Miss USA was starting to worry.
Cheslie Kryst, the 28-year-old attorney and pageant queen, had been waiting to learn where the Miss Universe competition would be held since she won the crown in May. As time ticked down to the Dec. 8 global pageant, she grew increasingly concerned that international flights would become too expensive for friends and family who wanted to see her compete.
Then, on Halloween, the announcement was made: Miss Universe would be held in Atlanta, less than 300 miles from Kryst’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Not only would it be easy for Kryst’s supporters to pack the crowd at Tyler Perry Studios, but she would take on a second, informal role.
“It comes with my own personal thrill of being the representative from the host country,” Kryst said.
Kryst is very familiar with Atlanta, having visited nearly every other week while she was a student at the Wake Forest University School of Law. She’s excited to show her fellow competitors — women from countries including Kazakhstan, Namibia and Honduras — her favorite spots.
“The Varsity, the World of Coca-Cola, the (Georgia) aquarium, so many parks around the city,” Kryst said. “There’s so much. You can drive around and it feels like you’ve covered two different cities.”
The late location decision was not as exciting for other national titleholders. Miss Russia Alina Sanko announced she will not compete in Miss Universe because she does not have enough time to get a visa to enter the U.S., according to Russian news agency TASS.
Despite having been Miss Universe for nearly a year, the excitement of the pageant still hasn’t worn off for current titleholder Catriona Gray.
“I’m such a big pageant fan,” Gray said. “It’s such a big part of my culture in the Philippines.”
Beyond the pageant glitz, Gray and Kryst hope that this year’s Miss Universe can showcase contestants’ off-stage achievements and passions. In recent years, Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants have included segments about contestants’ charity work and careers, as well as discussions of issues like sexual harassment.
Gray has dedicated much of her year to charity work, and especially advocacy for HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment. She lost a close friend to the disease when she was 22, making the cause “deeply personal,” she said. Breaking down the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is important to her because it can help those with the disease be more comfortable seeking treatment.
“It doesn’t affect who you are as a person,” Gray said. “It is a medical condition that requires you to take care of yourself.”
Six months into her job as Miss USA, Kryst has partnered with the organization Dress for Success, which provides job interview attire and job search help to low-income women. Kryst has taken a leave of absence from her job as an attorney to serve as Miss USA. Before she won the title, she worked to appeal “disproportionately long” sentences for felony drug convictions. One of her pro bono clients was released from prison in July after a successful appeal.
“One of the things that struck me when I was a state titleholder is that people didn’t expect much from me,” Kryst said. “I’ll never forget, I was at an event in South Carolina and a woman came up and said, ‘It must be so hard to show up and just be pretty.”
Gray hopes an American stage will help break down that stereotype.
“People think we’re just there to look pretty, but we are given the platform to speak and share our stories,” Gray said. “We are able to show women are multifaceted, and when we come together, we can accomplish extraordinary things … So many people have a certain perception of pageants and i hope that we will be able to enlighten people by hosting it here.”
Miss Universe will be broadcast live from Tyler Perry Studios Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. on FOX.
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