Politics

The Dazzling Life and Shocking Death of Cheslie Kryst

Everyone who knew her said that Cheslie Kryst was radiant. She certainly looked like she had it all: A signature mane of long curly hair, long legs that were stunning in gorgeous pantsuits and a megawatt smile.

Her beauty was recognized when she became the winner of the 2017 Miss North Carolina USA pageant and the winner of the 2019 Miss USA pageant. But there was more: She was a high school track star, an attorney with an M.B.A., and an Emmy-nominated correspondent for the TV program “Extra.”

So to many, her death by suicide, in Manhattan earlier this year at the age of 30, was met with disbelief.

“It was just so, so shocking and it was sad. And still is sad,” said Nate Burleson, the former professional football player and current co-host of “CBS Mornings,” who worked with Ms. Kryst.

After the police announced that Ms. Kryst had jumped to her death from the Manhattan apartment building where she lived, news headlines focused on the incongruity of suicide by someone who was so dazzling and successful.

But suicide does not affect only those whose struggles are obvious, and some who study the issue say her death may have been emblematic of a troubling uptick in suicide among young Black people. In an interview, her mother said that even as Ms. Kryst added achievements, she had been suffering from depression for years.

Angela Massey, a mental health counselor in New York who did not treat Ms. Kryst but works with the Black community, said that often, for Black women, there is a desire to buy into “this myth or this narrative of this strong Black woman,” which can be detrimental, especially if a person thinks that “other people might see me as weak if I have to ask for help with what I’m dealing with.”

Cheslie Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins.Credit…Alycee Byrd for The New York Times

Cheslie Kryst was the second of four children born to April and Rodney Kryst. Her mother was musically inclined; her father was an athlete and bodybuilder.

After her parents divorced, her mother married David Simpkins, and they had two boys.

All six children were close, and the first four wore matching gold bracelets to symbolize their bond with each other. They would cheer for each other at track meets and soccer games.

When Ms. Kryst was a child, Ms. Simpkins heard about a beauty pageant on the radio. The winner would get $10,000 and a car. “I thought, you know what, I’m going to go for it,” said Ms. Simpkins.

She won Miss Petite America. Then Mrs. North Carolina — with Ms. Kryst watching in the audience.

In her role as Mrs. North Carolina, Ms. Simpkins brought Ms. Kryst to speaking engagements, which Ms. Kryst enjoyed. “It was like, my mom is a spokesperson, but she also gets to dress up in glamorous clothes.”

When Cheslie Kryst won the Miss USA 2019 competition, she was 28 years old, making her the oldest woman to be crowned Miss USA.Credit…Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for IMG

In school, Ms. Kryst was academically gifted and athletic: captain of the cheer squad, captain of the track team, co-president of the Beta Club. During her senior year, she competed in her first pageant and was crowned Miss Fort Mill High.

She attended Honors College at the University of South Carolina, and entered a graduate program at Wake Forest University where she earned dual degrees in law and business administration.

But even as her mental health began to decline, during law school, Ms. Kryst tried pageants again, since the prize packages included scholarship funding. She hoped to use the winnings to help pay for her dual degree program, so she competed for the title of Miss North Carolina USA in 2017 and 2018.

While she was in the law program, Ms. Kryst attempted suicide, her mother said. After that, mother and daughter started calling each other multiple times a day.

“We talked about everything,” Ms. Simpkins said. “We talked about her mental state and mental health,” as well as how Ms. Kryst was sleeping and eating. Ms. Kryst also started seeing a counselor. Ms. Simpkins describes Ms. Kryst’s condition as high-functioning depression.

The term is not a clinical diagnosis. For a condition to be considered a mental illness, Dr. Christin Drake, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine, said it has to impair functioning professionally or in other important areas, according to the D.S.M. — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders handbook used by health care professionals to diagnose mental disorders.

Dr. Drake noted that the helpful thing about the term — high-functioning depression — is that it highlights “that a person can be experiencing significant distress and significant symptoms of major depression and not have it be evident to those around them, even people with whom they are quite close.”

Ms. Kryst became an attorney specializing in civil litigation, but also did pro bono work with the Buried Alive Project, which seeks relief for the unjustly sentenced. She assisted a North Carolina man, who had spent more than 18 years in prison, in securing a sentence reduction through the courts.

Nate Burleson, who worked with Cheslie Kryst, said she was “truly like the beaming light in every room.”Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Ms. Kryst was clearly functioning in a professional sense — perhaps even overachieving — but she was still suffering.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the way that someone appears in public or in their professional life doesn’t reflect the whole of their functioning,” said Dr. Drake, who did not treat Ms. Kryst but specializes in women’s mental health.

In 2019 Ms. Kryst won the Miss North Carolina USA pageant, going on to represent the state in the Miss USA 2019 competition — and won that, too. She was 28 years old, which made her the oldest woman to be crowned Miss USA.

Crystle Stewart, the president of the Miss USA Organization, remembers being at the pageant when Ms. Kryst won. “The first thing I thought about her was that she was strong — mentally and physically.”

Ms. Stewart noted that often, people don’t realize that Miss USA is an actual job, with a salary, demands and duties, including appearances, engagements and hours and hours of charity work.

“It looks, you know, glamorous and fun, which it is. But there’s a job. They work long hours some days,” Ms. Stewart said. “They’re traveling a lot.”

During her reign as Miss USA, Ms. Kryst went on sabbatical from the law firm where she was employed. Later that year, she was offered a position as a correspondent on the TV entertainment news show, “Extra,” and moved to New York.

“Each time I say, ‘I’m turning 30,’ I cringe a little,” Cheslie wrote. She did not live to see her 31st birthday.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

At work, on air or off, Mr. Burleson said Ms. Kryst was “truly like a beaming light in every room.” He never saw any hints that she was depressed: “There wasn’t one moment that I could point to,” he said, “which makes it even more confusing and difficult to deal with.”

Dr. Drake said many Black women in the United States must “develop highly effective coping mechanisms against distress,” and mentioned a variety of psychological blows: “microaggressions, generational trauma, limited opportunities, being under threat economically, professionally, constantly.”

Last year, Ms. Kryst penned an article for Allure magazine, titled, “A Pageant Queen Reflects on Turning 30.” She wrote that speaking out against injustice “made waking up each morning feel worthwhile.” But she also hinted at some sadness.

“Each time I say, ‘I’m turning 30,’ I cringe a little,” she wrote. “Sometimes I can successfully mask this uncomfortable response with excitement; other times, my enthusiasm feels hollow, like bad acting. Society has never been kind to those growing old, especially women.” She went on:

She did not live to see her 31st birthday.

“In the short time that she was on this earth, look at how many people she affected and impacted,” Mr. Burleson said. “A lot of people saw her on TV or followed her on social media and they felt like family to her. So she was able to do so much in a short amount of time, which is just a testament to who she was.”

As her mother, April Simpkins put it, “I could write a book with all of the awards and accolades that she’s received, but that’s not going to change a mental illness. The cure for that mental illness isn’t staring at a wall of awards and degrees.”

The cure for mental illness “isn’t staring at a wall of awards and degrees,” said Ms. Simpkins.Credit…Alycee Byrd for The New York Times

Dr. Keyes pointed out that the country has been placing restrictions on mental health access and care, which impacts Black people and mental health. “That’s going to disproportionately affect the people who are already disenfranchised,” she said, “and have a lot of medical mistrust.”

Dr. Keyes also said that having suicidal thoughts is not a condition that people need to suffer from. “And the solution is not to end your life,” he said. “It’s really important to tell someone — because it’s something that you can recover from.”

Asked how he will remember his friend, Mr. Burleson said: “She was an amazing, amazing woman.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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