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City official urges residents to be kinder online, reach out to struggling loved ones

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In-state resources are accessible at the HELP4WV website or by calling 1-844-HELP4WV (844-435-7498). You may also find this article about suicide prevention helpful.

BUCKHANNON – Appearing to ‘have it all’ just that – an outward appearance and not the inward reality, as one city official knows all too well.

Buckhannon city recorder Randy Sanders is the state director of the Miss West Virginia and Miss West Virginia Teen USA pageants and has spent over four decades volunteering for and then working in the pageant industry. He’s gotten to know numerous outstanding titleholders in the world of pageantry, so when he received word that Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, died by suicide early Sunday morning, he was devastated, he told city council this week.

At the beginning of council’s regular 7 p.m. meeting Feb. 3, Sanders asked to deliver prepared remarks that incorporated a moment of silence in honor of Kryst, the longest-serving Miss USA titleholder due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He urged residents to be kinder in-person online and to reach out to friends and loved ones who may be struggling.

Sanders said he began volunteering in the world of pageantry in 1975, and that work turned into a professional career in 1987.

“Over the course of those 45 years, I have met thousands of extraordinary people who seem to have it all, but that is never the case,” Sanders said. Sanders, who owns Pageant Associates, said he was beside himself when he found out about the death of 30-year-old Kryst. He described her as “a beautiful soul who was not only a successful titleholder but also a lawyer and a popular correspondent for the television [newsmagazine] Extra.”

“To be precise, on January 30, 2022, Cheslie jumped to her death … from a 60-story high rise apartment building in midtown Manhattan where she resided and was last seen on the 29th floor,” Sanders said.

The next day, Jan. 31, 2022, the New York medical examiner ruled Kryst’s death a suicide, and later that week, Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins, told media outlets Kryst had been suffering from high-functioning depression she concealed from many people who surrounded her, Sanders said.

As a civil attorney from North Carolina who earned her law degree and master’s in business administration from Wake Forest University, Kryst not only had a popular television career but also took on free legal work for prisoners who may have been sentenced unjustly. At 28, she became the oldest Miss USA titleholder.

“So, you can see that even those who attain great success can face great challenges,” Sanders said. “And when she won, there was an immediate onslaught of, ‘you’re too thin, you’re too tall, you’re too short, your hair is too curly,’ and it’s just unacceptable for us to continue as a society to be this cruel. There’s always a question of, ‘Are pageants justified to exist in society today?’”

Pageant contestants have long faced scrutiny and criticism from themselves and others, but with the explosion of social media, comments are not just mere critiques but downright cruelty, Sanders said.

“Critiques are to be expected, but to badger and belittle someone really crosses the line,” he said.            

Sanders said he believes pageantry and similar competitions will exist “and should exist as long as people want to participate.”

“That’s what makes this country, our society and our hometowns pleasurable and enjoyable,” he said. “So, allow people to do what they want to do and allow people to be who they want to be.”

Sanders advised residents to pay attention to what their friends, family members and acquaintances say with and without words and to reach out if they notice someone appears distraught.

“Look around at your neighbors, look around at your friends and always pay attention to the statements that they make and to the conversations that you join them in and don’t miss the little things,” he said. “This is something that happens not just in big cities, but it has happened here in Buckhannon, in Upshur County. It can happen with someone we know and we love.”

After sharing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-8255, Sanders asked council to join him in a moment of silence in remembrance of Kryst and her family.  

If you are struggling with suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm or suicide, crisis response resources may be found:

  • By calling or texting 1-844-HELP4WV (844-435-7304), which offers a 24/7 call, text and chat line that provides immediate assistance for any West Virginia struggling with their mental/behavioral health or with an addiction.
  • By texting or calling West Virginia’s Emotional Strengthline at 1-877-435-7304 or chatting with them on their website, www.help304.com.

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