by MIKE CHAIKEN
When Connecticut’s Kaliegh Garris was crowned as Miss Teen USA April 28, the moment had an inkling of a trend.
But when Chelsie Kryst was crowned as Miss USA on May 2, history was made.
With Nia Franklin having been crowned as Miss America last September, for the first time ever, the three top title holders of the biggest names in pageants were women of color.
For Zorrie McCray of Waterbury, a black American who held the title of Miss Naugatuck Valley’s Outstanding Teen in 2018, the landmark moment proved to her that change can happen. McCray, who competed for Miss Connecticut’s Outstanding Teen last June at The Palace in Waterbury, said she was proud to be part of an organization willing to make a change.
Nakiya Troth of Bristol is the executive director of the Miss Connecticut Scholarship Organization. But Troth also is a former title holder in the Miss Connecticut program. Additionally, her daughter Peyton has competed in pageants since she could walk.
“As a biracial (Black) woman, it brings great joy to me (to see three women of color) holding the titles,” said Troth, who has watched the change toward diversity in the pageant world from the trenches.
“I started competing in pageants in 1988,” said Troth. “As a child, my fellow competitors were predominately Caucasian, and that never bothered me. I came from a mixed race family and we loved and celebrated all human beings.
“I do, however, remember being a child seeing Kenya Moore crowned Miss USA 1993 and Kimberly Aiken crowned Miss America 1994 (both black women),” said Troth. “It was then I knew I could succeed in pageantry.
“I didn’t win a pageant until 1996, but Kim and Kenya definitely gave me a confidence booster to keep trying,” said Troth. “For me, all three women (Franklin, Garris, and Kryst) were very deserving of their titles, and that would be true regardless of their skin color.”
With Kryst, Garris, and Franklin wearing the crown and sash of their respective organizations, they are providing role models to younger girls, said McCray. Younger black girls will see Miss USA, Miss America, and Miss Teen USA and feel more confident about joining these organizations, she said, and the young girls will see they can help change the world and make a difference.
“As a mother, raising a child in today’s society, I have always shown my daughter that color does not and should never define anyone,” said Troth. “Her dreams are hers and can be obtained.”
“It’s amazing to see where time has brought us,” said Garris, speaking of her role in a historic moment. Not only are all three titleholders women of color, but Garris said she and Kryst are biracial. Additionally, both Garris and Franklin competed wearing their natural curls rather than straightening their hair.
Garris said she didn’t always embrace her curls. She had always been her “mommy’s girl” and would try to straighten her hair like her mother, who is white. In the summer, she said, she even would emphasize the blonde streaks in her hair.
But as she got older, Garris said, her sense of individuality grew stronger. “I embraced who I was.”
Garris said she hoped her decision to keep her natural curls has helped spread the message of embracing diversity. The contestants, and women in general, all don’t have to look alike, she said.
“It’s just crazy, these organizations are becoming so diverse,” said McCray, reflecting on Garris’s curls. “It gives me courage and confidence when I see women who look like me (win).”
“I watched Miss USA with my daughter Peyton and niece Camryn (Patton),” said Troth. “I can tell you, they felt very well-represented and proud.
“This trifecta is going to speak to a bunch of little brown girls in the world and give them the same confidence Kimberly and Kenya gave me,” said Troth.
The Miss Connecticut and Miss Connecticut’s Outstanding scholarship competitions will be at The Palace Theater at 100 East Main St. in Waterbury on June 7 and