How Miss Universe 2022 put a spotlight on mental health

A fund set up to honour former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst was announced at the pageant final

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They are known for their external beauty and now Miss Universe delegates are raising awareness about personal well-being.

Miss USA R’Bonney Gabriel was named Miss Universe 2022 during a dazzling award ceremony on Sunday, but beneath the glitz and glamour was a hard-hitting message about mental health in pageants and beyond.

Contestants and their families have been more vocal than ever before about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health, including the mother of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst who paid tribute to her daughter at the Miss Universe 2022 final in New Orleans. Kryst, who had been diagnosed with depression, died by suicide in January last year.

Her mother April Simpkins praised the pageant community for the support they showed Kryst and announced a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in her name.

Simpkins spoke passionately in front of hundreds of spectators and live audiences around the world at the final. “Cheslie loved the Miss Universe communities,” she said. “She often spoke about the support she received from all of you and then the Universe organisation and, for that, I am forever grateful. I especially wanted to be here tonight to thank all of the fans for their love and support.

“As many of you know, because we’ve dealt with high-functioning depression, the Cheslie you saw didn't always match the way she felt inside. Just because someone tells you they're fine, doesn't mean they are.”

Scroll through the gallery below for photos from the Miss Universe 2022 finale

Kryst, 30, a lawyer, won the Miss USA competition in 2019 and went on to work as a presenter on the entertainment news programme Extra in the US. As she functioned well in her daily life, despite her depression diagnosis, it was difficult for those around her to recognise she was unwell.

Simpkins is now hoping to encourage open conversation in the industry and beyond. “We all need to listen when we check in on our strong friends,” she added at the pageant. “Create a safe space, so they have room to share if they are challenged. Most importantly, we need to really listen to them and support them.”

Announcing the Cheslie Kryst Memorial Fund for Mental Health, Simpkins said it will focus on a range of mental health challenges. “I'm honoured to be here tonight to share Cheslie’s story, and I ask that you share it too,” she said. “Share it with others in hopes that together we can break the stigma and talk more about mental health.”

Ahead of the final, Miss Universe Bahrain Evlin Khalifa told The National that she focuses on self-care to deal with stress and praised the supportive nature of beauty pageants. “We [the delegates] all have a group chat on WhatsApp where we can talk,” she says. “All the girls are supportive, kind and careful with each other.

“We talk about life, about mental health issues, and everyone is polite, gentle and gives time for everyone to talk. No one interrupts, no one is fighting or competing."

Khalifa also took part, along with Miss Universe Lebanon Yasmina Zaytoun and seven other Miss Universe 2022 contestants, in a live online group discussion about mental health ahead of the pageant finale. They shared their stories, discussing their own mental health and what affects it, particularly in the context of the pressure they put on themselves working within pageantry. For example, Miss Universe Cayman Islands talked about growing up with a mother who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and how sport helped her transform her life.

Last year’s Miss Universe winner Harnaaz Sandhu, from India, has also spoken about how her mental health was affected by cruel trolls who called her “fat” after celiac disease caused her to gain weight during her reign.

Speaking to People magazine in the US, Sandhu said: "I've gone through that phase of my life where I used to feel bad about everything. Now, I started loving everything. It's OK to cry. It's OK to feel sad. We need to realise that there's a point where we understand that we need to embrace our flaws and when you do that, you can conquer anything in this world.”

Another delegate who advocated for mental health in the lead-up to the Miss Universe 2022 pageant is Miss Universe Philippines Celeste Cortesi. The charity worker regularly supports the organisation MindNation, which provides mental health support around the world. In September, Cortesi was the face of the organisation’s Suicide Prevention Month campaign, which saw her pose on social media with a message reading: “It’s OK not to be OK", and encouraged people to seek help if they needed it.

After Kryst died, Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, one of four past winners from the Philippines, paid tribute to the former beauty queen, highlighting the impact social media can have on pageant participants' mental health. "There are two different sides of pageantry, there's either the really positive side — I feel empowered, I feel confident, I feel like I have a voice, I have a platform. And then there's the other side where I feel pressured, I've been the subject of bullying, shaming, I've been pulled down. I just think it's a really sad thing that it's so polarising in that way," she said

"If you're a fan of pageantry, please know the difference and the boundary between feedback and outright bashing. Derogatory terms, harsh critique and unkind words are better left unsaid."

Updated: January 15, 2023, 10:19 AM
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