Crystle Stewart sits in a boardroom, typing away on her computer. Her devoted husband pushes her a cup of tea with honey and lemon. "You've got to protect your voice for later," he says. Stewart stays laser-focused on the keyboard as she makes one last update on Miss USA’s newly vamped website, a mere three hours before ushering 51 hopefuls from around the nation closer to the Miss USA crown. It’s that kind of devotion and passion that makes Stewart, who won the title in 2008, the ideal woman to be the new owner and national director of the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA organization, marking the first time a Black woman has been in charge of the 70-year-old establishment.
Stewart took over the franchise in November 2020. “I had never thought about it. I was running around doing different things,” she recalls. “Then I thought, maybe it would be something I'm interested in. I always feel that God wouldn't put anything in your lap that he wouldn't give you the resources and tools to handle. So I took on the challenge.”
Helming one of the largest pageants in the nation may have not been on the forefront of Stewart’s mind, but she’s been preparing for this role for years. Along with her MISS Academy in Houston, a modern-day finishing school where she teaches young women life skills and pageantry competitions, Stewart had quadrupled the number of women entering pageants in her Texas hometown. “There are really wonderful, beautiful, talented young women there. And I always thought why aren't more young women entering?” Making small changes that can entice a new wave of pageant entries has been Stewart’s mantra for the Miss USA franchise.
“We have to put all the glitz and glam there, but also give them the traditional values. So not only are we giving them photoshoots and all these glamorous resources, but we’re instilling in them skills that they can take with them throughout life,” she declares. “Only one young lady can win a crown. But what about the other young ladies across the Miss USA stage? What are they learning and receiving out of this? That's what I want to provide for them.”
From swimsuits to evening gowns, Stewart explains that the Miss USA pageant is so much more than just being a beautiful woman. “The swimsuit, which is about fitness, is not about men gawking at our contestants. It's about how can you be the fittest for yourself? What I want to promote is that you don’t have to be stick-thin in order to be considered fit. Some women are more curvy. African-American women we can have thicker thighs, so it’s about embracing your unique beauty.” The evening gown portion allows contestants to showcase their style, elegance, grace, confidence, poise, and posture.
Being able to express oneself on stage is also a priority. “We have so many intelligent women competing. But how can you articulate yourself with confidence,” Stewart says. “Sometimes it’s not about the right answer, but are you confident behind what you're saying and the opinion that you have?” Bringing all these elements together, she equates pageants to a sport where contestants train to deliver their best.
Stewart knows that the skills she learned when she competed in the Miss USA pageant have shaped her into the woman she is today. “I competed for five years to win Miss Texas using the three Ps: persistence, perseverance, and patience. Now I need patience in order to run this company. I need the perseverance to keep on going and to elevate it to where I want it to be, and I need the persistence to keep pushing towards that ultimate goal—which is to bring more eyes to the Miss USA pageant. I'm very confident that it can happen.”
This year’s pageant took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is remembering the 100-year-mark of the Tulsa Race Massacre that happened on Black Wall Street in 1921. Stewart took the contestants to Greenwood Rising, a new interactive experience that shares the history of the massacre and its impact on the nation. “I wanted them to learn more not only about American history, but African-American history as well. With this diverse group of young women, the more knowledge and education that I could give about cultural awareness helps them bond more. If we start with this group of young women, who knows how it could spread out.”
While diversity and inclusiveness are becoming the norm at Miss USA—this year included Miss Nevada, the first transgender contestant—seeing Black faces actually win the competition only started when Carole Gist took the crown in 1990. Gist returned to the stage for Miss USA's 70th anniversary and is elated to see that a Black woman is now at the helm of this mass production. "I was over the moon. We have been talking about diversity and inclusion and how we can get more diversity in the pageantry world,” she declares. Having representation in such a powerful leadership role is the path to that change.
For Stewart, it’s a path that has truly become a family affair. Her husband, Max Sebrechts, helps run the MISS Academy and is instrumental in bringing sponsors like SeneGence, Sherri Hill, and United Airlines to the national pageant stage. Stewart’s mother and father were on hand at the River Spirit Casino Resort to help take care of her two children, a boy and a girl aged 1 and 4 respectively, during pageant week. “My parents are amazing and so low-key. We couldn’t do this without them.”
Stewart will hardly have a break now that Elle Smith, a journalist from Kentucky, was crowned Miss USA 2021 last month. She’s prepping Smith to compete for the Miss Universe title on Dec. 12 in Eilat, Israel. Like most busy moms, she works hard to find a balance between her professional and family life. “Putting these pageants together has taken up so much time, and it’s very important to me to just spend quality time with my children.”
To that end, Stewart is planning for a short spell of quality time just with her family. “We’ll go to Israel for a bit to watch Miss Universe. Then we go to Belgium to see Max's family,” she reveals.
And then in January? “We'll get back to work.”