Cheslie Kryst, an attorney with Poyner Spruill, is spending much of her time this month preparing for the tough questions she’ll get from a panel of judges on May 2—even though she won’t be appearing in any courtroom that day.
Rather, Kryst, an associate at the firm and the reigning Miss North Carolina USA, will be a contestant in the nationally televised Miss USA pageant, which is part of the Miss Universe Organization.
And if you think the judges in courtroom give you a good grilling, you should try competing in a beauty pageant sometime. Preparing for the onstage interview portion of the pageant is great practice for developing the ability to think on one’s feet that comes in such handy in courtrooms, Kryst says.
“The frightening thing about the national competition is that you have very difficult questions, and you only have 30 seconds to respond. ‘How do you solve teen suicide? You have 30 seconds. Go.’ So you have to figure out how to think on your feet and respond intelligently to the questions you’re asked,” Kryst said.
Kryst was crowned Miss North Carolina USA on Oct. 20. It was her final opportunity to compete for the title before she exceeded the organization’s age limit, but her dreams of pageant competition started at a very young age after her mother, April Simpkins, won Mrs. North Carolina, a pageant for married women, in 2002.
“I remember going to appear with her, and people would hang on her every word,” Kryst said. “I remember when I was younger that there was this image of her burned into my memory of her in a white horse-drawn carriage and green gown. I’ll never forget watching her as a child and thinking, that’s what I want to do.”
But in college at the University of South Carolina, Kryst was a member of the Gamecocks’ track and field team, making it impossible to fit in the time needed to also compete in pageants. (Kryst’s events at USC included the heptathlon, an even more grueling multi-event competition.)
So Kryst didn’t start competing in pageants until she was a student at Wake Forest University School of Law, where she was also part of the team that won the 2017 national championship in the American Association of Justice’s Student Trial Advocacy Competition.
Fortuitously, the maximum age for pageant contestants in the Miss Universe Organization had recently been raised to 27, from the previous maximum of 24. As a result, many of today’s contestants are in very different stages of their lives and their careers as they’re competing than past generations of contestants would have been, and Kryst is likely among a very, very small number of licensed attorneys who have ever competed in the national Miss USA pageant.
But as unusual as it is to find a major pageant titleholder who is also an attorney, Kryst’s clients have been even more surprised still to learn that their attorney is also the reigning Miss North Carolina USA.
“Clients love it. It’s so funny, Most of the clients, they hear about it and are kind of in disbelief,” she said. “But the responses are always great and encouraging.”
In her law practice at Poyner Spruill, Kryst focuses on complex civil litigation and is getting a taste of the firm’s different practice areas to help her find an emphasis that she’s passionate about. She says that she wouldn’t have been able to balance the demands of being a full-time attorney with those of serving as Miss North Carolina USA without the firm’s steadfast support.
One of the causes that Kryst has been most passionate about supporting as Miss North Carolina USA, and which the firm has helped her to support, is an organization called Dress For Success, an international nonprofit that promotes economic opportunity for women by providing them with suitable professional clothing, both for job interviews and to help them get started in new jobs.
Kryst said she became energized about the issue while in law school, when she struggled to both afford professional clothing and understand exactly what to buy. Today, she volunteers and fundraises for the organization as well as helping with its clothing drives, and is also the author of her own blog about women’s fashion in the workplace, White Collar Glam.
Winning the national competition would provide a national platform to talk about the organization and helping women in the workplace, she said.
“It would be an amazing opportunity. I love that organization and what they do to get women ready for success in the workplace.”
The 2019 Miss USA pageant is May 2 in Reno, Nevada, and will be broadcast live on FOX beginning at 8 pm.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan