The pivotal moment will forever be etched in the memory of Houston pageant coach and television personality J.J. Smith. In 1994, at the close of the Miss Texas USA pageant, a young semifinalist approached Smith, who was one of the judges. Chelsi Smith confided to the judge that it was the end of her pageant career.
“She came up to me after the photographers had taken all the photos and said, ‘J.J., I don’t think I’m going to do this anymore. I want to give up,’” he recalls. “I refused to let her quit. I held her hand and asked her: ‘You’ll be back next year, correct?’ She smiled and said to me, ‘Yes. But J.J., I just don’t think I’m what they’re looking for.’”
But, as it turned out, Chelsi Smith was what the world was looking for — the next year, in 1995, the 22-year-old Smith would be crowned Miss Texas; then Miss USA; and finally, Miss Universe in Namibia, Africa. In a meteoric rise rarely seen in the pageant world, she became an international icon — seemingly overnight — making history as the first biracial contestant to ever win the coveted and rare “triple crown”: state, national, and international titles. Not bad for a girl from Deer Park, Texas.
From Deer Park to Miss Universe
The pageant, fashion, and pop culture worlds are mourning Chelsi Smith, who passed away at a family home in Pennsylvania, after year-long battle with liver cancer, on September 8, 2018, at age 45. A memorial service is planned for next month in Houston, according to a statement from the family. Houston pageant coach J.J. Smith, who coached hundreds of pageant winners — including Chelsi Smith (she called him a mentor) — is remembering a “pioneer, icon, and a friend.”
Chelsi Smith was raised by her grandmother and proudly and famously embraced her biracial heritage (her father was African-American, her mother, white). J.J. Smith says she was a symbol of a “fresh, new world” where identity is determined by individuals, not society. “People would whisper, ‘Is she black, what is she?’ And she would answer, ‘I’m a woman,’” he recalls. “She represented biracial people who, up until that point, felt they had an obligation to decide what race they were — based on the color of their skin. But she showed those people that no one determines who they are — but them.”
A face for a new world
The pageant coach says Chelsi Smith related to both her Caucasian family as well as her African-American family — and people of any race. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to be on one side and the other, but also, right down the middle — where I was both at the same time, while being neither,” she once told Smith.
After her pageant days, Chelsi Smith pursued a career in music and entertainment, splitting time between Los Angeles and Houston. She was a spokesperson and model for Hawaiian Tropic, Jantzen, Pontiac, and Venus Swimwear. In 2006, she judged the Miss Teen USA competition and in 2016 she judged both the Miss Peru Universe and Miss BVI Universe competitions. She recently settled in Montrose, where she coached young women with pageant and modeling aspirations. She worked regularly with J.J. Smith.
“She instantly dismissed this larger-than-life Miss Universe title,” says J.J. Smith. “She’d say, ‘Oh no, I’m just Chelsi.’ She was firm but fair and very hands-on.”
J.J. Smith — who is a featured presence on the reality show Mama June: From Not to Hot — says that Chelsi Smith, while world-famous, was grateful for her fans and people who recognized her. “She wasn’t one of these stars who puts on sunglasses and hides from the public. She loved engaging. She was genuinely curious about people and their lives.”
A queen for all
The former Miss Universe was a tireless advocate for the gay community and, says J.J. Smith, for the underdog. “Chelsi Smith was that example to so many girls who didn’t believe in themselves, who got bullied, who weren’t thin or pretty enough, who didn’t have the money to buy the pretty dresses,” he says. “She was that small girl from a small town who didn’t come from wealth and privilege. And she made it. She made it all the way to the top of that mountain.” J.J. Smith says that for all of Chelsi Smith’s external beauty, it was her intangibles that made the starlet shine.
“There will never, ever be another Chelsi Smith,” he says. “She had a genuine love and respect for all people. In an industry that many people feel is only looks-based, Chelsi’s greatest asset was her spirit.”