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‘I didn’t want to believe it’: Friend and mentee of Cheslie Kryst expresses shock over her passing

CHARLOTTE — For Courtney Smith, preparing for the next pageant means focusing on the details.

Smith said she has been competing since high school, for the past nine years.

“I’ve learned a lot through pageantry. But I’ve also gained a lot of great friendships,” Smith said.

Smith said she meet Cheslie Kryst when she was 15 years old.

She said Kryst would become a mentor and support system for her even as she went on to be crowned Miss USA.

“She was always just Cheslie to me. I know it’s really weird because you see her on some sort of, like, influencer celebrity status. But any time Cheslie saw me, she knew who I was. She spoke to me. She knew my mom and my friends. And I never felt like I couldn’t reach out to her for something and she wouldn’t be there,” Smith said.

Smith said the two developed a genuine friendship.

So when Smith placed first runner-up in the Miss North Carolina USA pageant a few weeks ago, she said she was excited when Kryst messaged her, “Congratulations,” and liked her post on Instagram.

Then a few hours later, Smith said she learned that the woman who inspired her was gone.

“It was shocking. And devastating. I found out from Facebook. So I saw an article. And I didn’t want to believe it. But I went downstairs and showed it to my mom. And I asked her if it was true. And I didn’t want to believe it. It was a lot because she meant so much to so many people,” Smith said.

Kryst died by suicide.

Her family has since shared that she was dealing with “high-functioning” depression.

For those who knew her and those who didn’t, it’s sparked deep conversations.

“As people who compete in pageants, we’re already, you know, stepping up on that stage and allowing a panel of judges to look at us and make a decision. Which can be incredibly tough. And you have to build a mental toughness for that. And I think within the community, people are stopping to acknowledge that while we do choose to compete on stage, when we are off the stage, we are still humans. We all have our internal struggles and battles. And it’s important to remember to be kind and to support one another. With my friends, I think it’s made us actively look at, you know, wanting to be successful and achieve great things, but also taking time to enjoy the moments and care for yourself when it’s necessary,” Smith said.

A website celebrating Kryst’s life has been flooded with photos and memories from people all over the world sharing how much she touched their lives.

Smith said it is a tribute to her powerful legacy.

“And just with seeing everything that’s been posted, you know, she cared for so many people. And she meant a lot to a lot of different people. And so I know that her impact will last forever,” Smith said.

(WATCH BELOW: Friends, community remember Cheslie Kryst)