Cheslie Kryst, a North Carolina lawyer who represents prison inmates for free, was inspired by her mother, Mrs. North Carolina 2002, to pursue the pageant world.
“She won a pageant for married women when I was about 10 years old,” the 28-year-old recalled to Fox News. “And I remember being a little kid and watching her compete, watching her represent our state, and I wanted that. I wanted the power that she had."
"I wanted the platform that she had to speak about issues that were important to her. So when I was a freshman in high school, I competed in my high school pageant and went from there,” she added.
Kryst would go on to win the Miss USA pageant this year, a crowning achievement she’s still trying to come to terms with.
“I prepared and I knew that I could be Miss USA,” she explained. “That’s what I wanted, and that was my goal. But actually winning is a whole other experience. You know, when they called my name, my mind kind of went blank. All I could think was, ‘They’re about to put the crown on my head. Where’s my mom?’ And I was looking for her in the audience. She was there with a picture of my face on a stick, waving it around… But it was an amazing moment, and very surreal."
Kryst said she’s thankful her mother has been so supportive in her journey pursuing pageants.
“My mom inspired me a great deal,” explained Kryst. “She’s always been incredibly hardworking. You know, she helped to raise six kids while having a full-time job, while starting her own business and did all of that without a four-year degree... Seeing that firsthand, seeing an accomplished woman break barriers and break boundaries. So that was important to me.”
“And also being in the North Carolina community, everybody’s really supportive,” continued Kryst. “There’s always somebody willing to lend a hand because everybody in the South is very friendly. So that was helpful. And I loved being there, and proud to be raised in North Carolina.”
But competing in this year’s Miss USA pageant, which took place in Nevada, wasn’t always smooth sailing. During one of the most highly watched moments of the televised show, Kryst suffered a wardrobe malfunction.
“When we were competing in a swimsuit, you have a sarong, and you have to take your sarong off,” she explained. “And mine would not come off. So if you watch the video, I’m tugging at my sarong. So everything was going wrong, and I just thought, ‘It’s going to be fine. You know, if God wants this for me, if this is my path and purpose, it’s going to happen, and if not, that’s fine too.’” The sarong eventually complied and came off OK.
Not only did Kryst win big, but she also made history. The New York Times reported that for the first time, black women wore the crowns of all three major pageants simultaneously. Kryst joined Kaliegh Garris, 18, who won Miss Teen USA, as well as Nia Franklin, 25, who was crowned as the 2019 Miss America in September.
Kryst, also a celebrated athlete in her hometown, was worried about how the judge would perceive her physical features.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of obviously beautiful contestants, and… many people think that you have to look like a model to be Miss USA,” she explained. “And all the Miss USAs have been stunning. And for me, I was worried that like, ‘Am I too athletic? Are my muscles too big to be able to compete?’”
“You know when I was an athlete… I could squat almost 300 pounds,” Kryst clarified. “I could bench 135 pounds. I was strong. And so I was worried that my athleticism would distract from me and my personality and who I was. But I was glad that I was wrong. I was glad to feel accepted, and feel celebrated, not only by the judges who picked me but by my fellow contestants.”
Still, Kryst insisted she refused to change herself into something she wasn’t — especially when it came to her voluminous, cascading curls, which she proudly wore naturally.
"This is my hair the way that it grows out of my head,” Kryst explained. “Why should I not be able to compete this way, and represent other people who have hair like this? I think it’s important to be authentic, and I think when people are authentic, your unique qualities stand out the most. So I loved wearing my natural hair because out of 51 contestants in my pageant, everybody was accomplished, but there are only three of us who wore our natural hair with natural curls. And so our authenticity, our uniqueness, stood out immediately. And I loved that. I loved competing this way, and I was glad to be able to do it.”
Kryst shared that as Miss USA, she’s eager to raise awareness on Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that helps women by providing clothing for interviews, as well as supporting their economic advancement. She also remains just as passionate about the criminal justice system.
Before winning, Kryst served as a civil litigation attorney who also volunteered her services for people who were unjustly sentenced. She originally began her career in September 2017.
And she’s not the only high-profile figure who wants to ensure justice is served. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian made a revelation to Vogue that she was studying to become a lawyer after the writer noticed a large pile of books on tort law in the reality TV star’s home.
Kardashian, 38, told the magazine she decided last summer to do a four-year apprenticeship with a law firm based in San Francisco and planned to take the bar in 2022. Despite Kardashian not finishing college, in the state of California, “reading the law or apprenticing with a lawyer or judge” is allowed, according to the magazine. If she passes the “baby bar” this summer, she will be allowed to study for three more years.
The mother of three launched a high-profile campaign for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson last year. The great-grandmother was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being convicted of a first-time nonviolent drug offense. In May, Kardashian visited the White House to meet with President Trump about Johnson and, in June, Trump commuted her life sentence.
Kardashian said she was inspired to study law after she saw a “really good result” following her high-profile campaign.
Kardashian’s father, Robert Kardashian, was an attorney who was famously on O.J. Simpson's defense team. He died in 2003 after a battle with cancer.
Kryst said the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star’s latest career move is “admirable.”
“I think it’s really cool that a celebrity thinks enough about criminal justice reform to herself study for the bar, take the time, because I hear it takes around four years to do that training in California if you haven’t gone to law school — take the time to do all that just so people who have been unfairly or unjustly sentenced can get a fair shot with somebody. I think that’s really cool, and I’m glad that she’s doing it. I haven’t met her personally, but I’ve heard about what she wants to do, and I’m proud that there are celebrities who care enough about people to take those kinds of steps.”
These days, Kryst is not only eager to be the new face of Miss USA, but also show Americans holding the title means much than wearing a crown or sash.
“I’m an attorney,” she said. “I have three degrees. I have a law degree, MBA and undergrad degree. And throughout the entire pageant, rather than focusing on what I looked like, what my body looked like, and whether or not I was cool to look at, the Miss Universe organization celebrated all of my accomplishments…. We all got a chance to… talk about issues that were important to us. And so, I don’t think that the Miss Universe organization is the same organization that people think it is. It really is about celebrating women, and giving us an opportunity to advocate for issues important to us.”
Fox News' Kathleen Joyce and The Associated Press contributed to this report.