The LA Sentinel sits down with each of the 2019 title holders
For nearly 100 years, young girls excited by the glamour and beauty of the Miss America and Miss USA competition have watched annually as women, mostly White, take the stage to compete for scholarship prizes and the title of pageant queen.
When Cheslie Kryst won the Miss USA title last week, she knew it was monumental but she didn’t think the moment would go down in American pageant history.
“I didn’t realize all of us were Black until a lot of people started posting on social media about it. And I thought, ‘oh my God, you’re right,’ we’re all women of color which is really great. So, I was excited to kind of realize that. I was really thrilled to be one-third of that kind of trifecta,” says Kryst.
The 26-year-old practicing lawyer won the title of Miss USA last Thursday, making history as she, Miss America Nia Franklin and Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris — all African-American women — hold titles as the queens of the nation’s largest pageant competitions. This is the first time all three title holders have been Black women and each of the ladies show that they are in an era where Black women can do anything they want. With style, grace and hard work, Cheslie Kryst, Nia Franklin and Kaliegh Garris are all great examples of how Black women are becoming more empowered socially and politically to challenge marginalization and do the meaningful work they are destined to do.
For Nia Franklin, 26, things have calmed a bit since winning her Miss America title. She was the first to win the competition since the 98-year old organization decided to eliminate the swimsuit and nightgown portion of the competition. The trained soprano has an undergraduate degree in music composition and she also completed a Master’s in Music at the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts in 2017. Ironically, this was around the time she met Kryst, who was pursuing her law degree at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
“My first reaction was pure joy for Cheslie,” said Franklin. “She’s a friend of mine and she is my attorney. So, when she won, I was so happy for her. She is so deserving and as great as she is, she not only deserves that but she has a pure heart of gold, and it made it that much more exciting for me to watch that crown get placed on her head.”
Kaliegh Garris, 18, made “Black girl magic” on stage during the Miss Teen USA competition, donning a mane full of tight natural curls. After her crowning moment, thousands of viewers celebrated Garris’ decision to wear a curly afro instead of the traditional straightened hair or extensions most African-American competitors are encouraged to wear during the pageant. Several took to Twitter to applaud Garris’ natural tress. One user tweeted: “A Black girl won Miss Teen USA and they had to put the crown on top of her curly fro. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Even more impressively, Garris is a dual-student, attending Joseph A. Foran High School and the Educational Center for the Arts, where she majors in theatre. Although she’s the youngest of the new Black queen trifecta, Garris is an accomplished role model dedicated to the movement she created in honor of her older sister with disabilities. It’s called, ‘We are People 1st’ and it educates youth on how to respectfully speak to people with a health issue or disability.
From Kryst’s pro-bono work in prison reform, to Garris’ interest in trapeze performance, and Franklin’s talent as an Opera singer, these young women are adding pages to the narrative of the contributions Black women are making in America.
The LA Sentinel spoke with each title holder about their wins and what it feels like to be a part of the historical pageant trio.
Los Angeles Sentinel: Nia, thanks so much for talking with the LA Sentinel. Our community has been really excited about your win since back in September. From singing on the radio with Sway to performing with the Fort Meyer Army Chorus, can you tell us what some of the highlights have been so far?
Nia Franklin, Miss America: One of the highlights for me happened very early on and it was attending the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night. The reason that it was so important to me to be there and such a great moment for me personally, was because less than a year before attending that opening night, I was working in their call center, which was a minimum wage job in New York City. I was using that job to get through a time of unemployment as I was in- between jobs after competing my fellowship at Lincoln Center. So, to be there, less than a year later, being on the red carpet as Miss America was a complete shift from where I was just less than a year before that. It was very symbolic for me.
LAS: Many Black women and young Black girls are celebrating your win as a triumph of their own. What does that mean for you?
NF: I completely embrace that mindset. This is a win for the Black community, this is a win for women of color, and young girls across the world to see the three of us in this light and on this national stage and it proves that there doesn’t have to be one at a time in these positions there can be all three of us at a time.
Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA: It’s exciting. I actually began competing in pageants because my mom was Mrs. North Carolina 2002 and she was actually the second Black Mrs. North Carolina. For me, being a young girl when she won – I was about 10 years old – I was thrilled to be able to watch her during her reign and to watch the power that she had because of her title, and I knew that I wanted that. It was important for me to have that role model of a Black woman who has achieved a lot and has been a trailblazer herself, and really blazing the trail for me. It was incredible and I’m really glad to be able to be that example for other people now.
LAS: Kaliegh, as you and Cheslie both mentioned on stage, we are in an innovative era where young women are more politically and socially empowered than ever. As Black women, we are also more empowered to embrace our natural beauty and hair. Tell me about your decision to wear your natural hair during the pageant.
Kaliegh Garris, Miss Teen USA: When I was younger, I always wore my hair straight because it made me blend in with the people around me and when you’re younger that’s all you want to do is be like everyone around you and fit in. As I grew up, I needed my own sense of identity and with the help of my friends with natural hair, they helped me educate myself before doing the big chop. It just gave me a sense of identity and my team coming into Miss Teen USA was always supportive and never wanted to change my hair because they knew that’s what made me unique and special.
LAS: How does it feel to be catapulted into a position of being a role model at such a young age?
KG: I have been telling people that it’s crazy because I still feel pretty normal. I’m just a teenager and when these celebrities were reposting my crowning photo and things like that, I was the one fan-girling. It’s really cool to see the other end of it. When people direct message me saying that I have been an inspiration to them and I message them back saying thank you and they freak out that I actually answered them and so seeing that other view of it is insane.
LAS: What I loved about watching your stories is that it brings light to the fact that Black women are much more than the stereotypes and marginalized status that is often placed on us. Nia, for instance, seeing a Black woman who sings opera like you is such a novelty, but maybe it shouldn’t be?
NF: I grew up singing in church, soulful gospel music. I have written over 100 songs in mostly the R&B style of music. I was trained to sing in opera in college and when I had the opportunity to start competing in the Miss America organization, I never really hesitated. I knew that I would always sing opera because it shows people, especially in the industry, that I definitely am the minority in that I wanted to make a mark. I wanted to show little Black girls and little Brown boys across the world that you can sing opera and be Black. I also wanted to show everyone that there are stereotypes but there are other genres that we sing too and I’m so happy and grateful that I was able to share that on the Miss America stage. Win or lose, that was a goal of mine.
LAS: Tell us what’s to come in the year ahead.
CK: Dress for Success is an international organization that I would love to continue to advocate for. I volunteer a lot and fundraised for Dress for Success Charlotte. With their suiting program, what they do is, if a woman cannot afford clothing to wear to an interview, they provide her that clothing. If the woman is chosen for that interview, Dress for Success Charlotte will provide a full wardrobe to that woman, so that she can start her job off on the right foot. I want to make sure that women have the resources they need to interview for jobs and start off in the workplace on the right foot and Dress for Success answers that. I hope to spend my year advocating for the organization.
KG: I’m a senior in high school and I go to two high schools actually. So, in June I will have both of my graduations, so that’s exciting. I’m going to college in the fall. Also, I really plan on traveling. I haven’t really had the chance to travel and now I have the opportunity to, so I’m really excited with that. Also, to spread my personal movement ‘We Are People 1st,’which trains kids and adults on how to properly use ‘People First’ language, which I’m excited to bring that on a national scale.
NF: I’m having a great opportunity to perform with so many wonderful orchestras and different musical groups across the country. So, the next thing I have coming up is this May, I will be doing four concerts with the Dallas Symphony and one of the songs I’ll be singing in the concert is “Summertime.” I’ll be singing it in the classical style which was written by George Gershwin. It’s an opera that was written for African-Americans so I’m looking forward to singing it so much. That’s another one of those full-circle moments for me because it’s one of the songs I competed with when I won talent in the Miss North Carolina scholarship organization.
To learn more about the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America Organizations, visit missuniverse.com and missamerica.org.