Traditionally, beauty pageants and polarizing topics like politics and social justice are said to mix poorly.
But, due to social unrest and a swell of protests, the Miss Universe Organization has taken a stand in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Former Miss USA
told Insider she is proud to stand with the organization in supporting the movement and the Black community.
In the early stages of her career, Kryst said she didn’t think discussing issues important to her identity as a Black woman would be welcomed on the pageant stage.
"I had never dreamed of a time when an organization as large as this, in pageantry, would be posting on its official channels that Black lives matter," she said. "As soon as I saw that post go up on our Instagram pages, I was like, 'Wow. How cool, not just that I'm a pageant fan and a woman in society that I get to see this, but also that I'm one of the titleholders who gets to continue pushing this message.'"
On May 31, the Miss Universe Instagram account issued a statement, saying it was vital that all people do their part in uplifting marginalized communities and holding people in power accountable.
“Ours is a global community, and we firmly believe the only way forward is to collectively lift oppressed voices, learn from each other, fight for change and demand that our leaders serve everyone, not just their supporters. We must all do our part to contribute to real and substantive change in the hopes of creating a world where mutual respect and understanding are norm, not the exception. #blacklivesmatter,” the post read.
The post concluded with a call to “pull up” on bigotry from singer Rihanna, who said, “as a human being, it should also be your obligation to fight against racism and for another human's life.”
Kryst, an MBA graduate and licensed North Carolina attorney, said the statement was especially important in the pageant world after Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America titles were all bestowed upon Black women last year.
"I do think it was a really important moment. We are acutely affected by what's happening right now," she added.
While watching contestant Kaliegh Garris compete for Miss Teen USA, Kryst said she was just as fearful about her own competition because of the prejudice that exists in the industry.
"I remember watching Kaliegh and thinking, this is a light-skinned woman of color who has naturally curly hair, and she's gorgeous," she said. "And I remember thinking, there's no way they're going to crown another one of us, not two days after this, there's no way."
Kryst, who held the title of Miss USA longer than any other winner due to COVID-19, said the groundbreaking wins in 2019 have the potential to set a new stage of diversity and inclusion.
"So I was glad when I won, and I was glad that all of us women of color kept winning, because there is that discussion among communities of color, especially in pageantry, that you always have that token Black girl who's going to be in the top five, or maybe two in the top 10, but never more than that," she added.
"I've been waiting my whole life to advocate for causes that are important to me," she said. "And one of those is Black Lives Matter, it is racial equality, it is criminal justice reform. And now all of those issues are at the forefront of people's minds."
To Kryst, these tough conversations might be difficult but she said she believes they are important and will likely remain near the front of the public’s consciousness.
"In my year, I answered questions about millennials, I answered a question about #MeToo and Time's Up, and the other women answered questions about whether people who have been convicted of felonies should get voting rights while they're still behind bars, they answered questions about the environment, about immigration," Kryst said. "So it's like, you know, now when you're Miss USA, why wouldn't you still answer these same questions?"
On Nov. 9, Mississippi native Asya Branch captured the title of Miss USA, making history as the first Black woman to win Miss Mississippi USA, and the first Mississippian to win the overall title.
???????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????? | Mississippi's Asya Branch is crowned Miss USA 2020 by last year's winner Cheslie Kryst.#MissUSA #MissUSA2020 #MissUniverse #MissosologyBig5 #PageantsThatMatter #RelevantPageants pic.twitter.com/5KH1HKNtoU
— Missosology (@missosology) November 10, 2020
According to Good Morning America, the University of Mississippi student impressed judges as she discussed how she intends to address criminal justice reform during her reign as Miss USA 2020. In an initial interview with Miss Mississippi USA, Branch said her father's 10-year incarceration motivated her to work in favor of reform efforts.
"I will continue fighting for criminal justice and prison reform; that's something that is near and dear to my heart. I hope to continue making change within throughout my reign,” Branch said.