Miss USA Elle Smith Reveals Her 'Full-Circle' Moment as a Biracial Crown Holder From the South

Speaking with PEOPLE, Miss USA Elle Smith opens up about overcoming her "identity crisis" as a young biracial woman

Miss USA 2021 Elle Smith
Elle Smith. Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/WireImage

Elle Smith, reigning Miss USA and former Miss Kentucky USA 2021, is sharing the "full-circle" moment she experienced as a biracial beauty queen.

After learning from her cousin that their ancestors were enslaved people in Kentucky — where Smith earned the state-level crown that made her eligible to compete for Miss USA — Smith fell into disbelief.

"She was like, do you realize how ironic it is that you won Miss USA, and that you were Miss Kentucky USA?" Smith, 23, tells PEOPLE. "I remember thinking, 'No.' I barely had a conversation with this cousin before, so we aren't close. She said, 'Our [enslaved] ancestors were on a plantation in Kentucky. Then once the Civil War ended, moved to Ohio.'"

Smith had been raised in Ohio before relocating to Louisville, Kentucky, leading her cousin to call her crowning in the South a "full-circle moment" for their family.

Miss USA Elle Smith
Elle Smith (center) with (from left to right) her father Samuel Clayborne, mother Lydia Smith, Tim Lockwood and her brother Jackson Clayborne. Courtesy Samuel Clayborne

After the 2 a.m. conversation with her family member, Smith decided to share the realization with her inner circle.

"I remember posting it on social media where only my close friends could see," she says. "We all had all these different conversations about it. I think it's a powerful thing."

Smith's journey to the crown didn't start until she was in her late teens, when she got a job to earn her own income — beauty pageants are an "expensive hobby," says the journalist — and learned to embrace her racial identity as the daughter of a white woman and a Black man.

Miss USA Elle Smith
Elle Smith (right) as a young girl with cousin Myles Claborne (left) and brother Jackson Clayborne (center). Courtesy of Samuel Clayborne

"Growing up, I had to navigate my own identity and figuring it out, in regards to being biracial," says Smith. "We all heard the terms of 'too white' and 'too Black.' I had an identity crisis — I think probably all the way up until college is when I finally felt cemented in who I was as a person."

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Along the way, Smith never gave up on her dreams, and later found inspiration in Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst, whom Smith put on her vision board.

"I remember watching her win," Smith says of Kryst, who tragically died of suicide at 30 in January. "During 2019, I was in college. I was thinking [competing in pageants] is something I want to do. When she won, it was such a powerful moment for me because I saw so many similarities between myself and her. She's a biracial woman — her father's white, her mother's Black."

Miss USA 2019
Cheslie Kryst at Miss USA 2019 competition.

"She occupied space," Smith adds of Kryst. "She did all of these things. I followed everything she did, whether it be what she wore, what she said, the way she navigated social media as a whole. I looked up to her in so many ways."

Smith only met Kryst once, but it's a moment that will forever stick with her.

"She was my person in regards to pageantry," says Smith. "I felt as if I knew her, but I didn't know her personally. When I met her at Miss Universe, she had lived up to everything that I had in my head in regards to being elegant, being funny, being this powerhouse of a woman, who just like walks into a room and you think, 'Who is this?"'

Miss USA Elle Smith
Courtesy Samuel Clayborne

Looking ahead to the remainder of her reign, Smith — a Smile Train and Best Buddies philanthropic partner — is hoping to use her voice and platform for good.

"Being Miss USA, representation is so important," she says of wanting to inspire other young women. "I think representing me being a biracial woman, me being a Black woman, is incredibly important. It's a lot of pressure to a certain extent, because I have so many eyes on me, but I think it's important."

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