When Crystal Stewart was a young girl growing up in Texas, she recalls a friend suggesting she start doing pageants.
“I never wanted to compete in the pageants, to be honest… I was a tomboy,” Stewart tells Yahoo Life. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Man, I’m not interested.'” But Stewart’s friend was relentless, and eventually, she gave in and entered a local competition.
“I grew so much and learned so much about myself — my tenacity, my perseverance, because it took me a while actually to win my state pageant,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I just ended up getting hooked on it. And here I am today.”
Where she is now could not be much further from her “not interested” beginning: President of the Miss USA Organization. As such, she is the first Black woman to helm the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants, and the first person to ever license the pageants from the Miss Universe Organization.
“It’s an honor,” Stewart, 41, says of her position heading into the 2022 Miss USA pageant in Reno, set to stream on Hulu Live TV and air on the FYI Network on Monday, Oct. 3 at 8 pm ET, and via pay-per-view on the Miss USA website. “It’s a privilege to be, hopefully, a role model to other African-American young women or minorities… We need more women in these leadership roles. And to have this opportunity to showcase that, to set your goals and aim for that success, is a dream come true.”
Her journey to this position is certainly well-earned: After winning Miss Texas after four attempts in 2008, she went on to win Miss USA. She then went on to create a pageant coaching company called Miss Academy (“I just think of it as a modern-day finishing school,” she says) and occasionally works as an actress, among other related endeavors.
“I’ve competed, I’ve judged, I’ve directed a local pageant. And so, I feel I know what these young women are wanting, down to the details of how much sleep they need! But also taking just my experience, the resources, the tools, the networking opportunities I’ve had… I’m trying to put more of the focus on the contestants and the opportunities that they can have, as well.”
Her aim, as a mentor, is to guide contestants in a way that might seem antithetical to pageantry: “To make sure that just beauty isn’t at the forefront,” she says, but to help them figure out, “What depth do you have to offer to the world in general — to your job, to your relationship, to your family, to your friends? Just helping them navigate life, and using pageants as a platform.”
At least part of Stewart’s inspiration has come from yet another huge endeavour: motherhood. She is the parent to a son, 2, and a daughter, 5, and while the balancing act of work and mothering has been “challenging,” she says, it keeps her focused.
“That’s at the forefront when I wake up in the morning, making sure my kids are proud of me and the legacy I can leave behind, and that I’m a role model for them,” she says. “If I keep them at the forefront, it makes things go smoother because they are my priority.”
Stewart’s daughter, who has autism, has especially taught her a lot about resilience and expectations. “It was challenging in the beginning, when I first found out,” she says about her initial diagnosis. “You think the thing you dreamed of for your child is over, but it’s not, and that’s something I’ve learned as she grows older: The same dreams can still come true.” And while that might include pageantry, admits Stewart — who once found her girl “walking like a pro in my heels … she was 4!” — she says, “I wouldn’t push her to do it. It would have to be something natural.”
Of course, everything from raising her kids to competing herself has informed her vision of Miss USA, which she calls “pageantry reimagined,” with an aim to reject the “stereotypical” image of what it’s all about. “The stereotypical image is that cookie cutter image — you have to be a certain type, your journey’s created for you,” she says. “And that’s the image I don’t want people to have, just to break into the American audience more and make it even more relatable.”
It’s a tall order for a pageant that’s been owned by former president Donald Trump, at times been mired in controversy and was actually created to be a marketing platform for swimsuit company Catalina in 1952, leading many to think of it as being a strict beauty pageant as compared to Miss America, which has ditched the swimsuit competition while working hard to reposition itself as a scholarship contest.
But, says Stewart, “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment at all. With Miss America, they perform a talent… I guess the difference with Miss USA, is that they don’t perform a talent. But we gave $25,000 in the scholarship to our Miss Teen USA winner and also raised the salary of Miss USA as a job. This is a working woman, you know. She’s not just doing photo shoots all day.”
It’s true that Miss USA has expanded its horizons in many ways in recent years, including with high-profile contestants who have made impacts through wearing their hair natural, speaking out about issues such as bipolar disorder, Down syndrome and facing homelessness, and by being bisexual or transgender.
“We want all women of all shapes, colors, creeds to join the pageant industry,” Stewart says of her vision for Miss USA. “And they define their journey: What’s your platform? What are you interested in? What do you like to do? That’s what we focus on now. Helping them define their journey in the pageant industry.” She stops short of calling Miss USA a “feminist” endeavor, but only because the word “can have this negative connotation to it,” she says, noting, “It’s women empowerment.”
She points out that among the responsibilities of reigning Miss USA Elle Smith has been working with charitable partner Smile Train and giving motivational speeches. “We go beyond beauty and look into depth. Is she a gorgeous woman? Yeah. Does she put herself together? Does she work out? Is she physically healthy? Is she mentally healthy? Yes. Those are the things that we encourage.”
Including when it comes to the swimsuit competition, she says.
“Absolutely. They have a swimsuit competition. I know what it did for me. I was very insecure about my body type… But going into it and winning the swimsuit competition in my first pageant made me feel more confident about my body, made me want to take care of it more. I started eating better, working out… and just being the best version of myself. So, it’s not just for men to sit out there and look at you like, ‘Ooh.'”
Her aim is to open the pageant up more to “different body types [while] promoting a healthy lifestyle,” she adds. “And that doesn’t mean you have to be a size two.”
Another goal is to bring more young viewers into the fold — something that was top of mind when redesigning the Miss USA website with a decidedly influential feel, including its millennial-pink color scheme.
“When I think of the reimagining, I think of the whole shebang. I’m very detail-oriented. So not only did we change the website, but the social media platform… that was very, very, very important. And since Miss USA is an influencer and they go to these different digital platforms, we have to make sure it’s set up [for that] and could stand up to next to what we were talking about with reimagining,” which included, she says, going “with a blush tone” and “skewing to that younger demographic.”
As for who might win the Miss USA crown, she emphasizes, “It’s not just physical beauty … but the whole package,” as “poise and grace” in the evening gown competition is just as important as the swimsuit portion and the interview. “All things are scored equally,” she says. “So you have to be just as beautiful as you are intelligent and able to speak confidently as well. We want well-rounded young women.”
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