MOLINE, Ill. — Editor's Note: If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, don't deal with it alone. There is help available 24/7. Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website to chat online.
The death of Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst on Sunday, Jan. 30, left the pageant community and women of color everywhere mourning. She was 30 years old.
Just three years ago, the crowning of Kryst, Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, Miss America Nia Franklin and Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris marked the first time in history that Black women reigned in four major beauty pageants. Together, they became a powerful image for little Black girls to look up to and paved the way for more women of color to take home crowns in pageants to come.
"It was an incredible moment for pageantry as a whole, not just for the Black community," said Pauli Escobedo, a Davenport-native and former WQAD reporter who won the Miss Iowa competition back in 2010. Escobedo was only the third Black woman to hold the title.
"For so long, it was few and far in between that there was a Black woman crowned," she said. "And to see so many at once … I just knew there were young girls out there that were looking at that and saying 'I can be Miss Iowa, Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss America.'"
Women all across the U.S., including former First Lady Michelle Obama, celebrated the barrier-breaking win with the hashtag "Black Girl Magic."
"We're still living in this world of firsts when it comes to people of color and pageants," Escobedo said, "but I think what we're going to be able to see is more and more proper representation of the country and the people that (the pageants) represent."
Despite the beauty-centric stigma often linked with pageants, Kryst was far more than just a pretty face.
She was a Division I athlete at the University of South Carolina, where she completed in the triple jump, pentathlon and long jump. She was a graduate of both USC and Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and she went on to get her law degree and MBA. She was a lawyer who had worked pro bono for clients serving excessive time for low-level drug offenses, according to Miss Universe. And most recently, Kryst worked as a correspondent for entertainment news show “Extra.”
"There were a lot of things that she was doing that were paving ways for people, not just women that look like her but women who have the same profession as her or were her age," Escobedo said. "Whenever you are paving the way, it's gonna be really bumpy, and there is added pressure with that."
Kryst was also known for her social activism. According to Miss Universe, she was a global ambassador for Dress for Success, an organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence; served on the National Board of Directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a youth mentoring network that helps children achieve their full potential; and sat on the selection committee for the Miss Universe pageant.
Although Escobedo didn't know Kryst personally, the pageant world is very small, and she had a lot of mutual friends with Kryst and knew about her through them.
"She was a light. She shined bright. She was authentic," Escobedo said. "I loved how real she was - the fact that she competed with her natural hair in an industry where most women did not."
Words describing Kryst from others in the pageant world echo this and illustrate the illuminating effect she had on others. Miss Universe said she was "one of the brightest, warmest and most kind people we have ever had the privilege of knowing,” and the Miss America Organization called her “an incredible example and role model for so many.”
When the news Kryst died by suicide reached the news, many voiced their shock to learn that she had been struggling with mental health issues. People were forced to realize quickly that not everything is what it seems.
"Every single person is dealing with something," Escobedo said. "A lot of times in the pageant world … people think that everything is perfect and your world is perfect and you wear a shiny crown. And, you know, you are the embodiment of what the world or what standards have told us are perfect. And that could not be farther from the truth. People who compete in pageants are normal. They're humans. They're flawed."
Mental illness doesn't discriminate, said Richard Whitaker, CEO of the Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport. Mental illness strikes everyone at some point in their life, whether it be anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or something as simple as seasonal affective disorder.
"Sometimes we look at people, and we think they've got it all," Whitaker said. "But we don't realize that a lot of times there's an inner struggle, especially with people who are highly judged or criticized for their job performance or their looks or ability to perform on stage."
And sometimes, people can be their own harshest critic.
"I think it's so important the messages we send to people," Whitaker said. "Let them know … they're important, that they belong, that they matter, that somebody cares about them. And not just for what they look like or how far they can go but just for who they are."
Escobedo said she hopes Kryst's death becomes a lesson about the fragility of mental health and the importance of seeking help when something is wrong.
"She was just a normal woman going through challenges that so many are facing," Escobedo said. "I just hope people realize that we all have our own struggles, and we all have our own demons. And it's really important that we talk, we talk it out, we see a therapist, we see friends, we get help, we get … medicine, whatever it is that you need to work through that."
Whitaker emphasized that suicidal thoughts and bad feelings are temporary things, and seeking help from others is the best way to get through them.
"Hang in there," he said. "You will feel better."