Cheslie Kryst 'Changed My Life,' Former Miss Utah Rachel Slawson Says After Pageant Queen's Death

Rachel Slawson, Miss USA's first openly bisexual contestant, tells PEOPLE that Cheslie Kryst "reminded me that I had nothing to be afraid of"

Cheslie Kryst; Rachel Slawson
Cheslie Kryst and Rachel Slawson. Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Robin Marchant/Getty Images

During her Miss USA reign, Cheslie Kryst went out of her way to support her fellow pageant queens, including former Miss Utah Rachel Slawson.

"Cheslie changed my life," Slawson, 26, tells PEOPLE of her mentor, who died of an apparent suicide on Sunday at the age of 30.

"Our whole class is completely devastated," she says. "I think everyone's in shock."

Their friendship began with an Instagram Live chat in June of 2020, when Slawson — the pageant's first openly bisexual contestant — was Miss Utah and Kryst was Miss USA.

Looking back on that conversation, Slawson recalls being moved by how much Kryst wanted "to help amplify" the importance of tending to one's mental health, which hasn't traditionally been "talked about in pageantry."

It's a topic that hits home for Slawson, who says she survived two suicide attempts when she was a teenager. As an adult, she wanted to use her pageant platform to speak out and advocate for LGBTQ youth facing similar challenges. Kryst was there to cheer her on.

"I was so anxious in the months leading up to Miss USA. I was struggling with really bad depression at the time, and I was really in my head," Slawson says. "I just kept thinking, 'The Miss USA organization is never going to want someone like me who struggles with mental illness.' "

But Kryst — an attorney with an MBA and a social justice advocate — provided perspective.

"She told me, 'Rachel, I've struggled too,'" Slawson says.

Kryst explained to her that by being open and sharing her story, she was "making an impact" on the world, Slawson says.

Cheslie Kryst; Rachel Slawson
Cheslie Kryst and Rachel Slawson doing Instagram live. Miss USA Instagram

At another point in their friendship, Kryst encouraged Slawson to be the first woman to wear pants at the Miss USA pageant, Slawson says: "She just reminded me that I had nothing to be afraid of."

She also appreciated how Kryst respected her efforts to publicly discuss her queer identity.

"She took me aside to have a little conversation about that before the final crowning night," says Slawson. "I didn't end up winning, but it was still really comforting to know that she was there."

After the competition, the pair kept in contact via phone and text. They last exchanged messages about three months ago, when Slawson was in New York and the duo wanted to get together.

Cheslie Kryst attends the world premiere of "Like A Boss" at SVA Theater on January 07, 2020 in New York City.
Cheslie Kryst. Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

Kryst's family is also remembering her for her legacy of compassion and kindness.

"In devastation and great sorrow, we share the passing of our beloved Cheslie," they said in a statement on Sunday. "Her great light was one that inspired others around the world with her beauty and strength. She cared, she loved, she laughed and she shined."

"Cheslie embodied love and served others, whether through her work as an attorney fighting for social justice, as Miss USA and as a host on Extra," Kryst's family added. "But most importantly, as a daughter, sister, friend, mentor and colleague — we know her impact will live on."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to

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