God only knows the heavy burdens weighing former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, who plunged to death from her luxury Manhattan skyscraper Sunday morning. A 30-year-old lawyer and MBA who earned the crown in 2019, Kryst wrote in Allure magazine last year, expressing fear of aging in a society that worships youth, anxiety about turning 30 and the pain of aggressive cyberbullies who attacked her looks and African-American race.
“I think Cheslie Kryst was struggling with the toxic concept of an elusive perfectionism that can never be met,” said my cousin Christina Keller — mentored by our Aunt Charlotte Sheffield, former Miss USA — who won first runner up in Utah city and state pageants. “The fact that she made history as the oldest woman to win the title of Miss USA, I can only imagine the added pressure for her to negatively compare herself to her younger competitors and successors.”
Encouraged by Aunt Charlotte, I competed as Miss Alexandria USA in Miss Virginia USA, and I’ve seen pageant-life pressures. The incessant tanning and skipping meals. I was 23 and felt old — no wonder Kryst said haters called her ancient at 28. And pricey shopping: clothing, makeup, advice books, accessories, pageant fees, publicity shots, styling. All told, I spent around $5,000 — added pressure to win.
While we had signed away our lives under a mound of legal disclaimers, Miss USA didn’t want to be accused of abetting eating disorders. They forced us to attend meals, but they couldn’t force us to eat. From our box lunches, for example, most girls would take a couple bites of their sandwich and trash the rest, along with their cookie and chips.
Pageants help women grow confidence, but they also create insecurities without proper mental-health care. Catwalking in front of thousands of people wearing four-inch heels and a bikini does wonders for public-speaking fears!
Perhaps I sought escape through pageantry, but ironically, it left me more insecure and deflated. During my pageant interview, I told unimpressed judges that the pageant world “was foreign to me” because it was. I was a novice against girls who’d competed for decades. I didn’t advance beyond initial rounds.
Growing up, my mentally ill father moved our gypsy family to motor homes, tents, sheds and trailer parks nationwide. One of my five brothers was born in a tent as our family lived in a Greenbelt Park, Md., campground. Overcoming abuse, depression, PTSD and a transient education of 17 public schools and home school, I landed a full-tuition merit scholarship to Harvard University and snagged jobs at Goldman Sachs and the editorial board of a national newspaper.
I hid my struggles, afraid they would hurt my career. Now, I believe transparency helps us defeat false perfectionism. Beating ourselves up internally causes us to push away people who love us most. Forgiveness, honesty and transparency bring stability and thriving mental health.
Mental pressure isn’t exclusive to modeling or pageants: It’s in athletics, academics and any arena of competitive excellence. Justine Murray, Miss Northern Lights and Miss New Jersey contestant, agrees — and thinks that’s one reason many competitors make it part of their mission.
“I can’t even count how many young women I’m competing with have chosen ‘mental-health awareness’ as their platform,” Murray told me. “Many have found it therapeutic to share their personal experiences with mental health on stage during the competition. This cause along with other social causes are often the sole reason some women have even decided to compete in Miss America.”
We don’t know Kryst’s mental-health treatment, but we know COVID exposed the need for better telehealth and improved reimbursement rates for mental-health services. This could save untold lives as suicide rates and substance abuse skyrocket.
My colleague Patrice Onwuka reported last year that during COVID, “All 50 states enacted various temporary executive and regulatory changes to increase the supply of medical professionals, expand telehealth services and increase capacity at health-care facilities. Some actions have expired, and others will, but by making reforms permanent, states can strengthen the responsiveness of their health-care systems.”
COVID lockdowns have been difficult for everyone but especially people who thrive in the community, says Chloe Carmichael, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Manhattan.
“In my personal and professional experience with women who compete in pageants, they tend to take comfort in groups — so the isolation may have been especially hard on them,” Carmichael said. “The pageant industry can also have high standards of perfectionism, which may make it difficult for women to acknowledge when they’re struggling with any mental health issues.”
Carmichael noted isolation impedes social support, which can boost resilience for those suffering stress. Whether it’s eating disorders, toxic people-pleasing, a harsh inner critic or some combination, she continued, any stigma around seeking support is a tragic roadblock to mental wellness.
We can only pray Kryst’s heartbreaking story leads young women to cultivate inner worth beyond any external validation or crown, lean on loved ones and seek help before it’s too late.