Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst Was Also an Attorney with an MBA and a Social Justice Advocate

"We know her impact will live on," Cheslie Kryst's family said after the pageant queen's tragic death

Cheslie Kryst will be remembered for her legacy of advocacy on and off the pageant stage.

On Sunday, it was confirmed that the Miss USA 2019 titleholder died of an apparent suicide. She was 30.

"In devastation and great sorrow, we share the passing of our beloved Cheslie," her family said in a statement. "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. But most importantly, as a daughter, sister, friend, mentor and colleague — we know her impact will live on," the family added.

Cheslie Kryst
Cheslie Kryst. Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Commitment to Education

Born in Jackson, Michigan, on April 28, 1991, Kryst graduated from the Honors College and the University of South Carolina.

She went on to graduate from both the Darla Moore School of Business and Wake Forest University School of Law. Opening up about the decision to continue her studies in a 2021 essay for Allure, Kryst wrote, "Why stop at two degrees when you can have three?"

After graduating from law school, she worked as a civil litigation attorney and did pro bono work to help reduce prison sentences of those impacted by the justice system, according to the Associated Press.

Cheslie Kryst
Cheslie Kryst. John Lamparski/Getty Images

Pageant Roots

Pageantry ran in Kryst's blood, as her mother April Simpkins was named Mrs. North Carolina in 2002.

"I remember watching her win and going to appearances with her during her reign," Kryst wrote in a 2019 blog post for the North Carolina Bar Association. "Her title provided her with a platform to advocate for issues that were important to her and people listened."

At the time, her mother was just the second Black woman to hold the title, according to The Charlotte Observer.

The experience awakened Kryst's own desire to compete.

"It was a time in my life when I didn't know who I was and wasn't confident in myself. I was that little weird kid who had a unibrow and didn't have any friends," she said in 2019, per Associated Press. "I thought I want to be just like her."

"I can't say pageants make you beautiful. I think they make you more confident in the person that you are," she added.

Miss USA 2019
Cheslie Kryst, Miss North Carolina USA 2019, is crowned Miss USA 2019. The Miss Universe Organization

The Importance of Persistence

Her own road tothe Miss USA crown wasn't easy.

Kryst first competed for Miss North Carolina crown in 2014 — and was named the runner-up the following year, according to a North Carolina Bar Association blog post. However, by that point Kryst had "aged out" of the Miss America organization, which is open to candidates between the ages of 17 and 26.

Instead of getting deterred, Kryst set her sights on the Miss USA crown. Even though she come up short in 2016 and 2017, she decided to try one last time.

"I had one year left until I reached the age limit for the Miss USA system," she wrote in the blog post. "I decided I'd rather compete my final year and lose than wonder for the rest of my life what could have been."

Sure enough, on her fifth attempt, Kryst won the Miss North Carolina USA pageant, before going on to be crowned Miss USA in 2019 at the age of 28, making her the oldest woman to win the pageant.

Cheslie Kryst
(L-R) Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris, Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst and Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Breaking Barriers

Kryst was part of pageant history that year, which marked the first time all four major titles — Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe — were held by Black women.

The other titles were held by Nia Imani Franklin (Miss America), Kaliegh Garris (Miss Teen USA) and Zozibini Tunzi (Miss Universe).

Despite their excitement, Kryst admitted at the time that other people's view of their success could be disappointing.

"People will comment on our social media and be like, 'Why are we talking about your race? You guys are just four, amazing women'" she said in a Good Morning America interview. "And I'm like, 'Yes, we are four amazing women, but there was a time when we literally could not win!' "

Using Her Voice

In a 2021 essay for Allure, Kryst reflected on speaking her mind about important issues — even if that meant ruffling a few feathers.

"Women who compete in pageants are supposed to have a middle-of-the-road opinion — if any — so as not to offend," she wrote, noting that her opinions "were enough to make a traditional pageant fan clutch their pearls."

"I talked candidly about my views on the legalization of marijuana, the Trump Administration's immigration policies, anti-abortion laws, the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and the successes and failures of criminal justice reform," she added, going on to note her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

She continued: "I wasn't searching to collect more awards or recognition during my reign. Rather, I fed the passion that made waking up each morning feel worthwhile: speaking out against injustice."

Cheslie Kryst
Cheslie Kryst. Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

Kryst — who worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the nonprofit Dress for Success — also ran a fashion blog called White Collar Glam, which she started after graduating from law school, per the Observer.

"I think women are critiqued more often than men and there's more room for error when it comes to picking out what we want to wear to the office," Kryst told the newspaper. "There's a lot of questions that have to be answered, and I was glad to start that with my blog."

In a pre-taped message played during a 2019 Miss USA event, Kryst reflected on once being told by a judge at a legal competition to wear a skirt, per the Associated Press.

"We stood there for 30 minutes after practicing for months and all you said was wear a skirt next time?" she later told reporters. "It was very frustrating. Don't tell females to wear different clothes while you give the men substantive feedback on their legal arguments."

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After her pageant win, Kryst also worked for Extra as a correspondent — and out of all her assignments, there was one that really stood out.

"Interviewing Oprah is like — you have reached the mountaintop," she told the Observer. "She is so nice. I asked her for feedback and tips and pointers after the interview, and she was really cool."

Following the tragic news of Kryst's death, Extra offered its "deepest condolences to all her family and friends," according to a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

"Our hearts are broken. Cheslie was not just a vital part of our show, she was a beloved part of our Extra family and touched the entire staff," they added.

Cheslie Kryst
Cheslie Kryst and Taylor Swift. Instagram

Meanwhile, the Miss Universe organization remembered Kryst's "kind" spirit.

"The Miss Universe and Miss USA Organizations are devastated to learn about the loss of Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst," they wrote in a statement posted on social media.

"She was one of the brightest, warmest, and most kind people we have ever had the privilege of knowing, and she lit up every room she entered. Our entire community mourns her loss, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time," they continued.

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 suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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