A Pageant Queen Reflects on Turning 30

Each time I say “I’m turning 30,” I cringe a little. 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. (Occasional exceptions are made for some of the rich and a few of the famous.) When I was crowned Miss USA 2019 at 28 years old, I was the oldest woman in history to win the title, a designation even the sparkling $200,000 pearl and diamond Mikimoto crown could barely brighten for some diehard pageant fans who immediately began to petition for the age limit to be lowered.

A grinning, crinkly-eyed glance at my achievements thus far makes me giddy about laying the groundwork for more, but turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes — and it’s infuriating.

After a year like 2020, you would think we’d learned that growing old is a treasure and maturity is a gift not everyone gets to enjoy. Far too many of us allow ourselves to be measured by a standard that some sternly refuse to challenge and others simply acquiesce to because fitting in and going with the flow is easier than rowing against the current. I fought this fight before and it’s the battle I’m currently fighting with 30.

How do I shake society’s unwavering norms when I’m facing the relentless tick of time? It’s the age-old question: What happens when “immovable” meets “unstoppable”?

To be fair, I didn’t spring from the womb, sword in hand, to fight the good fight and I am certainly not exempting myself from belonging to the go-with-the-flow crowd on occasion. I remember being enamored by “20 under 20” and “30 under 30” lists that tied achievement to youth and called it success — lists that are surely intended to recognize the rarity of accomplishing outstanding feats at a young age. But they had an unfortunate side effect on some young people, who felt encouraged to hoard accomplishments as fast as possible in order to measure up to our peers.

Society has never been kind to women growing older, with occasional exceptions for some of the rich and a few of the famous.

When I graduated from college and opted to continue my studies at Wake Forest University, I decided I’d earn a law degree and an MBA at the same time. (Why stop at two degrees when you can have three?) I joined a trial team at school and won a national championship. I competed in moot court; won essay competitions; and earned local, regional, and national executive board positions. I nearly worked myself to death, literally, until an eight-day stint in a local hospital sparked the development of a new perspective.

I discovered that the world’s most important question, especially when asked repeatedly and answered frankly, is: why? Why earn more achievements just to collect another win? Why pursue another plaque or medal or line item on my resume if it’s for vanity’s sake, rather than out of passion? Why work so hard to capture the dreams I’ve been taught by society to want when I continue to only find emptiness?

Too often, I noticed that the only people impressed by an accomplishment were those who wanted it for themselves. Meanwhile, I was rewarded with a lonely craving for the next award. Some would see this hunger and label it “competitiveness”; others might call it the unquenchable thirst of insecurity.

I was further along in the journey of learning this lesson when I won Miss USA. My term was not an exercise in the expected; instead, it felt filled with purpose. In fact, from the moment I won, my reign ignited a heightened desire to commit myself to passion, intent, and authenticity.

My term as Miss USA wasn't an exercise in the expected; instead, it felt filled with purpose.

Pageant girls are supposed to be model-tall and slender, don bouffant hair, and have a killer walk. But my five-foot-six frame won with six-pack abs, earned after years of competing in Division I Track and Field, and a head of natural curls in a time when generations of Black women have been taught that being “too Black” would cost them wins in the boardroom and on pageant stages. My challenge of the status quo certainly caught the attention of the trolls, and I can’t tell you how many times I have deleted comments on my social media pages that had vomit emojis and insults telling me I wasn’t pretty enough to be Miss USA or that my muscular build was actually a “man body.”

And that was just my looks. My opinions, on the other hand, were enough to make a traditional pageant fan clutch their pearls.

Women who compete in pageants are supposed to have a middle-of-the-road opinion — if any — so as not to offend. I talked candidly about my views on the legalization of marijuana, the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, anti-abortion laws, the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and the successes and failures of criminal justice reform. I openly supported the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and marched in protests over the summer. I wasn’t searching to collect more awards or recognition during my reign. Rather, I fed the passion that made waking up each morning feel worthwhile: speaking out against injustice.

And that was just my looks. My opinions, on the other hand, were enough to make a traditional pageant fan clutch their pearls.

My 29th birthday felt very emblematic of the season I’m looking forward to entering. In a time when extravagant birthday bashes are the gold standard of celebrations, I was happily stuck in my apartment, parading around in a black silk top, matching shorts, and a floor-length robe while scarfing down banana pudding and screening birthday calls. I even wore my crown around the apartment for most of the day knowing I’d have to give it back at the end of my reign as Miss USA. I did what I wanted rather than the expected.

Now, I now enter year 30 searching for joy and purpose on my own terms — and that feels like my own sweet victory.

Cheslie Kryst is a former attorney, Emmy Award-nominated television presenter, and the winner of Miss USA 2019. You can follow her on Instagram and TikTok, or on White Collar Glam, the blog she founded to help women navigate style in the workplace.

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