The Miss USA 2020 pageant is set to take place in person this November after the event, which was originally planned for May, was postponed as a result of the pandemic. And although the health and safety protocols set in place to protect against the coronavirus will leave the annual festivities looking different than usual, Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst explains why this year’s pageant might be the most important one yet.
“It's been a difficult year,” Kryst tells Yahoo Life of 2020, a year characterized by a global pandemic and social unrest in response to police brutality and the killings of Black men and women. “Pageantry's role in society is to represent where we are and to continue pushing forward so that we have progress.”
In order to do that, the Miss Universe Organization announced on Monday that the pageant will be taking place at Elvis Presley’s famous home, Graceland, located in Memphis — a historic city when it comes to race relations in the United States. The decision is one that Kryst, one of four Black women to make history when they simultaneously held the four highest pageant titles in the world, says she is proud of.
“I sort of had to applaud the Miss Universe Organization for choosing that spot and making sure that we’re highlighting Black voices,” the 29-year-old attorney and former Miss North Carolina shares.
She went on to say that with the organization’s support, she’s felt more confident in speaking out about the issues that mean most to her.
“I gained a greater comfort for being more and more candid as time went on, especially because I think there are probably many pageant contestants who believed that they weren't allowed to step into some issues that were polarizing or highly politicized,” she explains. “It's like you have your onstage question where they asked you questions about the election, the last few questions about gun violence, last few questions about millennials. And then you get into your reign and then you're afraid to talk about those same issues. And I think as I got more comfortable in my role as Miss USA, I started realizing that it actually was important to continue talking about those important issues and continue advocating in ways that were most helpful to those platforms.”
Kryst says that her career as an attorney added to that reservation about speaking out about certain issues. Since being crowned in May 2019, however, Kryst has publicly spoken about criminal justice reform, the legalization of marijuana, anti-abortion laws and immigration policies and practices — “things I never would have imagined that I would discuss as Miss USA,” she says.
With the rise of the pandemic and the government’s response to it, Kryst saw more opportunity for those involved in the Miss Universe Organization to be vocal about the issues that people throughout the country care about. She says that she has even encouraged those competing in the upcoming pageant to speak out about the Black Lives Matter movement in particular after the organization took a public stance in support.
“The Miss Universe Organization itself has always been very supportive of me as a Black woman, as a Black person... I think the real change that I saw was outward,” she explains. “So sort of our forward-facing platforms that we started posting more on and started seeing some people push back and ask, ‘Why are you guys always talking about race now, you should just allow these women to enjoy their successes on their own merit.’ And I've seen the Miss Universe Organization push back and say, ‘Well, this is an important moment.’ And it is about race because if you look at the history of pageantry in general, it hasn't always been welcoming to women of color. And so I think seeing that sort of forward-facing discussion has been new.”
Although introducing these tough conversations to the Miss USA stage is a good thing, Kryst admits that balancing the acknowledgment of current social injustices with the celebration of a new woman being crowned will be difficult. “It's hard to smile right now,” she admits. “Although I am ready to crown the next Miss USA, I also kind of feel bad that this is sort of the environment [in which] she's going to be starting her reign.”
Still, she reflects on her time as Miss USA fondly while looking forward to joining Extra as their newest full-time correspondent. “I've loved my experience with Miss Universe,” she says. “I hope to continue in the entertainment industry because it is another industry that needs change, and that has changed, but you know, obviously isn't perfect. And so I'm glad to be a part of that and hopeful that we'll see more and more progress going forward.”
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