The Day the Universe Lost Cheslie

When word got out, she still had an active IG Story. It was jovial in tone. More specifically, it was a congratulatory shoutout to the newly crowned Miss North Carolina USA and Miss North Carolina Teen USA, uploaded 17 hours prior. As many a pageant fan would know, that’s where Cheslie Kryst had her start. She represented that very state when she won Miss USA 2019, a feat considered momentous in more ways than one. At 28, she was the oldest to win that national title. But more than that, it was the year when African Americans dominated all three major U.S. pageants. Factor in the winners of Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss Earth, and it was, indeed, a banner year for women of color.

It was her final post, however, which proved to be more telling. While it’s easy to pass off as the usual glamour headshot, it was a stark departure from her usual slice-of-life reels and perky OOTDs. There was something unsettling with how her eyes opened halfway in that photo. She looked dazed, rather than fierce. And then there was that caption – while punctuated, as if perfunctorily, by a heart emoji – it undoubtedly sent chills: “May this day bring you rest and peace.”

When word got out, that post had merely been up for five hours. By then, her identity had already been attached to a woman found sprawled on a cold Manhattan sidewalk, lifeless after reportedly plummeting from her building of residence in W. 42nd Street. She was only 30.

Difficult to Fathom

It’s hard to make sense of why Cheslie took that route. Here was a woman who obtained her MBA and law degree at 26, was licensed to practice in two states, and worked on social justice cases pro bono. She was full of life and purpose, a Queen even way before she was crowned. And when her pageant journey finally bore fruit, even more doors opened. She became a correspondent for Extra TV, where she engaged with celebrities for a living. That gig subsequently earned her two Daytime Emmy nominations. In the eyes of both fans and spectators, she was only beginning to soar.

The Miss Universe and Miss USA organizations also summed it up in their joint statement: “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.” But by now, it’s clear that there was more beneath her radiant aura. While she did go candid about her struggles, she always concealed the full extent.

In early 2021, Cheslie wrote a heart-rending essay for Allure. If anything, it was the closest we had to a glimpse of her turmoil. Published a month before her birthday, the piece detailed the pressures she endured in her pursuit of new accomplishments and her fear of aging unfulfilled. “Turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes – and it’s infuriating”, she wrote. It’s a statement that hits on a visceral level, regardless of one’s age. It became even more heartbreaking when she continued: “Why work so hard to capture the dreams I’ve been taught by society to want when I continue to find only emptiness?”

Takeaways

Cheslie is no isolated case, but that doesn’t make the turn of the events less jolting and less tragic. How could someone so buoyant and so full of promise feel so empty and unfulfilled, and moreover, be driven to that extreme?

Once again, we’re made to reassess and re-evaluate what we know about mental health. More than ever, the discourse should be amplified – especially when there are antiquated ideologies that still trivialize the concept and subscribe to stigma. In a society that still equates hiding weakness to strength, self-compromise to service, and lack of boundaries to selflessness, awareness has never been more essential. That awareness includes accepting one’s capacity and standing up to one’s needs, and we shouldn’t be shamed for admitting such.

Much has also been said about the need for kindness. But apart from that, there’s also the need for empathy, understanding, and respect. Understand and respect that individuals bear pain and address struggles differently. Some wear them on their sleeves or broadcast them on any readily available platform. Others bury them with smiles or divert them with non-sequitur wisecracks.

There are so many angles to the topic. Most of it is best left to professionals to discuss and tackle. But on a social level, one can never go wrong with empathy and basic decency. It may not instantly eradicate the widespread issue in one go, but it might at least save someone.  

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The Universe may have lost Cheslie that day, but she never let go for what she stood for, and that is to live a life of purpose and passion, with no limits. Quoting her opening statement upon making the cut in Miss Universe 2019: “No matter where you start, the possibilities for your future are limited only by the depths of your own imagination.”

A tribute from Miss Universe Philippines, which includes information on Philippine crisis hotlines.

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