Love ‘em or hate ‘em, beauty pageants are a quintessential part of American culture. Sadly, like so many other aspects of American culture, pageants have a long history of segregation and racism. This year, beauty pageants have a special, historic significance: three of the reigning beauty queens from the Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, and Miss America pageants are African American women. For many young girls, beauty queen winners represent the pinnacle of beauty, grace, and talent, but this is perhaps the first year every young black girl can truly see herself in all the winners.
Black women have won each pageant before but only in the relatively recent past. Black women weren’t even allowed to compete for decades. The Miss Black America pageant was created because of this. In 1984, Vanessa Williams was the first black woman to be crowned Miss America. Carole Gist won Miss USA in 1990 and Janel Bishop won Miss Teen USA in 1991.
This year’s winners are 28-year-old Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, 18-year-old Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris, and 25-year-old Miss America Nia Franklin. The women are all aware of the significance of their trio of crowns. “It is important to little brown and black girls to see three strong figures, three strong women, African-American women that are doing so much great work,” Franklin said. “People will argue that race doesn’t matter. But race does matter in America, because of the history, because of slavery.”
The trio of winners showed more than beauty in their quests for the crown. Kryst, an attorney from Charlotte, N.C. who works on behalf of prison inmates spoke with clarity and feeling when asked about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. “What #MeToo and #TimesUp are about are making sure that we foster safe and inclusive workplaces in our country. As an attorney, that’s exactly what I want to hear and that’s exactly what I want for this country,” Kryst said. The question was particularly relevant, as sexual harassment has been nearly as pervasive as racism within the pageant world.
Many famous black women have added their voices to the chorus of congratulations. 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris who is hoping for a historic moment for black women herself had this to say: “Nia, Cheslie, and Kaliegh: you are trailblazers, creating your own path on your own terms.”
Congratulations to all three women!