I’m not sure how to begin writing but I know I’ve been overwhelmed by a myriad of feelings I’d like to find a way to share.
I learned of her as a public figure back in 2019 when she became one of five Black women to sweep the globe’s major beauty pageant titles.
Growing up as a little Black girl, you don’t even realize how society can affect you until you grow to understand the meditations of your subconscious mind. Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA all Black women? I started to think: wow, this is weird. Maybe this is some kind of marketing ploy to promote diversity. People must be uncomfortable seeing all these Black women getting this kind of attention.
It was always normal to see white people on TV. In positions of power. In magazines. In ads. I wouldn’t have thought twice (and it definitely wouldn’t have made the news) if the women who won were white. That was just how things worked. Or even if they were other kinds of women. The idea of the model minority is a silent paradox that dwarfs the potency of individual recognition under the diversity umbrella: because they’ll say we all win as long as a woman of color wins, but Black women are still pushed to the side when our communities succumb to the manufactured allure of women who are said to be smarter, more exotic, more beautiful, or more amicable.
"The idea of the model minority is a silent paradox that dwarfs the potency of individual recognition under the diversity umbrella."
So what about me? It dawned on me that I’d been subjected to a world telling me I’d always miss the standard. And that I’d been expected to accept it.
Which I did. So blindly for so long I compared myself to a norm without understanding the ramifications. I allowed myself to dream, but only so big. I took pride in being authentic, but still judged myself behind closed doors for being too loud, too much, or too opinionated. Because that’s what people expected as soon as I walked into the room.
Cheslie Kryst stood out to me because she embodied the characteristics I wanted to develop. She was well-educated, earning both an MBA and a law degree simultaneously. In her career as a lawyer, she served others by working pro bono in the pursuit of justice for low-level drug offenders and citizens facing life sentences. And yet she was dynamic. She started a fashion blog and never seemed to be muted by contrivance or demureness.
When it came to pageantry, she persevered. She competed to become Miss North Carolina three times before earning the crown and advancing to become Miss USA, eventually leveraging her platform into a new career in entertainment journalism. She was 28 years old at the time of her pageant victory, making her the oldest woman ever to win the Miss USA title. She also became the longest-reigning title holder as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her whirlwind of success started conversations about ageism, beauty standards, mental health, and diversity, and she took on that burden of representation with the utmost grace and composure.
"Cheslie's whirlwind of success started conversations about ageism, beauty standards, mental health, and diversity, and she took on that burden of representation with the utmost grace and composure."
But perhaps she shouldn’t have been praised for that. She was special because of her character, not because she was some impervious superhuman. I only wish she felt like she was allowed to feel. To be. To make mistakes, to live life, to enjoy privacy. I can’t imagine the pressure she must have endured, and how the support she received must have paled in comparison. Who could ever really understand?
I never knew her personally, of course. Maybe it’s kind of funny the way we idolize people who ascend into celebrity, but Cheslie meant so much to me because she was one of the first people who actually made me feel like I could do and be what I wanted. She created her own path and committed to her success in every endeavor, which felt accessible and refreshing in so many ways.
I thought the news of her death was a hoax. I saw a headline saying people were offering tributes and assumed she had made another grand accomplishment or was being celebrated in some way. When you see someone so beautiful, so confident, and so well-respected you don’t stop to consider the haze from the outside looking in. They always say you never know what a person’s true reality is like.
Reading the details of her suicide was almost unbearable. Her chillingly anticipatory Instagram post. The suffering she must have endured in her final moments. It was uniquely triggering for me because of how much I identified with her. I considered following in many of her footsteps as a professional woman, but seeing the end of her path took me back to the days when I, myself, was in her shoes.
I started having suicidal ideations when I was twelve years old. I just remember feeling hopeless, worthless, useless. I was in so much pain, I convinced myself that nothing made it worth the while, and that everyone else in my life would be better off without me.
It breaks my heart that someone I admired so much must have felt similarly.
It breaks my heart that anyone does.
Cheslie Kryst was a beautiful and radiant woman who offered much to me as a supporter, and doubtlessly even more to her loved ones. I hope we can all continue to reflect on her legacy. That we check our biases, judgments, and expectations, and remain present as positive pillars in the lives of our friends and family. That we can stop writing articles like this wishing we did things differently.
Our communities need us now more than ever. Kindness, love, and empathy could make a difference you can’t even fathom.
Please visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org or call 1-800-273-8255 to get help for yourself or someone you know, and read more about the alarming spike in suicide amongst Black youth at The New York Times.