Last Thursday, Cheslie Kryst stood on the Miss USA stage with the other top five finalists, waiting to see if years of hard work would result in a crown. While each contestant had won the hearts of the judges and viewers during the competition, there was one feature that made Kryst stand out from the rest: her voluminous head of curls.
You see, even in 2019, natural hair isn't too common in the pageant world. But this year, both Krystle, who ultimately won the title of Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA Kaleigh Harris toppled the competition wearing beautiful curls, ending the myth that straight hair is the standard for pageant queens.
The internet celebrated Krystle's win, in part, because she made history — Black women now hold the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America titles simultaneously for the first time ever — but this is also a win for women with natural hair.
The night before the pageant, Kryst prepped her hair in a three-hour session that involved conditioning and finger-curling single strands. On the day of Miss USA, she kept her hair in a bonnet backstage until 30 minutes before showtime when she let her curls free and walked out onto the stage that would change her life. While Kryst was confident in her curls throughout the 2-hour show, she reveals that choosing to wear her hair natural wasn't an easy decision.
“Although more women are competing with natural hair nowadays, there still aren’t many," she tells Refinery29. "So, I was a little bit worried and anxious about doing it, but I thought, ‘I want to do it as the most real and authentic me,’ and that’s really what my hair represents.”
The pageant wasn't the first time that Kryst had doubts about her hair. Kryst transitioned in college, and after she got that initial chop, the North Carolina native worried about how she would be perceived, especially on her journey to being a lawyer.
"I competed on the trial team at Wake Forest University, and I remember talking to my non-Black teammates about having to pull my hair back into a bun so it's not distracting," she recalls. "They looked at me like I had three eyes and said, 'Why would you do that? Why don't you just wear your hair natural?' They're reaction to my concern gave me a sense of hope. It just takes all of us empowering each other to have confidence in our natural selves."
Today, Kryst proudly wears her curls, whether she's strutting in a gown on stage or presenting a case in front of a judge. But there is one thing she wishes people would understand about her natural hair. "Sometimes I’ll go to a networking event or even out in public, and people will just randomly touch my hair, which is a little strange and makes me feel uncomfortable,” says the titleholder, remembering one moment when a woman ran her fingers through her hair. In the past, Kryst might back away to show her discomfort, but now she's speaking up. "It’s OK to remind people that this is still my hair, and I don’t want you to pet it — just admire it.”
"This is still my hair, and I don’t want you to pet it."
As Miss USA, Kryst aims to help other women feel confident wearing their curls in their personal and professional lives. “These wins give me a sense of hope that Kaliegh and I can both be examples and show women that they can wear their hair natural. That they don’t have to flat iron it every morning,” she tells us. “You can wear your hair the way that it’s growing out of your head proudly out in the world.”