By Shammara Lawrence
It began in September 2018, when Nia Franklin was named Miss America. Then, Kaliegh Garris became Miss Teen USA in April 2019. Finally, Cheslie Kryst was crowned Miss USA in May 2019. For the first time ever, three Black women had simultaneously won three of the biggest pageants in the country. News of the groundbreaking feat sent shock waves across the internet, with an outpouring of fans celebrating the women for making history.
For 25-year-old Franklin, who grew up in North Carolina and began competing in pageants in college, this year’s reign serves not only as a culmination of effort, but also as the beginning. “This shouldn't be the last time this happens,” the esteemed opera singer and ardent proponent for arts education tells MTV News. “This should happen way more frequently, and I say that because we've seen the opposite of this for years and years and years and years.”
“I feel like standards nowadays are really evolving,” Kryst adds. “I’m glad that Nia and Kaleigh and I are part of that, and showing people that even in pageantry, women of color are celebrated. And not only we celebrated, we're serving as a three national title-holders for the biggest pageant competitions in the nation.”
The actress Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win Miss America in 1984; she was followed in 1990 by Carole Gist, the first Black woman to win Miss USA, and in 1991 by Janel Bishop, the first Black teen to win Miss Teen USA in 1991. Franklin, Kryst, and Garris’s monumental wins are symbolic of how much the pageant world has evolved over the decades from a past marked with exclusion and discrimination. (Women of color were barred from participating in Miss America from its inception in 1921 until the 1940s because of a rule that said contestants must be of “the white race.”)
The women’s accomplishments also speak to a bigger shift in American culture, and how beauty standards have finally become more inclusive of various skin tones and hair textures, as well as racial and ethnic backgrounds. “Having three women of color win these titles just shows how far we've come and how much we are changing the standards of beauty and what people find beautiful,” Garris says. “But then again, I think it just shows how far we have to go because it is such a huge topic of conversation — and [that includes] our hair,” she points out.
For their respective competitions, Garris and Kryst proudly wore their hair curly — a winning decision that set the Internet abuzz, and brought a lot of other Black women joy; our society, after all, is one that still ostracizes Black women for their curls and coils. (While New York City recently banned discrimination based on hair, many employers and other people still target Black women for their personal hair choices.)
For both women, it felt like a natural choice, and they’re not alone; more and more Black women have opted to wear their natural hair, and sales of chemical relaxers have dropped 22.7 percent. Yet while it wasn’t the first time either pageant crowned a contestant with textured hair, it’s still not the norm; the last time Miss Teen USA gave the crown to someone with natural hair was 20 years ago, when Ashley Coleman won in 1999.
“I would do appearances as Miss North Carolina with my hair curly, and people took it almost as a given. They were like, ‘Oh, you're going to wear your hair like this for Miss USA, right?’ So I was like yeah, of course. Why wouldn't I?” says Kryst, a North Carolina civil litigation attorney who has offered pro bono assistance to wrongfully convicted inmates. But she also admits, “I was a little worried about wearing my hair naturally because just two years ago, Kára McCullough, a former Miss USA, won with her natural curls.” (McCullough won in 2017, a year after Deshauna Barber marked her win by wearing her natural hair, too.)
“So I wondered is this going to be overkill? Are people going to be like, ‘This is too much. You can't crown two women with naturally curly hair within a couple of years of each other,’” she adds.
When she was younger, Garris frequently straightened her hair to emulate her mom, whom she deeply admires. With age, she realized she could follow in her mother's footsteps without changing herself — and she started embracing her natural texture. When it came time to take the stage at Miss Teen USA, “I knew I was going to stand out in a way that I didn't necessarily stand out before,” says the newly-minted high school graduate who founded We Are People 1st, a movement educating people on how to respectfully speak about disabilities. “I had a little bit of the fear that’s all people would see because my hair is a big staple for pageants now.”
Fortunately, neither Garris nor Kryst let their worries deter them; both women took the stage with their natural hair on full display. And now together with Franklin, they are ushering in a new era of American pageants — one that’s slowly starting to reflect the diversity of the world.
In the last ten years, three women of color have won Miss America, four won Miss USA, and five took home the crown at Miss Teen USA. On the global stage, the majority of the winners of Miss Universe in the past decade have been of Latinx descent. By contrast, recent titleholders from the Miss World circuit hailed from a wide swath of countries and territories – including Mexico, India, Puerto Rico, China, and the Philippines.
There is still a long way to go before the pageant world is truly inclusive, and there’s plenty of work to be done, especially with regard to including and supporting women of all body sizes and abilities, and those with darker skin tones who want to compete. (After Barber won, she was subjected to racist comments from online trolls, as did Nina Davuluri following her Miss America win in 2013; a recent photo of the Miss India 2019 contestants also drew plenty of backlash for the perceived uniformity in the contestants’ skintones.)
As the nature of pageants progresses, Franklin hopes the conversation also remembers the women for their work as much as it does their appearances. “I would like to see a bigger display of the actual service work that we do,” she says. “I’ve been to schools [and] I’ve spoken to administrators about why the arts matter. I’ve spoken to the North Carolina Senate and House [of Representatives], and shared with them why arts education is so important in this country.”
“I would like to see more people recognizing that women who compete in pageants are multi-dimensional,” Kryst adds. “We really are about using a platform that we have and being title holders to affect change in our communities.”
While the pageant circuit is undergoing a major overhaul in many other ways — including by dropping the controversial swimsuit competition, and challenging its backstage culture — Franklin, Kryst, and Garris see their work as a means to create pathways for the next generation of winners to make their own mark.
“To be in this position, it is really a symbol to everyone that's watching that you can be anything you want to be, there doesn't just have to be one of us in this role at a time,” Franklin says. “There's room for everyone to succeed no matter what color they are.”