Cheslie Kryst, Nia Franklin and Kaliegh Garris are trailblazers in every sense of the word.
For the first time in history, three black women are the titleholders of the three major pageants titles: Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. Let that sink in.
Cheslie, Nia and Kaliegh's recent achievement is even wilder considering it's been 36 years since Vanessa Williams became the first-ever black contestant to win the Miss America pageant in 1983. And, while the pageant world has made leaps and bounds in terms of progress, it's about time that there is equal representation for all!
And these three young women could not be more proud to be a role model for young boys and girls across the country. (Indeed, Cheslie was recently crowned the newest Impact Ambassador for Dress for Success.)
To find out how much this means to the stars, check out the interview below!
E!: You are a part of history with all three major title holders being African American! How does that feel?
Kaliegh Garris: It's really awesome actually. All of us have talked about it. Cheslie and I actually didn't notice at first. We didn't realize that the three of us were all women of color and it was the first time that it has ever happened in history. I only noticed when I started seeing the news outlets posting about it. I thought it was really cool to be a part of that moment to do something that has never been done before. It was really cool to be a part of that moment in history.
Nia Franklin: It feels really great. It's still crazy when people are like, "You're a part of history," because it sounds so major. It's just something that I didn't expect. I mean, I obviously was Miss America. That's a part of history. In 2021, it will be the 100th anniversary of the organization, so that's in and of its self. I'm the 92nd Miss America due to like wars and things like that—throughout the years sometimes Miss Americas will be Miss America longer than just a year because they wouldn't hold the competition—so I'm the 92nd Miss America, but this past year that I won was the 98th anniversary, so that was certainly historical. But then six or seven months after that, Cheslie and Kaliegh win and then it's like, 'Oh my gosh, this is the first time in history that there have been three women of color holding these titles at the same time', which I was not even aware that that hadn't happened before. It just wasn't something that I hadn't thought of before.
Cheslie Kryst: I think more and more yes. At first, I didn't realize the impact that I would have, and then I realized a bunch of people were posting me on Instagram with Kaliegh Garris and a good friend of mine Mia Franklin. And that's when it dawned on me that we were three women of color in these huge incredibly visible positions in our nation. That was an incredible moment. I think it dawns on me more and more the more that we talk about it, yes.
E!: What has this year meant for you? What is your favorite thing that you've done or are able to do because of your title?
KG: For me, after I got titled and even before, I have always made it my goal to make everyone feel as welcomed and accepted as possible. The thing with that is you can do that on an every day level with just the individual people you meet. Now I have this platform to reach so many more people and make that impact much greater and I really take that into account with everything that I do. People are going to see what I post and what I say—no matter what that is—I want it to have a positive impact on people. My favorite thing so far is when mothers or young children message me and say, ‘Hey, I've never seen anyone that looks like you that is biracial and is accomplishing those amazing things without straightening their hair or feeling comfortable being who they are.' That really has an impact on me because growing up, I didn't necessarily have that role model that I connected to because, although in society we like to say that our skin tone doesn't matter. But when you see someone that looks like you that has the same skin tone or maybe the same hair texture as you, it really does have an impact on you because you are able to see that someone is accomplishing these great things that looks like you, so you know that you can accomplish it as well.
NF: It's been a year of growth and change, which are two things that can really spark just greatness and success. So Miss America, this was the first year that there was no swimsuit competition held, so that was kind of another part of history that was happening back in September, so being the first Miss America 2.0 has made me feel like I have a lot of responsibility, and I'm really excited about that.
CK: Oh gosh, there's been a lot of things. Can I give you a top three? Just recently last week I went back to North Carolina because the Council of Chief Justices was hosting their annual meeting in Asheville, NC and I was invited by the chief justice of the NC Supreme Court to come to that conference and speak. So the closing event of the conference was a fireside chat literally just between the chief justices and me! I was flattered and thrilled and pleasantly surprised that everybody was just genuinely interested in what I had to say. Especially since the legal industry is notoriously conservative so I wasn't sure how I would be received, so it was incredible, an incredible event. I'd pick that one. My second in the top three, I love Dress for Success, it's an incredible organization that focuses on economic independence for women by providing them professional clothing and a bunch of other programs. I was recently named a National Impact Ambassador for the organization, and that was awesome. So that moment, just hearing that and being able to continue my work for the organization was an incredible moment for me. And third, kind of fun, we worked with Best Buddies, it's one of the nonprofits that the Miss Universe organization partners with, and I got to go to a fundraiser recently in Boston and one of the events we did was a flag football game with Tom Brady and a bunch of his Patriot friends. That was so much fun because at one point I was playing on his team and I like blocked somebody and he came running down the field like, "Great defense," and I was like, 'Wow, you have six Super Bowl championship rings and I did some good defense in this little flag football team.'
E!: Being part of history, and as history moves forward, what are you hoping for in terms of change?
KG: I think it's a great thing that this is a moment of history. I think it shows how far we have come, of course, to have three women of color hold these main titles. I think it also shows how far we have to go because it is such a big deal. I'm hoping at some point it's not this big thing that women of color accomplished these things too even though our skin tone may be different. I feel as though that we can really get past that when women of color hold these titles, that we don't have to look at their color necessarily, and just see that they won because they have accomplished so many great things. The best is to move strides forward in the world that we live in.
NF: I really hope that people will see beauty in a different way and know that beauty can be diverse really across the world. It's not just America. Sometimes the European standard of beauty can be what's preferred, and even with black women, wearing our hair straight a lot when it's naturally curly. That's something that we have felt for years that we had to change. I remember getting my hair chemically straightened just in time for my seventh grade picture, and that was something I felt like I had to do to kind of fit in. I was going to an all-white school. I just felt like I really wanted to get my hair straight because, not only was that how the majority of my classmates wore their hair, but also the majority of the black girls at my school had straightened hair, so I felt like that was something I had to do to be beautiful. I ended up going natural my sophomore year of college, and I stopped getting my hair chemically straightened at that point. I just hope that seeing Cheslie and seeing Kaliegh wearing their natural hair, seeing me wearing braids and my natural hair occasionally—but I think these are all things we can kind of look and say there doesn't have to be one standard of beauty. Beauty can come in all different shapes and sizes, and it's also okay to be beautiful and care about your appearance, but also knowing that it's not the most important thing, and how you feel about yourself on the inside and how you can help others with your intellectual gifts and talents is really what matters at the end of the day.
E!: For the women that look up to you or anyone in general that looks up to you, what would be the message you want to give to them?
KG: I would say, look within yourself before you look at others. Because, you can only fix or make things better when you look at yourself first because its impossible to change everyone else. You are not going to always be able to make everyone else happy or change what is going on in the world unless you are happy with yourself first. That is something that I had to figure out with myself and something I am working on every day within pageants or within the world. We constantly compare ourselves to other people. We want what they have or compare ourselves and want the same things, but then you really have to think that you are capable of doing whatever you want to do. You have to look within yourself and think, 'What am I not doing that could make me happy?' You can always make yourself happier but you can't make everyone else happy.
NF: The message I want to give to them is keep going, keep fighting for your dreams no matter how you feel, no matter how old you are, no matter how you think you've made mistakes in the past. We've all made mistakes. There are things that I wish I would have done a little differently in my career. Maybe there's a certain course I should have taken or maybe there's a workshop that was optional and didn't go to and I should have. You can't dwell on the mistakes, but you just have to keep going, and if you're passionate about something, Miss America is a good example of that for me. You know, I competed for two years and lost Miss North Carolina, and then finally, at the eleventh hour, I competed at the very last local of the season for Miss New York. I was very unsure about competing again because I was scared to fail again, but you can't be afraid to fail. You never know what can happen. I mean, my first runner-up was half-white and half-Asian, so she wasn't a black woman, so had I not competed, maybe this whole three black women winning at the same time would not have happened, so you never know who you might inspire by continuing to keep going.
CK: I would say be brave, there are a lot of people who try to influence women and put us in a box. People who tell women what to look like, what to say, what we should be. But I think that women nowadays, especially young women, young people, need to find a certain sense of self and feel courageous in displaying that constantly without influence from other people.
E!: What is next for you?
KG: In a few weeks, I start my first week of college. I am going to Southern Connecticut State University and I'm majoring in Nursing. I'm really excited to start off this school year with a new place and fresh slate. Other than that I am going to continue my reign as Miss Teen USA and hope to travel all over the US to spread my social movement called, "We Are People First" which is something I started in honor of my sister who has multiple disabilities. I go to different schools and organizations to teach people how to use different language. For example, instead of saying 'the autistic boy', you say ‘the boy who has autism.' It gets rid of the negative connotation people usually have with people who have disabilities. I'm excited to continue with that.
NF: Next for me, I'll be crowning the new Miss America on December 19th, so in just a few months, I'll be doing that, and I plan to stay in New York City hopefully. I am interested in a couple other cities too, so if someone offers me a deal I can't refuse, I may have to move, but right now, I have my sights set on staying in New York City and consulting, working with companies in the arts there, as well as putting out an album of my own songs, music. I'll also be curating a concert this spring for one of New York's performance venues in Brooklyn, and I'll be continuing to work on my passion project Compose Her. You can learn more about Compose Her at composeher.org. We are all about supporting women in music, specifically women composers, female composers. I don't know if you saw my NowThis interview, but I talked about how there was a professor when I was auditioning who told me that I had the same chance of being a music composer as an NFL football player. I've obviously proven him wrong. I have my Master's in music compilation now, and I want to be the next Hans Zimmer, the next Pharrell, but like a woman. That's my career goal, so I'll be working on that with every fiber of my being. After this year's over, I'll be able to put all my heart and soul into that, and I've been laying the ground work for it this year, but it will definitely be cool to have complete freedom to do that once I'm not Miss America full time.
CK: Oh my gosh what am I not doing to prepare for Miss Universe? It's so much fun! We do the evening gown competition, interview, swimsuit, and then we also have a national costume and on stage questions. So I'm working with Sherri Hill, one of our sponsors to make two custom gowns, one for preliminary competition and one for final. So we've been having FaceTime calls and phone calls, we have a few sketches ready so that has been going incredibly well. To prepare for swimsuit, I've sort of curbed my dessert eating habits. I sort of pigged out on dessert right after I won, just to take a little break for a while, but I've been focused more on just eating like I normally eat and then working out with a more normal schedule. And finally for interview, I worked with a designer down in Greenville, NC to design an interview outfit. Lots of prep and I'm really, really excited about it.