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Miss USA Cheslie Kryst Talks Making History And How Law And Pageantry Intersect

Cheslie Kryst
Patrick Prather/Miss USA
Miss USA Cheslie Kryst 2019

Miss North Carolina has a new title and crown to add to her growing collection. Cheslie Kryst is the new Miss USA 2019. The 28 year-old Charlotte attorney was crowned Miss USA earlier this month. Kryst who has done some pro bono work on behalf of prison inmates will be living in New York City for the next year as the title holder. She talked to WFAE’s Sarah Delia to discuss her work as an attorney and life in the pageant world.

Kryst started off the conversation saying people may be surprised to hear how many similarities there are between making your case in the courtroom and in front of a panel of judges in a pageant competition.

Kryst: One of the things that you have to know and understand as an attorney is you have to know how to appeal to somebody who you know nothing about. That's the judge, or perhaps the jury depending on how your trial is going. And you have to understand the perspectives of others that include opposing counsel and in some cases maybe your client. And so you have to use all of those skills to be a great attorney and to achieve the results that your client wants, but you need to have those same skills when you're competing in pageants you do all those things in the courtroom just like you do on stage.

Sarah Delia: That's interesting. Well this year Miss America, Miss Teen USA and Miss USA are all African American women. And my understanding that's a first. What does that mean to you as one of those three women?

Kryst: It’s really exciting especially because, you know, my mom was Miss North Carolina in 2002. She won a pageant for a married contestants when I was like 10 or 11 years-old and she was the second black Miss North Carolina. So I remember being young and understanding the significance of her win. And so now it's exciting for me to know that my win along with Nia and Katie is significant to other people. Including little girls who are just like me looking up to people who look like them, people who are women of color. And so that for me is that is incredibly exciting.

Delia: Is there a memory that you have in particular of watching your mom in these competitions?

Kryst: Oh yeah. I remember my mom was in a parade in Charlotte and I remember being like 10 or 11 years-old sitting at the sideline of the parade watching her literally in a horse-drawn white carriage in this like mint green evening gown. I just thought, like, she is the coolest person in the world. You know, she would go places and people would listen to her. People would want her to sign autographs. People would want to know what her thoughts were on different issues. And I just remember thinking she's so powerful and just so cool and I wanted to be just like her.

Delia: And I read a recent New York Times article where you were quoted and I wanted to ask you about that. The pageant world has a history of suffering from some segregation and not always being the most diverse or inclusive. And in this New York Times article you were quoted saying that at one point you were told you were pretty for a black girl. And I was wondering when was that in your life?

Kryst: I was in high school. I went to Fort Mill High School and I love Fort Mill High School. But I remember being a cheerleader. I can't remember who it was, I think it was like a fellow student and we were just talking about something. And at one point in time I remember her saying, like, 'well you're really pretty for a black girl.' And she said it like almost as if it was like a compliment. I think she meant it as a compliment, but she didn't understand exactly what she was saying.

And so I think, you know, that memory really stood out for me because there are some people who will say things that are incredibly offensive. They're saying it because they really just don't understand the significance of the words that are coming out of their mouths. And so I try to be understanding with people who express their opinions, but those opinions may be hurtful or maybe offensive because not everybody just really understands.

Delia: What do you think the public gets wrong about pageant competitions? I feel like there's a lot of stereotypes that come to everyone's minds. But what do you think people would be surprised to learn about these competitions?

Kryst: The norm for pageants nowadays is that the women who compete are incredibly accomplished and that's not to say that women who competed years ago weren't. I just think the focus was different. You know, we used to think about pageant contestants. They're all beautiful and they needed to be fit. And that's sort of their role, but nowadays the role of pageantry is that women need to be role models and they need to be great examples for other people.

I remember I went to an appearance when I was Miss North Carolina and someone came up to me and said it must be so hard to show up and be pretty. And I thought to myself,  you don't understand, like, the other things that I do. I'm a full time attorney, I volunteer in my community, and I speak at events. Like, that's not my job to show up and be pretty but my job is to show up and make an impact on my community. And that really is the norm for women you see nowadays.