzo during interview for "Extra," where the former Miss USA was a special correspondent

Glenn: Now, you wrote an ending for this book and talked about what you went through. When did you realize your daughter was suffering from such debilitating depression?

Simpkins: I mean, there were a couple of hints before her first suicide attempt, but certainly when I was there at the hospital, that was when her diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder, depression and anxiety, was first explained to me. You think it's just not that bad, but your lows are extremely low and your highs only reach a certain ceiling, and so if you've been struggling with that, that's going to feel almost like you're normal. You know, that is one of the reasons why it made her battle so significant, and why I give her so much credit for every day that was a victory for her.

Glenn: Just reading the note that she left you, that had to be really crushing to read. What would you tell other parents to look for? Because as you say, you have no guilt because you guys were so close and the note gave you, or did that note give you comfort?

Simpkins: It absolutely did, and Cheslie and I had a very frank conversation about suicide and death and you know, she spent that conversation telling me about my strength and how much she admires me. And when she sent that text message, so much of it I know was sent to comfort me, especially after that conversation she and I had. And she said, honestly, all the things that I needed to hear to give me peace so that I could grieve and eventually reach a place of healing.

Glenn: How are you doing?

Simpkins: Still grieving. I know that I'll be grieving for the rest of my life and I'm OK with that. You know, it's not just grieving her absence. It's grieving a life I would have wanted for her. The hole that is left in our family, that will never be filled.

Glenn: And you describe her as your best friend, that you called every morning. Did that develop over time?

Simpkins:  We were close when she was young, but after her first attempt we did grow closer because that's when I realized there's a whole part of her that she is keeping from me, so it required work on my part and it just kind of grew into a very, very tight bond.

Glenn: You are an ambassador for the National Alliance of Mental Illness. When did you decide to focus on mental health?

Simpkins: Mental health was something that I always focused on as an HR executive, but after losing my daughter and it just becoming so personal, I knew that I wanted to advocate for those who were battling a mental illness and making space for them to break the stigma that keeps them in hiding.

In a new book, Cheslie Kryst, who was crowned Miss USA in 2019 and committed suicide in 2022, writes about her challenges in the pageant world dealing with racism and self esteem issues. Her mother, April Simpkins, a former Mrs. North Carolina published the book after Kryst's death and is a co-author.
Forefront Publishing
In a new book, Cheslie Kryst, who was crowned Miss USA in 2019 and committed suicide in 2022, writes about her challenges in the pageant world dealing with racism and self esteem issues. Her mother, April Simpkins, a former Mrs. North Carolina published the book after Kryst's death and is a co-author.

Glenn: What do you want people to take away from the book?

Simpkins: I want people to take away the fact that Cheslie was human. She was a person that, despite all they saw in her list of accomplishments and her drop-dead physical beauty, she was still struggling with a mental illness. You can be accomplished and you can be have a mental illness. And I hope that people who are struggling with mental illness, who feel like they're not seen or heard will feel seen and heard because there is someone just like them in that book, and hope it compels them to get help.

Glenn: And how do you want Cheslie to be remembered? What do you want her legacy to be?

Simpkins: I want her legacy to honestly be tied to giving because she was the most giving person. Honestly, there are so many people who reached out to me after she passed, people who did not know her but would message her through Instagram DM and say, 'Hey, I'm going to law school. What do you think about this course?’ And she would answer them. She gave so much of herself. And that is one of the reasons why we established the Cheslie C. Kryst Foundation so that we could continue her spirit of giving and allow that to be her legacy.

May is Mental Health Awareness month; if you or someone you know is struggling, call 988 for help. 

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.