Cheslie Kryst, who won the 2019 Miss USA pageant and worked as a correspondent for the entertainment news television show “Extra,” died in New York City on Sunday. She was 30 years old.
“In devastation and great sorrow, we share the passing of our beloved Cheslie,” the statement said. “Her great light was one that inspired others around the world with her beauty and strength. She cared, she loved, she laughed and she shined. Cheslie embodied love and served others, whether through her work as an attorney fighting for social justice, as Miss USA and as a host on EXTRA. But most importantly, as a daughter, sister, friend, mentor and colleague — we know her impact will live on.”
Unlike most pageant queens, Kryst had already established a high-powered professional career when she won Miss USA. With a law degree and an MBA from Wake Forest University, Kryst was working as an attorney in North Carolina when she entered the 2019 competition. Her résumé and stage presence dazzled judges and earned her legions of fans, and her victory was a highlight in a historic year that saw Black women win all five major beauty pageants. Kryst wore her crown on top of her natural curls, a decision she hoped would empower other women to feel confident wearing their hair natural, she said in an interview with Refinery 29.
In “There She Was,” a history of the Miss America pageant published last year, Post editor Amy Argetsinger wrote that the moment marked a triumph for the “movement of African-American women trying to overturn the rigid old beauty standards that forced generations into the painful conformity of flat-ironing or chemically straightening their hair.”
And Post columnist Christine Emba wrote that Kryst’s crowning could be a force by which “stereotypes can be corrected and misunderstandings changed.”
Kryst was among the pageant winners shouted out by then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who said of her and her fellow champions: “You are trailblazers, creating your own path on your own terms. Congratulations.”
During the Q&A portion of the Miss USA contest, Kryst did not shy away from potentially inflammatory subjects, addressing the #MeToo movement and other social justice initiatives head-on.
“I don’t think these movements have gone too far,” Kryst said then. “What #MeToo and #TimesUp are about are making sure that we foster safe and inclusive workplaces in our country. As an attorney, that’s exactly what I want to hear, and that’s exactly what I want for this country.”
After she won, Kryst joined “Extra” as a correspondent, someone the nationally syndicated show’s producers praised as “a moment-making machine.”
“Our hearts are broken,” the show’s staff said in a statement after her death. “Cheslie was not just a vital part of our show, she was a beloved part of our ‘Extra’ family and touched the entire staff. Our deepest condolences to all her family and friends.”
Kryst was born in Michigan and moved to the Carolinas as a child, eventually attending the University of South Carolina, where she competed as a Division I track and field athlete and graduated from the business school. She went on to earn her law and graduate degrees at Wake Forest.
As a lawyer, Kryst took on pro bono legal work for incarcerated people fighting unjust prison sentences, once helping free a man who faced life in prison for a low-level drug crime. She started a fashion blog on the side dedicated to helping women find affordable workwear.
Kryst’s fellow Miss USA 2019 contestant Tianna Tuamoheloa said in an interview Sunday that Kryst “really did just have a light about her.” She streamed live workouts with her mother after the pandemic hit. Even if friends hadn’t talked to her in a while, Tuamoheloa said, they knew she had their back.
Tuamoheloa, 29, was the first national Miss USA contestant of Samoan descent, the Associated Press reported at the time. She is also part African American and has spoken about the joy and weight of representing many people as a “mixed girl on stage.”
“For anyone who is looking for a role model in pageantry, Cheslie would be that. Specifically for any Black girl who wanted to compete,” Tuamoheloa said. “She was our Miss USA.”
Tuamoheloa, who represented Nevada in the national competition that year, said she will remember Kryst as a quiet, funny and supportive person who was incredibly busy. She kept in touch with other Miss USA contestants in an active group chat.
In Instagram posts on Sunday, other 2019 Miss USA contestants paid tribute to “Our sister, our friend, our role model, our Miss USA.”
“You were a vibrant, strong and beautiful light,” said the statement, signed by the pageant’s 2019 class. “You inspired us beyond measure. Your impact will be forever remembered.”
Tuamoheloa wrote of Kryst: “I have ALWAYS prided myself in saying that I shared not only a stage with you, but a sisterhood. You were historical. Graceful. Uplifting.”
“God knew what he was doing by blessing us to experience your beautiful, big-haired, bright beam of light,” she wrote.
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