God Bless Miss USA
BET Article Written by Janell Hickman Photography by Rayon Richards
As a community, we know that royalty runs through us, but that doesn't mean that anyone else acknowledges it. We rarely see ourselves represented as kings and queens. It's pretty much the reason why so many heads still spin for Meghan Markle.But Meghan is not the first nor the only Black girl who wears a crown.
This year, it was incredibly groundbreaking to see the crowning of Cheslie Kryst(Miss USA), Kaliegh Garris (Miss Teen USA) and Nia Franklin (Miss America), three Black women collectively reigning over America as beauty queens. It's a major accomplishment in a world where diversity and inclusion can feel optional or certainly opportunistic. Yet, even within the momentous moment, the press coverage focused relentlessly on the topic that doggedly shadows Black women the most: hair. “Obviously, I know my hair is one of the characteristics that people see,” says Garris. “You see me, you see my hair! It’s not something you usually see on a pageant stage. Growing up, I always competed with straight hair, so when I decided to go natural it was just for me personally. It’s something I wanted to do.”
“I expected [all the press on my hair], because it is changing the standards of what people think is acceptable on stage for pageantry,” she adds. “But I also brought in an equal amount of recognition on myself for my personality too. However, if it takes me being recognized for my hair to get other girls more confident with themselves and being able to see that wearing their natural hair is beautiful, I’m OK with that.”
Despite their 10-year age gap, it’s hard not to notice that Kryst, 28, and Garris, 18, loosely resemble one another. I asked both women the controversial question of “How do you identify"? Not because their Blackness needs to be defined or defended to me, but because it is definitely a topic that comes up, especially in America, where we know the "one drop rule" to be a contentious part of our complicated racial history. I felt the ask to be necessary. Garris, who has a Caucasian mother and Black father, views herself as bi-racial. On the other hand, Kryst didn’t hesitate to look me in the eye and let me know she is indeed a Black woman.
“I will never forget reading an article where Halle Berry was talking about her race and how she identified,” Kryst says. “She said, ‘I’m a Black woman, with a white mother.’ I finally figured out that that’s how I feel. I figured out that I am a Black woman and I happened to have a white father. That’s how I identify. It’s how I’ve been for years.”
Pageantry goes much deeper than beauty, the contestants are smart, accomplished and ambitious. What you don’t see behind the scenes is the eight judges who grill the women on everything from the opioid crisis to pop culture, and even the gender pay gap. These women have not only beaten the odds, but shatter myths about the type of people who “deserve” the crown. I had the chance to catch up with Kryst and Garris to discuss what life with a crown feels like — and if the responsibility ever weighs them down. Here’s what they had to say.
Upon meeting Kryst, her poise is apparent. Not in a stuck-up manner, but she possesses an unshakable confidence that is admirable (and might even spark envy in others). Maybe it’s because she didn’t enter the pageant circuit until her freshman year of high school, or that she’s still a working attorney in addition to her title (more on that later), or maybe it’s because winning runs in her blood: her mother, April Simpkins, was crowned Mrs. North Carolina in 2002.
Growing up, Kryst had to navigate her identity early and quickly. She grew up with a white father, a white stepfather and a Black mother. The topic of “what are we?” came up often with her siblings. “I grew up in a time where you could be Black, white or other. As a little kid, we wondered, are we supposed to be other? Are we Black? Are we white? Are we tan? I remember all of us having that conversation and wondering what to do about that. When I grew up, there was no such thing as ‘mixed.' I grew up knowing that I had to pick one and wanting to belong somewhere, belong to a community.”
The phrase “representation matters” feels commonplace and outdated at the same time, considering it’s 2019. (Yes, I know it feels as though TV networks and movie execs are finally getting the memo.) But while Kryst admits that despite her win feeling “unbelievable,” she somehow knew it wasn’t flat-out impossible. “As a younger woman, I did see some Miss USA's who did look like me, like Carole Gist, like Kenya Moore,” she explains.
“There were tons over time who were women of color and who were important for me to see. All the wins for women of color in 2019 — Miss USA, Teen USA and Miss America — is an incredible moment in time, because I think it shows people there doesn’t have to be just one of ‘us.’ There doesn’t just have to be a token person of color in any area of life. If you’re the best bet, if you’re the most capable competitor, you deserve that crown or you deserve that role that you’re going for — that’s important for everybody to see.”
The sentiment of “there can only be one” runs deep inside (and out) the pageant community. “[When I'm competing], I’d constantly wonder how many of ‘us’ could fit in the top five or top 10,” she says. “I’d wonder if the judges would think ‘We just need a token one and we’re good.’ I found myself competing against a few other women of color and thinking, ‘Which one of us is going to make it?’ Because it’s almost never more than one.”
Kryst doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” pageant queen (in fact, she is an attorney), and it feels deliberate. For example, she’s pretty unfazed with the entire debate about the swimsuit aspect of the competition being demeaning to women. I could almost feel the eye-roll when asked about it. “Something that’s always been incredibly frustrating for me is that I get asked, ‘Does the swimsuit competition objectify women?’ But I cannot think of a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger got asked the same question even though he was Mr. Universe and ended up becoming the governor of one of the largest states in our country.” Fair point, except that we know that's not the way that oppression works. This wouldn't have to be a question if things were truly equal.
But as it turns out, body positivity and equality in all aspects were integral to her upbringing. Her mom proudly slipped on a swimsuit come competition time, and her dad was a competitive bodybuilder. “Growing up, I knew that there was nothing wrong with being proud of who I am and being proud of the body that I have,” she adds. “That, for me, changed the way that I looked at pageants, because I always looked at swimsuit as an opportunity to be proud of who I am and not as an opportunity for people to just stare at me.”
MEET MISS TEEN USA, KALIEGH GARRIS, HAILING FROM CONNECTICUT
18-year-old Garris effortlessly transitions from carefree teen to seasoned pageant pro in literally a millisecond. She’d giggle when the topic of, say, prom came up but carefully craft an answer to more difficult questions like race and politics. It’s a skill that I’m sure a few celebrity publicists wished their clients had more of under their belts.
Her road to Miss USA was one of her own makings; Garris always had a strong desire to compete. “I begged my mom to let me do a pageant. We waited a few years — and I was only allowed to do one per year — and also, in the pageants I did, we were not allowed to wear makeup until the age of 13. It was all natural.” Her goal? The naturally shy Garris wanted to gain better speaking skills and hold conversations, even the tough ones, like racial identity.
“I self-identify as biracial, because it’s a struggle that I had growing up,” she explains when asked if being called a “Black” Miss USA bothers her. ”My mom was my image of beauty. I wanted to have straight hair just like her, and I wanted to try to sun-bleach my hair as much as I can — I would stay outside as long as possible. It was just because that’s who I was surrounded by... I was surrounded by women with straight hair.”
“Growing up, I never felt beautiful with my natural hair,” she explains. “I started straightening my hair at the age of six. I only actually have one photo of me with my natural hair when I was younger. It was either tied back in a ponytail or a braid of some sort, because it’s like, anything we could do to not have to deal with it, that’s what we would do. Both of those experiences, looking back and seeing how I used to embrace myself, I would hide and conceal my hair, to fully embracing my hair and going out in public... and still seeing people being surprised by it.”
Now, her schedule is anything but normal. Garris navigates her life a week at a time dividing between her Miss USA responsibilities and, you know, real life. “Everything is set in stone schedule-wise,” she explains. “Since we’re going into summer, a few things will change, but typically I would go to my first school in the morning until around noon. I have a little break until about one-ish, so I go and hang out with friends, I get a bubble tea because there’s a bubble tea place down the street that I, like, absolutely love. Then, my second school is in session from 1 p.m until 4:10 p.m. Afterwards, I’ll head to dance practice. If I happened to have an event that day, it would be in the morning. I’d come into the city super early and then leave mid-morning and then go to school right after.”
Despite her rigorous schedule, Garris’ team makes sure she “has time to do my normal teenager things,” like prom. “I was in L.A. the day before prom, and we specifically scheduled it so that I would be back in time for prom. I got back the day of and I still had time to get ready, put on my dress, take pictures and everything.”
She still makes time for her long-time friends planning get-togethers, dinners and picnics. “We also really like hikes, it’s really weird. The theater kids love all these adventurous things that not a normal friend group would do. I’m the driver in the group, because I’m the only one designated and legal enough to drive everyone. We love blasting music on the highway, singing together and throwing back some Jonas Brothers songs and listening to that. That’s what I like to do for fun.”
Being critical of America’s current political climate seems like an oxymoron for two women who, ultimately, represent our country on a world stage. They have yet to receive an invite to come to the White House by President Donald Trump, but they have received multiple invitations and accolades within their home states. However, I wanted to get a complete picture of their belief system and how they navigate this complicated position as women of color, and it was important to learn more about their political views.
Kryst responded thoughtfully, “There’s nothing wrong with me having an opinion about politics. But me being Miss USA, my primary goal and objective is to make sure that I don’t alienate people, because people do look to me as being a representative for a number of people across this country. That includes Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and a bevy of other people. I want to make sure that they know their opinion and perspective is welcome and that they should share it.
“I do feel a certain sense of pressure [with my win]," she continues. “I want to make sure I’m a good representative. I want people to feel included and I want to feel [that the win is about them] even though I’m the one physically experiencing it.”
Garris (who wasn’t old enough to vote in the last presidential election) mirrored similar sentiments. “I’m never going to lie on my opinion, but you do have to factor in other people’s beliefs,” she says. “Now that I am a public figure and I have younger girls looking up to me, of course I am going to be careful of what I say, because I don’t want to offend anybody — that’s just who I am. But I’m never going to shy away from saying my opinion just because I’m worried that it’s going to scare some people off.”
Being launched into the public spotlight comes with some expected highs and lows — one of them being unsolicited opinions. “Having to prep my family on what the media and other people say to me on Instagram or Facebook was one of those moments where I realized that life is not the same anymore,” admits Kryst. “Sometimes [they] will get angry about people writing mean comments on my Facebook or my Instagram, or not liking me and preferring somebody else. That was a huge change for me, not realizing that my family was just as much affected as I was because of this win and this pivotal moment in time.”
Kryst has come to accept that being different is in fact, beautiful. “I think I spent a lot of time wanting to fit in and wanting to conform and wanting to look and be like other people,” she explains. “But I think I realized as I got older is that being unique and being different, there’s a strength to it. There’s a power to it that allows you to feel authentic and be yourself, to not worry about trying to look like somebody else and losing who you are. Instead, you just get to go out and be authentic, and there’s power in that.”
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