Gayle King Remembers the ‘Sparkle’ of Cheslie Kryst—And Hopes to Shine a Light on ‘High-Functioning Depression’
Gayle King, the long-time journalist and current CBS Mornings host, is known for both her interview skill and the depth, length, and quality of her friendships.
In the days following the death of her mentee-turned-close-friend Cheslie Kryst, King has asked herself a recurrent set of questions.
“I really can’t get over it,” King tells me when we speak by phone a few days after Kryst’s death, which has been determined to be due to suicide. “I’m haunted by it. I did know her. It’s—I don’t even know how to comprehend or wrap my brain around what’s happened. I really, really don’t.”
Many of those who knew Kryst or admired her from afar saw was a woman who had it all. But those who may have made such an assumption should not feel culpable, says Rheeda Walker, a clinical psychologist and director of the University of Houston’s Culture, Risk, and Resilience Lab. There, among other things, Walker and her team research the risks, patterns, and after-effects of suicide and Black adult mental health.
“Hopefully Ms. King and others who knew her [Kryst] personally will give themselves a little bit of grace through their grief,” Walker says.
King and Kryst first met in 2019. That year, when the turmoil of COVID-19 was not yet in sight, King’s show did a sit-down interview with the trio of Black women who had recently won major crowns: Kaliegh Garris, Miss Teen USA 2019; Nia Franklin, Miss America 2019; and Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019. (A fourth Black woman, Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa, was also crowned Miss Universe 2019, but wasn’t part of the roundtable.)
In a world where Black beauty has historically been denigrated, where the existence of Black intelligence and poise has been first doubted then appropriated, the clean sweep of major pageant crowns had meaning. King began the interview there, calling the women “a trifecta of Black girl magic.” Her first question went to Kryst: Did you realize when you were being crowned that this was really creating a historic moment?
“I didn’t even think about it until we started seeing posts on Instagram,” Kryst replied. Later, she described the women’s victories as an indicator of how much work remains to be done beyond the stage. “I believe when Ursula Burns was no longer the CEO…at Xerox, [at that time] there were no more Black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and that is an unfortunate statistic to know,” she said. “This landmark should really be celebrated. But, it’s also a reminder: we have a lot to do.”
And though all three of the women played a part in that moment, it was Kryst, a young lawyer from North Carolina, who made an instant connection with her interviewer.
“They were all terrific. But Cheslie was the only one, when the interview was over, [to whom] I said, ‘Can I get your number? I’d like to stay in touch with you,’” King recalls. “You know, she just had a freakin’ sparkle.”
In late 2019, Kryst—who was adding a career as a journalist to her long list of achievements—was tapped to report for Extra. She worked up the courage to contact King for advice. When they met over Zoom, all that the pandemic would by then allow, to discuss television reporting, Kryst had a notepad and a pen in hand. She specifically wanted to know what she should do when interviews were not going well. King, after all, had famously coaxed a screaming, chest-thumping R. Kelly back into an interview chair by repeating Kelly’s given name.
Over time, the mentor-mentee connection evolved into friendship. Their conversations covered everything from the book that Kryst was co-writing to the exact make of glasses Kryst wore when not on camera—which King liked so much she got a matching pair—to Kryst’s hopes to build her career and eventually meet someone, though King is quick to point out that singledom didn’t seem to cause her younger friend much angst. This past December, a planned 40-minute lunch turned into a two-hour gab session. It was their first in-person meeting since the pandemic began, and their final conversation.
“I’ve been searching my brain thinking, What did I miss? What did I not see?” King says. “There were no signs. That’s the truth. And it was just the two of us, so it’s not like she couldn’t have been candid.”
On Sunday, when King received a text informing her of Kryst’s death, at first she thought there had been a mistake. But Kryst was gone. Then, King thought someone else must have caused Kryst’s death; the security tapes at the building should be checked, King thought. Then she learned Kryst had died by suicide. King called Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins, Sunday night. Simpkins, King says, was also wrestling with more than memories. She seemed to be trying to understand how and why Kryst appears to have kept her struggles to herself.
Kryst’s family declined to comment when contacted by TIME this week. But, in a statement issued Wednesday, Simpkins shared some of her thoughts after a New York medical examiner affirmed Kryst’s death by suicide:
“Today, what our family and friends privately knew was the cause of death of my sweet baby girl, Cheslie, was officially confirmed. While it may be hard to believe, it’s true. Cheslie led both a public and a private life. In her private life, she was dealing with high-functioning depression which she hid from everyone—including me, her closest confidant—until very shortly before her death,” Simpkins wrote. “While her life on this earth was short, it was filled with many beautiful memories. We miss her laugh, her words of wisdom, her sense of humor and mostly her hugs. We miss all of it—we miss all of her. She was a vital part of our family which makes this loss even more devastating.”
The term high-functioning depression is not a specific or formal medical diagnosis, says Walker, the University of Houston psychologist. And suicide is a complex issue, often related to a range of factors in a person’s life. But the practice of masking suffering while presenting as poised and happy is a real and important phenomenon.
“That just throws me for a loop because you know, I think we all know people who are depressed,” King says after I tell her a bit about Walker’s research. “You can tell they are having a tough day. But that girl was so… She was a sparkle.”
After reading Simpkins’ statement, King told her team they needed to do a story on high-functioning depression. It’s a subject the importance of which may have never been clearer.
Depression is, in reality, a collection of symptoms for a sustained period of time, Walker explains. They can vary. But in her clinical practice, Walker says, those who do not appear despondent and those who are seemingly always “on” rank among those about whom she often has the greatest concern.
“This is why it’s so important to have these conversations about suicide prevention,” Walker says, “so that people realize we need to engage in a different kind of society in which people feel like they can be their true vulnerable selves.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.