Opinion: A former contestant reflects on the tragic death of a pageant title winner
There’s such a stigma around seeking help for mental health issues, because no one sees the struggles behind the scenes that we all have
The sad news about Sunday’s suicide, at age 30, of Cheslie Kryst, a former Miss USA, makes my heart ache. It makes me miss my dear aunt, Charlotte Sheffield, former Miss USA, Miss Utah USA and Days of ‘47 Queen.
Kryst’s tragic death reminded me of my pageant experience and conversations with my dear aunt. Oh how I loved to be with Aunt Charlotte! We shared many of the same passions and interests. She had an endearing singing voice that I loved to hear, and wrote dozens of songs that I love to sing. She was an extraordinarily eloquent speaker, and I would sit at her knee for hours as she shared the most fascinating stories of her 11 titles.
“If you have a title, you can do anything,” was her saying that motivated me to enter pageants myself. As the youngest of 10 siblings in my Keller Family Band, growing up in Orem, named, “Family City USA,” Charlotte inspired me to enter the Miss Orem City Pageant as a means to share a message that I am very passionate about: “Family unity through activity together.”
Eventually, I won homecoming queen at Orem High School in 2005, Miss Orem City first attendant in 2010 and Days of ’47 first attendant in 2012.
Beauty, presentation and etiquette were all very important to Charlotte. She would take every opportunity to teach me about correct posture, grammar, and to discuss my choice in outfit, jewelry and makeup. I always knew with full confidence that her suggestions were coming from a safe place of love and genuine interest to help me become “the best version of myself.” That’s what Charlotte would always say that pageants were all about; also, “an opportunity to be an influence for good.”
Charlotte was greatly influential as a beauty queen, pageant titleholder, an actress, songwriter, public speaker, business owner, costume designer and pageant consultant, yet her most important roles, the ones she most highly valued, were her family relationships.
At the time of her death at age 79 of Legionnaires’ disease in 2016, she had eight children, 54 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. She also made valiant efforts to build strong relationships with her siblings and nieces and nephews.
The key things that helped Aunt Charlotte stay happy and positive throughout her pageant life and afterward were her focus on family, and the hope that came from her religious beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She had a firm belief in God and the hope that he brings.
She once told me that of all her pageant titles, the one she prized most, even above Miss USA, was Miss Days of ’47 Queen, because she was able — and expected — to share her love and appreciation for her heritage, ancestry and her God.
Kryst made history as the oldest woman, at age 28, to win the title of Miss USA. I can only imagine the added pressure for her to negatively compare herself to her younger competitors and successors.
Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins released a statement following her daughter’s death that said she suffered with “high-functioning depression” and urged those “struggling with thoughts of suicide” to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
There’s such a stigma around seeking help for mental health issues, because no one sees the struggles behind the scenes that we all have. People mostly only post their happiest moments and successes, and most of those posts are unrealistically edited to perfection. Yet, we still feel the need to live up to the perfect life that everyone around us appears to be living.
Pageants are an amazing tool for promoting personal excellence, for becoming “the best version of yourself” through the rigors of the pageant process, but it’s important to seek inner peace above any crown, and to focus on things that are long-lasting.